A remarkable scene took place in a Minnesota courtroom last month.
Asma Jama, a Muslim woman who was hit in the face with a beer mug by a white woman who told her to speak English, forgave her assailant during sentencing. Jama, who wears a hijab and speaks English as well as Swahili, told her attacker that she didn’t harbor “any ill feelings” for the 2015 attack that left her scarred.
Courtroom video of Jama’s statement was soon shared on the internet as an example of the power of forgiveness. Jama, who emigrated from Kenya, also shared a simple truth that shouldn’t be forgotten at a time when the racial fissures in this country seem so great.
“It doesn’t matter what’s on my head,” she said, referencing her hijab. “It doesn’t matter the color of my skin. We are all the same human beings. … I hope at the end of all this that you learn we are all the same. There is no difference between me and you at all, whatsoever.”
Jama’s message is at the heart of today’s National Day of Healing.
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation project and a coalition of more than 130 groups designated the day as a time for communities to launch yearlong efforts to help people better understand each other and “heal the wounds created by racial, ethnic and religious bias” – steps necessary to build a more equitable society.
After a divisive presidential election in which people were maligned because of their race, religion, gender or ethnicity, it’s fitting that the National Day of Healing falls between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Inauguration Day.
The event is desperately needed. In the month following the election, my colleagues at the Southern Poverty Law Center documented more than 1,000 incidents of bias-related harassment and intimidation across the country.
In a separate, online survey of more than 10,000 educators – conducted by the SPLC in the two weeks after the election – 90 percent of the respondents reported that their school’s climate had been negatively affected. They noted an increase in the use of slurs and derogatory language, as well as incidents involving swastikas, Confederate flags and Nazi salutes. More than 2,500 educators said they knew of fights, threats, assaults and other incidents that could be traced directly to election rhetoric.
The National Day of Healing provides communities across the country with an opportunity to do something about it. When people make connections across racial, religious and ethnic lines, rhetoric suggesting that members of particular groups are inferior, that they cannot be trusted or that they are somehow less “American” loses its hold. People begin to see the rhetoric for what it is – a lie.
But it’s not enough to recognize the lies.
The National Day of Healing is also about dismantling the policies and practices built on them. Our nation’s prisons are overflowing in part because of policies that needlessly criminalize young black men because they are wrongly seen as inherently more criminal. Muslims are often treated as second-class citizens because of hysterical rhetoric that has branded them as potential terrorists. And immigrants, particularly Latinos, have been exploited and denied their legal rights in the wake of relentless rhetoric that has denigrated and vilified them. We must end these policies and practices, along with many others, to ensure our nation is one that embraces our common humanity rather than a nation that perpetuates a racial hierarchy.
More than 50 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. warned, “We must all learn to live together as brothers – or we will all perish together as fools. …We are tied together.”
King’s words remain relevant today. There will certainly be much more work after the National Day of Healing, but as Asma Jama demonstrated in a courtroom late last year, we must begin with healing and understanding.