Opinion: Weaponizing racism endangers us all

Pro-choice supporters at the Georgia state Capitol in May to discuss abortion laws in Georgia and across the country. Georgia was the fourth state this year to pass abortion-limiting “heartbeat” legislation. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Pro-choice supporters at the Georgia state Capitol in May to discuss abortion laws in Georgia and across the country. Georgia was the fourth state this year to pass abortion-limiting “heartbeat” legislation. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

These are hard days. Our world is mixed-up, broken and full of violence, which has crept into our churches, our synagogues, our mosques and other sacred places of worship. Many of the most difficult and important debates of our day – from gun violence prevention to criminal justice reform to abortion – too frequently devolve into political mudslinging that makes real progress difficult. But when rhetoric crosses the line into racism, our communities must be clear and quick to condemn.

Last month, DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston, whose district includes parts of Atlanta, was a target of thinly veiled, racist attacks because of her position on our state’s so-called “heartbeat bill;” others who have questioned the constitutionality of this punitive law were targeted as well. Rather than elevating the debate, Cobb County Acting District Attorney John Melvin disparaged D.A. Boston, who is African American, and others by drawing egregious comparisons to some of the most racist episodes in our nation’s history. “[T]hrough a group of Democratic Georgia District Attorneys, the spirit of Bull Connor lives on,” Acting District Attorney Melvin wrote. He went on to say that “the Nazis would have likewise embraced the depraved underpinning” of opposition to the bill and that “[t]he parallels to Jim Crow are readily apparent.” Such analogies are far beyond the pale of any civil discourse, much less what we must expect from our public servants.

Furthermore, it is not at all clear that Melvin is much invested in the civil rights history he cites other than to recklessly leverage it in support of his specious argument. If he were, it seems he would observe that it was actually Bull Connor – and not the civil rights marchers, as he erroneously argues – who had the benefit of local and state laws on his side. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others challenged the law through civil disobedience because they understood that not all laws are just laws.

We are deeply invested in the truth of this history because together, we represent the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King’s spiritual home, and The Temple, the oldest Jewish congregation in Atlanta. That is why we will not stand for injustice, and we will not remain silent when wrongdoing occurs. Dr. King created community out of chaos and led us forward, united by a bright vision of the future. Now more than ever, we need inspiration and hope — not division and hate — to heal us and move us toward a better way.

Moreover, comparing a woman of color and a leader in law enforcement to some of history’s most reviled characters is an offensive tactic designed to mislead. It is a false setup meant to incite and distract from the merits of any particular debate. Racism is not a tool for political arguments. It is a system of oppression, a moral blight and a shameful history. In 1955, Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white bus passenger, violating what many believed was not just an offensive law but an unconstitutional one. When law enforcement leaders like D.A. Boston and her colleagues voice concerns about flawed and dangerous laws and encourage debate over their enforcement, it is an act of courage that honors the memory of Rosa Parks and others like her.

More than 60 years have passed, and today, we need to be stronger than the forces that conspire to break us apart and place us on either side of a great divide, with the issues of race, religion, gender or class cutting across the middle.

History offers us lessons for learning, not weapons to be wielded against one another. Bull Connor sicced attack dogs on civil rights protesters and their children and enabled the KKK’s violent attacks on Freedom Fighters. Jim Crow laws codified the horrific notion that one entire race of people was inferior to another and not entitled to basic fairness in life or even in death. A barely concealed assault on the integrity of D.A. Boston and her colleagues even went so far as to argue that the Nazis would have embraced their position.

While this particular attack is one of the more egregious examples, it is unfortunately not the first time that newly elected, African American prosecutors have seen racism used to combat their attempts to enact the very criminal justice reforms they were elected to bring forth. It is becoming an alarmingly common tactic in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, Orlando and others. Perhaps more troubling is the notion, if not the likelihood, that many of these bigoted attacks at the municipal level have drawn inspiration from the highest levels of our federal government.

As soon as the pain of the past is manipulated like a blunt cudgel to malign or harm, we open those scars, reversing decades of progress and risking everything that we’ve accomplished since Dr. King and Rosa Parks inspired a movement and a generation with the belief that peace — not conflict — lies at the true heart of lasting change.

Instead of trafficking in divisive rhetoric and tarring opponents with the crimes of the past, which does nothing and moves us nowhere, we must live up to the legacies of our heroes by carrying their inspiration into a vision of the world that is better and brighter even in the face of fierce debate.

Rev. Raphael Warnock is the senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta; Rabbi Peter Berg is the senior rabbi of The Temple, Atlanta’s oldest Jewish congregation.