Many years ago, during my 27-year career with the Orlando Police Department, I had a conversation with the department’s then-chief about racism. He was a white man; I am a Black woman. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. He, like me, was not perfect, but he genuinely tried hard to get things right.
He shared with me that when he was growing up, he heard the N-word every day from his father in his home. Having grown up in the South, I was not surprised. I was first called the N-word when I was 4 years old. I tried hard not to judge the man I was talking to by his father’s standards.
But then he shared that though his father said the N-word frequently in private, he did not act in the same manner in public, and that he would have never wanted anyone to know.
I realized that his dad had something too many in America seem to be abandoning these days. His father had shame. His dad did not want anyone to perceive him as a racist. He might have held prejudices, but he felt it inappropriate to say what was in his heart out loud.
A deliberate effort not to offend
This man — a blue-collar worker who worked hard and sometimes felt America had given up on him — had strong feelings on race, but he was ashamed of those feelings. I understand that. We all sometimes have thoughts we are ashamed of. But this individual made a deliberate effort, a choice, to not publicly offend or attack those who were different from him. I wish he had done the same at home, but that choice still mattered.
Today I watch some elected officials — people in leadership positions — wear their racism, sexism and prejudice as a badge of honor. They call Black Lives Matter activists “terrorists” while ignoring social ills in Black communities. They proudly use racial slurs like “kung flu” and use demeaning language against LGBTQ Americans. They publicly support the white nationalist insurrectionists who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, like Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who said, “I knew those were people who love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break the law, so I wasn’t concerned.”
Any person who watched the horror on Jan. 6 knows that those words are simply not true. But the truth does not matter to a person who has no shame. The senator went on to say that if the protesters were Black, he would have been concerned. Imaginary violence from Black protesters scared him more than real violence from white ones.
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Sen. Johnson almost knew enough to have some shame. He said before his comments, “This is going to get me in trouble.” He knew that he was crossing a line — and chose to cross it anyway. This shamelessness infects our culture. When leaders cross lines, their followers do the same. The spike in hate crimes during the Trump years is no accident — it is hate and shamelessness made manifest.
Have the shame to know words matter
The United States Senate is a place of honor. As a young girl growing up, I watched U.S. senators with the greatest pride and admiration. While I did not see any senators who looked like me, I was not afraid of the men I saw on our television screen. All I needed to know was that they were United States senators, and that was enough to earn my respect (at least as a child).
How is it possible that a person like Sen. Ron Johnson can occupy a spot where so many great men once stood? Does he not understand the awesome privilege he has been given, and the tremendous responsibility that comes along with it? He is a disgrace to the office and to our country.
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I still care about what our children and grandchildren think. I want them to treat people with dignity and respect regardless of who they are or where they live. My husband and I taught our sons to have some healthy shame. It will help them successfully navigate the challenges they are sure to face. It is good for America’s children to know that some behaviors aren’t OK in the “Beloved Community” we seek to build.
I still believe there is more that unites us than divides us as a country. Shame about racism and prejudice should be one of those things. Generations of Americans have used shame as an instrument of righteousness, calling out leaders who failed to live up to our nation’s promise of liberty and justice for all. I want America’s children to retain that weapon in their arsenal, and that means electing leaders who have the shame to know that their words matter. I am rooting hard for all of the good and decent people who really want to get this right.
Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., is a former Orlando police chief. Follow her on Twitter: @RepValDemings