Empathy, bigotry, and the tolerance paradox: Can America solve its social impasse?
There are a lot of tough conversations that stand between where America is now and "liberty and justice for all," says Van Jones.
Van Jones is a social entrepreneur, CNN political contributor and host of The Messy Truth with Van Jones. Famous for his heart-felt election night coverage, Jones showed up as “the voice of reason” for people in red states and blue throughout the volatile 2016 political season. In response to much civil unrest and energy post-election, Jones launched the #Love Army -- a values-based movement that is working for an America where everyone counts.
Jones has founded and led numerous social enterprises engaged in social and environmental justice, including The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Color of Change, and The Dream Corps.
Jones is a Yale-educated attorney. He is the author of two New York Times best-selling books, The Green Collar Economy (2008) and Rebuild the Dream (2012). The second book chronicles his journey as an environmental and human rights activist to becoming a White House policy advisor.
He was the main advocate for the Green Jobs Act. Signed into law by George W. Bush in 2007, the Green Jobs Act was the first piece of federal legislation to codify the term “green jobs.” During the Obama Administration, the legislation has resulted in $500 million in national funding for green jobs training.
In 2009, Jones worked as the green jobs advisor to President Barack Obama. In this role, Jones helped to lead the inter-agency process that oversaw the multi-billion dollar investment in skills training and jobs development within the environmental and green energy sectors.
Jones has been honored with numerous awards and spotlighted on several lists of high achievers, including: the World Economic Forum’s “Young Global Leader” designation; Rolling Stone’s 2012 “12 Leaders Who Get Things Done”; TIME’s 2009 “100 Most Influential People in The World”; and the Root's 2014 "The Root 100." In 2017, Van Jones signed a management deal with Roc Nation, becoming the first political commentator & activist in their family. Jones lives in the Los Angeles area with his wife & two children.
Van Jones: This whole question around tolerance and empathy and understanding and where the limits are is a very, very tough conversation and I come down in an odd place. On the one hand I think we have to defend very aggressively the most vulnerable constituencies in America: Muslims, immigrants, transgender people, LGBT, women, African Americans, low-income people, and I think you have to be aggressive about it. I think you have to be passionate about it. I think you have to be serious about it.
If we’re going to have liberty and justice for all and not liberty and justice for some, then we’ve got a lot of work to do. And I think that’s important. At the same time there sometimes can be a loss of empathy for those constituencies that may feel that they have to give up something to get to equality.
For those of us who are trying to gain something to get to equality we can be very passionate, and it feels good—we're making up lost ground over generations of discrimination, we’re overcoming that, it feels great. For other people, even just psychologically, they may feel that they’re losing ground, and it’s sometimes hard for us to have much empathy for that and we tend to go into, “Shut up! You guys have had the game to yourselves. You're disproportionally the business leaders and the senators and everything else, and it’s our turn, and shut up.” And that’s totally understandable, it just may not work very well because change is hard for people.
If you’re a liberal—you look at gentrification. Here’s a neighborhood that used to have African Americans or Latinos or whatever, and then you go away for five years, you come back, and the hipsters have come and they’ve set up their kale shops and bike things everywhere, and you’re like, “Hey!”
It’s like Oakland California right now: West Oakland is being completely transformed by its proximity to Silicon Valley, and people who work for Google and all these places are now moving into West Oakland, totally changing the place.
I sometimes look at that and I go, “Hey, hold on a second; I liked Oakland the way it was!” And if I can build a wall around Oakland and make Silicon Valley pay for it, I might consider that, because I liked Oakland the way that it was. Now, that doesn't mean that we should close the borders or that Trump is right, I'm not saying that at all. I think we need more immigration not less, and I think we need a faster pathway for us to steal all the best talent from around the world and the hardest workers, rather than slower. I think America gets to compete better because we get to cheat and get all the good people from everywhere here.
But can I have a bridge of empathy and understanding to somebody who says, “Hey, wait a minute. I liked America the way that it was when I grow up, I liked certain things. I’ve got some grief now. I’ve got some anxiety now. I’ve got some fear now.”
Do we have to call that person a bigot? Do we have to say that person is a morally deficient human being and push them outside of the circle of decent company, or is there some way for us to say, “We don’t agree with you, we see it differently, but we can understand why there might be some anxiety here. And by the way, you might want to prepare yourself, because more change is coming. We’re going to keep pushing for more change on gender, on sexuality, on the demographics. So more change is coming, but we get it.”
Sometimes I think people just want to be witnessed in their struggle without being judged and condemned.
These are tough conversations to have, and if you start talking the way I’m talking, you’re going to get hit from all sides. I’m willing to do it because I just don’t think you can have an honest conversation any other way.
And the benefit of having a democracy with 300 million people in it—every color, every human, every faith, every gender—all of us actually working together, I mean, it’s worth having some tough conversations and going through some rocky periods to get to that outcome.
But our intolerance for the intolerant may actually create more intolerance. Our tolerance for the intolerant may leave in place too much intolerance.
So it’s a catch-22 that you can’t get through with just your brain; your heart has got to lead you to someplace where you can actually hold onto your principles and hold onto your neighbor at the same time. That's the challenge. No easy answer, but that’s what we’ve got to try to do.
For many years now, America has been tying itself into an enormous Gordian Knot. In Phrygian mythology, this was an epic tangle of rope that no man could untie, despite great rewards, until Alexander the Great came along and cut it in half with his sword—or so the legend goes. Cutting the Gordian Knot is an expression that has come to mean thinking outside the box or finding a creative loophole when faced with a seemingly impossible problem. America is in one such impossible tangle right now, struck by political division that has bled into devastating social division. So what is the loophole we aren't seeing, asks CNN news commentator Van Jones? He suggests having empathy and understanding for everyone who is affected by the march of progress—not just those who are gaining ground, but those who are losing it. If someone liked America "the way that it was," are they really a bigot? "I think people just want to be witnessed in their struggle without being judged and condemned," he says. There is a limit to empathy, however: you cannot tolerate the intolerant for too long—but having empathy for those who interpret change as scary, and understanding why they think that way, may be the only inroad to untying this great mess. Van Jones is the author of Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together.
The Lumina Foundation lays out steps for increasing access to quality post-secondary education credentials.
- America's post-high school education landscape was not created with the modern student in mind. Today, clear and flexible pathways are necessary to help individuals access education that can help them lead a better life.
- Elizabeth Garlow explains the Lumina Foundation's strategy to create a post-secondary education system that works for all students. This includes credential recognition, affordability, a more competency-based system, and quality assurance.
- Systemic historic factors have contributed to inequality in the education system. Lumina aims to close those gaps in educational attainment.
- In 2019, Lumina Foundation and Big Think teamed up to create the Lumina Prize, a search to find the most innovative and scalable ideas in post-secondary education. You can see the winners of the Lumina Prize here – congratulations to PeerForward and Greater Commons!
French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.
- The French government initially invested in a rural solar roadway in 2016.
- French newspapers report that the trial hasn't lived up to expectations.
- Solar panel "paved" roadways are proving to be inefficient and too expensive.
During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.
- Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
- After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in camps, ostensibly for national security purposes.
- In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.
How did the camps get their start?
With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.
Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress
"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."
DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:
"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."
Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.
Life in the camps
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.
For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.
Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.
Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.
As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.
The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.
Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --
"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."
Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."
When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.