White people feel entitled to a lot of things, but their opinions ― especially on what America should be ― are at the top of the entitlement list. Last week, lawyer Aaron Schlossberg embodied this reality as he went on a public rant at a New York restaurant/market, berating and threatening employees for speaking Spanish at work. His vitriol was loud, pointed and took over the entire space as he painted a picture of what “[his] country” should be: English speaking, white-centered and subject to his comfort, opinions and expectations.
Schlossberg is a caricature of something that is very normal in America ― the unyielding defense of the notion that “white is right” and that anything that diverts from whiteness as normative deserves not only public verbal abuse, but needs to adjust to cater to him, to his whiteness. This sense of entitlement is easy and lazy, it doesn’t require truth or empathy; only conviction, a platform and some gusto.
This is the danger of a white supremacist society ― it always seeks to defend and legitimize itself to the detriment of everyone else.
The right to free speech is not equivalent to speech without consequence.
What is more concerning than the incident itself (which is par for the course in Donald Trump’s racist America) is that people have come to the defense of Schlossberg. Angry citizens held a series of protests outside his home and place of employment, and taunted him with over 2,900 one-star Yelp reviews of his law practice that plummeted his public business rating. The general sentiment of Schlossberg’s defenders is that it isn’t fair or nice to respond to his bigotry in a way that makes him uncomfortable or threatens his livelihood, with seemingly no regard to Schlossberg’s threats to the livelihood of the Spanish-speakers he accosted.
The notion that his verbose and hyperbolic rant deserves space and consideration ― even at the expense of the people he was harassing ― reflects a culture that often acts as though the right to free speech is equivalent to speech without consequence. In the same way that Schlossberg is free to go on a racist tirade, protesters are equally free (though in a racist society not equally defended or heard) to oppose him with their First Amendment rights.
Our national indifference to the oppression of people of color is reflected in a deeper concern for Schlossberg’s feelings and comfort than for the safety, well-being and humanization of an entire group of people.
Decrying a racist does not decry all white people; however, defending a racist contributes to the oppression of all people of color.
Decrying a racist lawyer does not decry all white people; however, defending a racist lawyer targeting an entire community of color contributes to the oppression of all people of color. All opinions are not created equal and treating people as though they are humans who have dignity should not be a bar that we are struggling to meet on a national scale.
White people can look at Schlossberg and say, “I am not like him, I would never do that” while still holding less publicly stated racist ideologies. He isn’t an anomaly in his beliefs, only in his presentation of them. This guy likely has friends and family who probably sit across from him at meals and either through their silence communicated approval, or they agree with him in ideology but not in expression.
Bigotry shouldn’t have to go viral to be addressed. We enable everyday white supremacy to take root by abdicating nice and well-intentioned white people of their responsibility to deal with the dangerous messages they believe about people of color, even if they are not brave enough to communicate out loud.
Hate speech and harassment are not neutral or something that we can “agree to disagree on.” We aren’t talking about opinions on ice cream flavors, we are talking about xenophobia and racism that impacts the day to day experiences of people of color rooted in historic othering and explicit racism.
Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.