The company you keep

Samantha Ordaz and C├ęsar Antonio Pacheco during a Silent March for those who lost their lives in the mass shooting at a local Walmart, Sunday, August 4, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune

Words matter. They always have. When Henry II of England asked, “Will no one rid me of this priest?” — surprise — four of his knights killed St. Thomas Becket. In my parents’ time, Hitler used words to incite people against the Jewish community and anyone who wasn’t Aryan. It was hate speech. We know what happened next.

The language our president uses is hateful and racist. It incites violence under the guise of “defending” our country. It empowers those with already unhealthy minds to think they are somehow justified in harming others. The El Paso shooter drove across Texas to stop “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” and shoot Mexicans. His manifesto uses much the same terms our president uses, and expresses many of the same sentiments.

The results of hate speech are the same now as they have been throughout history.This is not just President Trump’s fault. It is also ours. We should know better. We should’ve learned lessons from history. President Trump will go gleefully along and deny any responsibility. He always does. That will not change — but we must. We must change our attitudes and our policies. We must change our indifference and intolerance.

This is not about Democrats and Republicans. Whether you support President Trump’s economic policies or foreign policies or support his re-election — that´s all politics. This isn’t about politics. It’s about straight-up racism and the code words used to make racism appear harmless. I know what racism looks like. While Brown vs Board of Education was decided in 1954, my family’s fight to integrate schools in my hometown didn’t succeed until the 1970’s. Along the way, we heard all the excuses.

The unvarnished truth is that inciting hatred is bad. Racism is wrong — whoever and wherever it comes from. And, unlike politics, racism is always personal. Very personal. It is certainly personal to the families of all those killed or wounded at a Walmart in El Paso last Saturday.

Racism isn’t new. It just has a new and powerful messenger who can casually and deliberately add fuel to the fires of bigotry. Like fire, racism can destroy. We must be vigilant and on guard. Once a house is burning, it is exponentially harder to save.

The manifesto attributed to the shooter takes me back to times that, until 2016, I would’ve thought were long gone. Our past is fraught with racial tension. Our future must not be so.

Leadership and public service can leave no room for racism. That’s what I want my son to know — and that’s what I expect from my leaders. That cannot be too much to ask.

History will not be kind to President Trump or to our country during this era of #MAGA unless we have the courage to move away from racism whenever and wherever we see it. If we tolerate it, we will be judged complicit. A Spanish phrase my parents often used translates into, “Tell me who your friends are, and I’ll tell you who you are.”

Each of us should look around at the company we are keeping. Are you defending hate speech? Are you on the same side as the white supremacists? The KKK? The El Paso shooter? If so, you’re on the wrong side.

Disclosure: Walmart has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Pete Gallego

Former U.S. representative