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We know from experience what hate sounds like — unfortunately, so do you

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Three weeks ago, President Trump told four congresswomen of color to “go back” to the countries they “originally” came from. This past weekend, a gunman murdered more than 20 people in El Paso and injured dozens more. His “manifesto” reportedly echoes this language, suggesting that he acted to stem an “invasion” and to provide “incentive” for the country’s “Hispanic population . . . to return to their home countries.”

In the interim, many of our political leaders engaged in a risible debate about whether the president is actually racist. But now the entire country knows what we know: President Trump openly invokes the language of hate used throughout our history by perpetrators of bias-motivated crimes. We know because we have trained law enforcement and others on how to recognize hate crimes and other acts of discrimination, and we have enforced the laws that prohibit them at the Department of Justice and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. Although some will debate the president’s culpability for what happened in El Paso, there is no room for debating the deadly significance of his words.

The El Paso gunman may be the most recent, and perhaps the most deadly, perpetrator to invoke this language, but he is by no means the first. Here are just a few recent examples:

In 2010, DOJ’s Civil Rights Division prosecuted the fatal beating of a Latino man in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. The defendants encountered the victim in a park as they left a community festival, then attacked and beat him to death. As they did so, they told him, “This is Shenandoah. This is America. Go back to Mexico.” After kicking the unconscious victim in the head, one of the defendants told a bystander, “tell your Mexican friends to get out of Shenandoah or you will be lying next to him.” Last year, a Kansas man pleaded guilty to federal hate crimes charges for walking into a bar and killing an Indian man while shouting “Get out of my country.”

Similar examples abound at the state level. In November 2016, the Massachusetts Attorney General was the first of several state attorneys general to launch dedicated hate crime hotlines in response to an alarming increase in reported bias incidents. They received hundreds of reports, including reports of incidents in which the perpetrators used language much like the president’s. Around the same time, three Massachusetts teenagers were charged with a hate crime after they physically assaulted a woman on the subway, mocking her accent and telling her to “go back to [her] own country.” Just recently, a woman was charged with a hate crime after she assaulted a Haitian American and told her to “go back to Africa” following a dispute over a parking spot at a grocery store.  

These crimes illustrate how often the attitudes underlying words like “go back to your country” have escalated into violence. We have laws punishing these crimes out of a longstanding recognition that they inflict lasting damage on entire communities and strike directly at our founding ideals of liberty, equality, and justice for all. Protecting minority communities and minority voices is consistent with our most basic democratic values; attacking them is the work of criminals and autocrats.

Rhetoric from any political leader like what we hear in these hate crimes is cause for considerable concern. But it is particularly troubling coming from the president given (among other things) his influence on DOJ’s leadership. It is President Trump’s pattern to downplay or outright deny the role of white supremacy and its language in these kinds of crimes, from Charlottesville, to Christchurch, to El Paso. And the willingness of federal law enforcement to engage in the kind of proactive measures that would prevent massacres is already being questioned in light of the possibility that doing so would offend the president’s “base.” Congress must therefore take aggressive action to ensure that the president’s rhetoric does not undermine the analysis of bias-motivated violence or the enforcement of hate crime laws.

Congress should hold oversight hearings with the Assistant Attorney General for DOJ’s Civil Rights Division and the director of the FBI to confirm their commitment to the rule of law and our constitutional values, and ask at least the following questions: Do they understand the significance of the president’s statements admonishing Americans to “go back to their country”? Do they recognize the language of white supremacy? Will they vigorously enforce the statutes that punish hate crimes, even when the perpetrators invoke the president’s words? Do they understand that the president’s words can encourage hate crimes and place members of our minority communities in danger, and what will they do to address this heightened threat? Will they take proactive measures to counter the white supremacist threat or will they acquiesce in the president’s unwillingness to admit the gravity of the problem? The hearings should also include both state law enforcement officials who are the first responders to hate crimes and those who have been victimized by perpetrators who share the president’s hateful views.

The officials who run our law enforcement agencies — especially the president’s political appointees — must go on the record and make clear where they stand: on the side of protecting our democracy, or the side of protecting the president’s dangerous and unapologetic racism? And Congress must show the president that when it comes to protecting the American people and American values, there is no going back.

Kristy Parker and Genevieve Nadeau are Counsel with the nonpartisan nonprofit Protect Democracy. Ms. Parker is the former Deputy Chief of the Criminal Section of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. Ms. Nadeau is the former Chief of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Civil Rights Division and a current member of Gov. Charlie Baker’s Task Force on Hate Crimes. Protect Democracy represents El Paso County in a lawsuit challenging President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to fund a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Tags Donald Trump

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