The bombing of a mosque and community center in suburban Minneapolis 10 days ago and the horrific events in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend are just the most recent examples of hateful violence that has become all too common in America.
Such events require government speakers at all levels and in all branches—federal, state and local; executive, legislative and judicial—to make important choices about how they use the platforms that their positions offer. Will they speak out? Will they remain silent? Will they stand up to or, instead, provide cover for those who traffic in hate and destruction?
The stakes could not be higher. How government responds to hate crimes presents crucial openings to lead, build, unite and help this country become stronger. Some leaders seize this opportunity while others squander it.
The president is a uniquely powerful speaker. His office’s substantial resources and varied roles allow him to reach huge audiences. His words serve as model and guide to people in this country and outside it. Much like law, governmental speech, particularly the words of the president, can teach about shared ideals and aspirations. Its power, reach and influence give the U.S. president’s speech great value. But that speech can also inflict grave harm upon the public.
Officials can choose to use the government’s reach to assert moral and political leadership in the fight for equality and tolerance. Recall President Lyndon Johnson’s nationally televised exhortation that "We shall overcome" in the midst of heated civil rights battles. President George W. Bush repudiated anti-Muslim bigotry in a speech at a mosque immediately after the 9/11 attacks, and he emphasized that Islam is a religion of peace.
At other times, however, the government has acted in ways that exclude, disparage and divide. Government speakers have targeted immigrants and others perceived as “outsiders.” During World War II, the government engaged in falsehoods and stereotypes to justify its wrongful internment of thousands of Japanese-American citizens. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, many Southern governors and members of Congress, along with other state and local officials, engaged in an expressive campaign of “massive resistance” intended to undermine the court’s credibility and legitimacy.