What is the main lesson of 2022? What is my 2023 resolution?
The answer to both questions is standing up and speaking out against hate, especially when the hate is directed to someone else. We are at our best when we speak out.
Across the nation, hate, prejudice and bigotry are on the rise primarily because of the dangerously combustible combination of irresponsible political candidates, public officials and so-called celebrities who normalize hate and extremism and the use of social media to spread hate and lies instantaneously throughout the world.
We must view every attack on someone because of the color of their skin, the country where they or their ancestors were born, who they worship or who they love as an attack on all of us and the values of equality and dignity that define us as a country.
Thirty-three years ago, as State senators, Mike White (later mayor of Cleveland) and I authored Ohio’s Hate Crime Law (aka Ethnic Intimidation Law), premised on the belief that a crime against someone because of the color of their skin, their religion or their ethnic origin, was not a crime against just a person or a family, it was a crime against society and deserved stiffer punishment. Years later, as Ohio attorney general, I had the honor of defending the law’s constitutionality before the Ohio Supreme Court.
As our nation becomes more diverse, we can find the shared values and common ground that make us all human and connected. Or we can use our differences to divide and separate us from one another. Virtually every war, every attack, every argument, every debate and every divorce come down to just one thing — not valuing what we have in common.
One of the main reasons I love Cleveland is that we are one of the most ethnically, racially and religiously diverse cities in the nation. In 1900, Cleveland was the nation’s fifth most important immigrant gateway city, with nearly 33% of its population foreign-born. It is no coincidence that civic giants like The Cleveland Foundation, the City Club of Cleveland and the Metroparks began during the highest period of immigration in our city’s history.
Emblematic of our diversity is the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, a unique collection of landscaped gardens each representing more than 30 different ethnic groups in Cleveland. They represent stories of hope, joy and unity, but they also represent stories of despair, sadness and discrimination. As immigration from Europe and Asia neared its height in the late 19th century, anti-immigrant sentiment soared along with it.
In the early 20th century, nativists protested the mass immigration of the “new immigrants” from Eastern and Southern Europe, such as from Russia, Poland, Italy and Greece. Nativists viewed these immigrants as too Jewish and too Catholic. These immigrants were not even considered “whites,” at least through the first generation.
So with our diversity comes a special responsibility to stand up and speak out when any of us is under attack.
There’s a lesson we can learn from U.S. Army Master Sergeant Roddie Edmonds, a devout Christian, who, as a prisoner of war (POW) in World War II, refused a German commandant’s order that he round up all the Jewish soldiers outside their barracks. Instead, Edmonds assembled all 1,275 American POWs outside the barracks and told the commander, “We are all Jews here.”
There’s a lesson we can learn from watching the courage of the Ukrainian people defiantly defending their homeland, willing to risk their lives against unprovoked Russian aggression. Watching Ukraine fight not just for its survival but for its identity and soul has reminded us that we humans are at our best when we focus on something bigger than ourselves. Thus, the refrain by many Americans, “We are all Ukrainians.”
My wife, Peggy Zone Fisher, president and CEO of the Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio, recently stated at the Center’s annual dinner, “When Kanye West spews hateful antisemitism, it shouldn’t be up to the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee or the Jewish Federation to call it out. It should be all of us. When there is a hate crime that targets Black or Brown people or those in the LGBTQ+ community, it shouldn’t be up to the NAACP or the Human Rights Campaign to call it out. It should be all of us. Silence is hate’s best friend.”
The civil rights movement and the fight for social justice have taught us that meaningful progress cannot happen without solidarity. Every city and nation goes through challenging times and unexpected crises. Those who lead walk in each other’s shoes. When a city and nation establish a strong foundation of trust and unity among their leaders and with their citizens, they can withstand forces trying to tear them apart.
To paraphrase and modernize German Minister Martin Niemoller, who stood up against the Nazis in his native country,
First they came for the Jews and the Catholics, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew or a Catholic.
Then they came for the Black, Indigenous and people of color, and I did not speak out, because I was not a person of color.
Then they came for the LGBTQ+, and I did not speak out because I was not a member of the LGBTQ+ community.
Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.
We are at our best when, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, we fight injustice anywhere, because it is a threat to justice everywhere.