Charlottesville: An Opportunity to Stand Against Hatred

Read an essay by Dr. Will Ross who shares his thoughts on the events in Charlottesville.

Yet again, we find ourselves recoiling from brutal acts of racism and terrorism within our country, this time in the idyllic, historic town of Charlottesville, Virginia. I spent Friday evening, August 11th at an off-campus diversity retreat for incoming first year students at Washington University School of Medicine. We engaged in an in-depth, thoughtful discussion about the role of race, gender, and class in the medical encounter. Our deliberations centered on recognizing our multiple identities, appreciating our unique differences as individuals, and mitigating our unconscious bias as we encounter others with different, sometimes clashing worldviews. It was a powerful evening, with opportunities to reflect on how we can build alliances across culture barriers to address the most complex problems in medicine and society. These are the values of Washington University, an institution committed to the highest principles of decency, respect, and non-discrimination. The warmth and solidarity of that evening were shattered by the extreme, surreal images of white nationalists and white supremacists marching on the campus of the University of Virginia, spewing vile, hateful rhetoric such as “Jews will not replace us”, and the Nazi slogan, “Blood and soil.” I was horrified at the violent death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal who was protesting the march, at the hands of a white nationalist.

As a child growing up Memphis Tennessee in the 1960’s, leaders of the civil rights movement such as Benjamin Hooks taught me to be ever positive, keep my “eyes on the prize”, and to counter injustice with love and civility. However, do not be deluded, love and civility is not passive; it confronts hatred, it stands firm against policies that seek to undermine the humanity of an entire class of people, and most of all, it is never silent. As a nation with so much blood already shed defending our democratic principles, we cannot watch the resurrection of Nazism and white supremacy and remain silent. There are times when we must all stand and be counted. When the leader of the greatest nation on earth sees moral equivalency in the tortured, racist rants of American Nazis and righteous indignation of counter-protesters like Heather Heyer, this becomes one of those times. After our Washington University retreat, one student approached me and acknowledged his angst in not knowing how to actualize the lessons from the night. I offered one timeless response: speak out against injustice wherever you see it. The sad, tragic events in Charlottesville have presented us an opportunity to speak out not only against white nationalist and their confederate flags, but also against the policies that attempt to rein in the advances of the New Deal and President Johnson’s Great Society. In short order, we are now witnessing restrictions on voting rights, reduced access to high quality education, and erosion of the health care safety net.

In 1965, in a speech at Dinkier Plaza Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. Martin Luther King said, “History will have to record the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the vitriolic words and other violent actions of the bad people but the appalling silence and indifference of the good people.” Therefore, there should be no silence or moral apathy from anyone with a conscience in this country. Medical schools and the medical profession must speak out. Universities, churches, and businesses must speak out. Politicians of all stripes, progressives, independents, and conservatives must stand up, call out hatred, and be counted. Good people – Black and White, Asian and Latino, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, gay, straight, and any other essence, who far outnumber the fear-mongering neo-Nazis in America, have to stand and say, “I will unequivocally support the civil rights of all Americans and will not normalize hatred.” If that happens, America can be redeemed, and we can conquer the hate. A deafening silence, on the other hand, will signal we are no longer a City on a hill, but a nation in decay with a dream unfulfilled.

Will Ross, MD, MPH
Associate Dean for Diversity
Professor of Medicine, Division of Nephrology
Washington University School of Medicine

August 18, 2017