Last week, as New Jersey approached its mayoral and legislative elections, fellow Americans became targets of hateful flyers. Ravi Bhalla, a long time Hoboken public servant and current city council member running for mayor of his hometown, was labeled a terrorist—singled out because of the color of his skin and his Sikh faith. Jerry Shi and Falguni Patel, two Edison community leaders, are running for school board to ensure better educational opportunities for everyone in their hometown. Racist flyers circulated in their community, calling for their deportation based on their national origin and race. Sadly, this xenophobic and racist reaction is not new to these candidates. Many candidates are targets because of their color, religion, sexual orientation, and gender and others who live at the intersection of these identities across the country and are part of a long history of bigoted appeals in elections.
These hateful flyers use campaign slogans and language promoted by the president, language that is now synonymous with anti-Immigrant, racist, xenophobic policies and beliefs. The Edison fliers called on readers to “Make Edison Great Again” and the flyer targeting the Sikh Mayoral candidate utilized language used by President Trump to support his racist, Islamophobic Muslim ban.
We know, because of the tireless work of community advocates across the country, that these flyers are part of the larger coordinated attack on civil rights that the country is currently experiencing. Because of this work, we also understand how to effectively fight back. Coming together across different communities, local leaders have responded to white supremacist rallies with unity marches to send a strong message of inclusion and respect for all. Local leaders continue to engage people after these rallies through regular task force meetings with local government and law enforcement officials to ensure that communities targeted for hate have their voices heard outside of crises. This helps improve the response to any future hate incidents or hate crimes that might arise.
An additional aspect of the fight must be robust participation in local elections. Turnout in local elections is consistently low, yet these are the elections (mayor, city council, school board to name a few) that have the most direct impact on our lives. A 2016 Portland State University Study analyzed 23 million votes and found that voter turnout in 10 of the country’s 30 largest cities is less than 15 percent and in some cities, it is in single digits. Moreover, turnout in elections held in odd-numbered years lags behind those held in even-number years. Those who create and distribute the hateful fliers described above are not only demeaning the humanity of the candidates running for local office, they are creating a hostile and divisive environment in their communities. In a democracy, our vote is our voice. One way to fight back against the hate expressed in these fliers is at the ballot box.
At the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, we understand these incidents in New Jersey in the context of the larger campaign to deny people across the country the right to vote; as a result, we are redoubling our efforts to protect this most fundamental right. We approach all of this work with the sense of urgency that comes from understanding that an attack on the civil rights of people in any one of these areas has a devastating and reverberating impact on the lives of people with respect to their ability to secure equal justice, fair housing, economic justice, educational opportunities, and voting rights.
The Lawyers’ Committee Stop Hate Project, available online at www.8449nohate.org or by phone at 1-844-9-NO-HATE, stands ready to provide people with the resources they need to combat and recover from hate incidents. A proud member of Communities Against Hate, a diverse national coalition coming together for the first time across communities to document hate and demand action, we work to strengthen the capacity of community leaders and organizations around the country to combat hate. Similarly, as a leader of the ElectionProtectionn Coalition, the nation’s largest nonpartisan voter protection coalition, we stand ready to provide information or help voters who encounter problems voting with the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline and field programs in both New Jersey and Virginia. We will be vigilantly on the lookout for any intimidation at the polling place and to work with all relevant election officials as well as law enforcement to ensure that no voter is intimidated at the polls.
So while immensely disturbing, when bigots target minority candidates based on their religious faith, national origin, or the color of their skin, it is not entirely surprising. When we vote, we are exercising our most fundamental right in a democracy, the very fundamental right that white supremacists, xenophobes, and other bigots seek to eviscerate. And, when we vote, we are voting for leaders who can take actions that can make real our country’s promise – to ensure equal opportunity for all. As Ravi Bhalla said: “the value of living in a diverse community where we are judged by the content of our character – not by the color of our skin or how we worship.” When we vote, we are embodying the promise of this nation that white supremacists, xenophobes, and anti-Sikh bigots are trying so hard to deny – a nation where all are created equal.
Because brave community leaders across the country are refusing to give in to the bigotry, and continuing to run for office and to speak out against hate, we are able to more effectively come together across different communities to show that despite the best and concerted efforts to undermine civil rights and sow division, we are stronger than hate.