There is much emotion on both sides of the current debate over race relations, even among people of good will. There are contentious questions to address, such as: should we remove Confederate statues? Should we allow racists to protest in public spaces? Are our elected leaders to blame for escalating tensions? Is one side more at fault for recent violence?
I think these are all fair questions that good people might disagree on without necessarily making them “Fake News-Loving Commies” or “Nazi-Sympathizing Racists.” Thankfully, those two groups represent a tiny fraction of the population, but they unfortunately generate most of the coverage.
Although I agree with much of the president’s response to Charlottesville, I fundamentally disagree with him on at least one statement: that there were good people on both sides.
I believe there are many decent, non-racists who oppose the removal of Confederate monuments, and some might have very well attended to protest the removal of the Lee statue. However, it is hard to believe that any good person would have stuck around more than five minutes after noticing that an innocent event to protest the removal of a statue was actually a grotesque gathering of Nazi sympathizers, white supremacists and other malcontents. Therefore, I would take issue with the president’s assertion that there were “good people on both sides” that day. Good people on both sides of the issue? Yes. Present that day? No.
I do, however, agree with him that elements inside the counter protest indeed included bad people looking to cause trouble: Antifa and other communist groups that likely instigated violence. Of course, the diabolical terrorist act of plowing a car into a crowd falls squarely on the driver and whoever else might have helped him.
So as we look to address this escalating racial tension, decent Americans on all sides of this issue should agree to uphold certain principles.
First, we must reject any assault on free speech. As detestable as these racist groups are, they have a constitutionally protected right to express their views—and yes, even their hate—so long as their actions don’t trample on other people’s rights through violence or other means. If they choose to live life hating others and expressing their hate, their right to do so trumps our sensibilities and our justified reaction to be offended by them. Indeed, I may not agree with one iota of what they’re saying, but I’ll defend their right to say and think it.
However, with rights come responsibilities, and with responsibilities come consequences. They must also understand that, although we support their right to think and speak what they think, we regular Americans can and will exercise our right to condemn them for their vile views. That may include exposing and ostracizing them, though I do caution that we should be careful not to misidentify the innocent. But those who are accurately identified may be subject to public ridicule and contempt, and the repercussions thereof.
Secondly, our elected officials, including President Donald Trump, need to exercise some moral clarity. There is no moral equivalence between a bunch of racist, Nazi-sympathizing white nationalists and those who protest them. Indeed, there were violent troublemakers within the counter protesters’ ranks. But to equate the entire diverse group of counter protesters to the overwhelmingly racist other side is just plain wrong.
Likewise, Democrats and others on the left need to come down as hard on the violent communists as they do on the violent racists. In short, all sides need to come down hard on violence. No more sugar-coating or excusing why one side can be violent and the other side shouldn’t be.
Finally, we all must adhere to the rule of law. Emotions cannot compel us to break the law. As much as some detest the existence of Confederate monuments and what they represent, we law-abiding Americans cannot and should not endorse or tolerate an angry mob destroying or vandalizing any property, much less physically assaulting people. Neither a constitutional republic nor its civil society can survive if the rule of law is replaced with mob rule.
Debates can be had about what to do with Confederate memorials, and legislative bodies may elect to keep, remove or relocate them through normal deliberative processes. But to support or encourage angry mobs to enter and destroy property undermines the most basic tenets of a representative democracy governed by laws—not to mention that it would likely instigate the opposing side to retaliate unlawfully, thus escalating violence on all sides.
As much as I utterly loathe racism, racists have a right to be racist, albeit peacefully and in such a way as it does not trample on other people’s rights. If we use the power of government—or worse, mob rule—to silence or crush undesirable thoughts, then we ourselves risk becoming just a different brand of fascists, but fascists nonetheless.
Christian R. Cámara is R Street’s Southeast region director and a senior fellow and co-founder of the institute. He previously was Florida director of the Heartland Institute’s Center on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate.