I will never forget where I was when President Trump said, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” I was sitting on the couch in my living room, watching the first presidential televised debates of 2020. It felt surreal to see the president utter that phrase in response to the request he denounce white supremacy. I know I was not alone in my surprise as Republican leadership responded swiftly and directly.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called it “unacceptable not to condemn white supremacists.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the president should “make it clear Proud Boys is a racist organization antithetical to American ideals.”
Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a veteran lawmaker, said Trump should denounce the Proud Boys and other extremist groups in clear language.
Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, a Black Republican in Congress, suggested that Trump “misspoke” and urged him to fix his error. He tempered that generous response by saying, “If he doesn’t correct it, I guess he didn’t misspeak.”
It has been a little more than one week since the president made this remark, and he has yet to clarify his statement.
As I spoke to people in the community, I was told, “For me, it was the most direct and dangerous dog whistle I’ve ever heard from a sitting president in my lifetime, save one directed to a foreign country.”
Karen Dace, vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, also my colleague, mentor and friend, lamented, “stand by” is not condemning; it is instructing. The fact that white supremacists, including the so-called Proud Boys, are celebrating Trump’s instructions is evidence enough, just as David Duke celebrated his “good people on both sides” comments after Virginia.
The president believes his supporters approve of white supremacy and the violence of these groups against people of color, women of all races, Jewish and Muslim people and transgender or nonbinary individuals. I agree with presidential historian and Vanderbilt history professor Jon Meacham, “America, not these candidates, is on the Nov. 3 ballot.”
If I am asked to condemn something, the number of times I am asked does not fluster me. It provides additional opportunity to be clear on my position. If people continue to ask me the same question, and I stumble upon my response, it is likely because previous words or actions run counter to what I have said I believe. In other words, my beliefs no longer align with my words or actions. This is not a trick, nor is it a treat. Instead, it is a space where we allow ourselves to be the exception to rules we want to be applied to all others.
As a citizen of the United States of America, one who loves our country and believes that we will triumph over evil where it exists, especially if it is our creation, I must be willing to hold myself and others to the same standard. I know the Declaration of Independence did not include me, my family and so many others when it stated that “All men are created equal.” However, today we know better, so we can do and be better. When held to its highest ideals, we know that phrase means each and every one of us.
We are all created equal. We share a common humanity. We can decide as a people what that can and will look like in our world. We don’t want people 100 years from now looking back at us and saying, “Can you imagine how primitive and backward they were?” Now that we know and understand better, we must do better.
How can we do this? As we look to recognize, understand and honor our common humanity, we must start with ourselves. Are we who we say we are? Do our words and actions match our beliefs? If not, there is misalignment and opportunity to redefine who we are (change happens in all directions) and dig deeper to understand where the internal conflict is that allows us to say we believe one way and then act in another.
As a person who still recites the Pledge of Allegiance to herself every time I see a flying flag, I am reminded of liberty and justice for all. There is no liberty and no justice for all if people believe themselves to be superior to, or supreme above others. That is less a trick and more the truth. I urge each of us to engage in conversations that require us to declare our line in the sand and define what we are against, to help us make sense of what we support. I ask each of us to articulate why we believe what we believe to ourselves and each other, so there is no question of what we mean when we say, “All men are created equal.” That will certainly be a treat for all of us.