These times are challenging beyond anything we ever imagined. People are frustrated, fatigued, anxious, and stretched thin. We’ve seen many people step up to do amazing things during these last ten months, going above and beyond to help others in our community. We’ve seen community members raising their hands right away to help fellow residents with food and hygiene needs, helping seniors, and offering peer support for neighbors to talk to each other and offer and seek assistance. Their acts have inspired and uplifted our community; but a slew of recent incidents has cast a dark shadow on these points of light.
The first incident involved an African American community member who was the target of a hate letter. The letter called this person the “N” word and went on to state that “N’s” don’t belong here (in Santa Monica). The letter caused so much fear, anxiety, sadness and distress that this person moved– he no longer felt safe in his own home. He is now happy living elsewhere in Santa Monica, amongst people who are welcoming and supportive.
A similar incident occurred recently when another person was sent a hateful letter using the same language. The author of the letter is clearly targeting his or her African-American neighbors. A few weeks later, an African-American staff person at Community Corporation of Santa Monica, a nonprofit operator of affordable housing, received a vitriolic, threatening voice message with the same hateful language, the “n” word used again along with vulgarities no one should ever have to hear. Let’s be clear: these incidents are race-based expressions of hate.
In addition to race-related hate incidents, there have also been a number of equally alarming disability-related incidents. Recently, we learned of a child with autism being harassed and taunted by other kids. We would guess this happens with some regularity but often goes unreported. To address this issue, Community Corp. held an autism awareness seminar in partnership with The Autism Society, but much more needs to be done.
Santa Monica is a microcosm of what’s happening in the state and in the country. Similar incidents are being shared on numerous social media platforms – people being harassed or threatened in very public ways. And that’s only what is shared; no doubt, experts would suggest, much more is probably happening but goes unreported or unaddressed. One must have faith in our system to muster the courage to report. Community members must work to address this.
These incidents should ring alarm bells for our community. Hurling the “N-word” at a person who is Black or taunting a child living with a disability are unfortunate symbols of our long, unresolved history of racism and ableism. Let’s be clear-eyed about this, they flow from and reflect underlying prejudices or implicit biases of the perpetrator. When someone goes from holding prejudiced attitudes in their private thoughts to expressing and acting upon them through words or actions explicitly directed at someone, a hate crime or incident has taken place.
The definition of a hate crime or incident includes threats, harassment, or physical harm motivated by bias based on someone’s race, religion, mental or physical ability, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, national origin. Bullying, shaming and offensive labeling can fit within this framework.
To truly stamp out hate and bigotry in our community, we must acknowledge the long, tortuous, often deadly history of these acts. Oftentimes, these acts have been directed at Black folks and those living with physical or developmental disabilities.
We believe it’s important to bring your attention to these incidents, first and foremost, to tap that empathy button. We do want to generate outrage, spark community investment in thwarting bigotry, and even develop allies (that is, Upstanders, not Bystanders) for the cause of justice and acceptance. The impact on the people who are targets is profound – trauma, fear and anxiety, sense of vulnerability, alienation, anger, and resentment. The effect on the community is equally weighty in its implications – disengagement, polarization, divisiveness, ignorance and pain perpetuated. We can do better. We must do better by addressing the roots and manifestations of these antipathies. Silence and inattentiveness are not passive acts; they are permission.
It is up to each of us to break that silence, to choose to treat people with compassion and understanding, rather than prejudice and hate. The challenges of this moment are not an excuse to discriminate or belittle people to make yourself feel better. When you see an act of hate in our community– name it – do something about it –Stand Up for Justice!
What can you do about it? Don’t just gripe about it on social media, please. Call it out in real time if it’s safe to do so. Organize a community conversation about race or intolerance. Attend education sessions or read a book about it. Participate in the Committee for Racial Justice, which hosts many workshops on this topic. Embrace, connect with and get to know to your neighbors.
If you are the victim of a hate crime or incident, you can report it to the LA County Human Relations Commission and find resources at https://hrc.lacounty.gov/. You can also report the incident at www.lavshate.org. The Santa Monica Police Department is our local agency to make a report.
Dr. Karen Gunn is the principal of Gunn Consulting Group and co-founder of the Santa Monica Black Agenda. Tara Barauskas is the Executive Director of Community Corporation of Santa Monica. Both are Board members of the Santa Monica Bay Area Human Relations Council.