ADL Austin Golden Gala Speech
Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017
Thank you for honoring Diane and me, together. Diane not only supports what I do, but we’ve always been a team and she does it with me, and frequently she does it better. For us to receive a Joint Honor is one of the greatest honors tonight. Diane, this room has seen, yet again, why I love you so much.
I join Diane in recognizing and thanking Audrey and Ray Maislin, who not only led the establishment of ADL Austin, but have often been like parents to me. And Mr. Khan, you and your wife are channeling unbelievable sacrifice into such critical service. Thank you.
That I took Diane to an ADL dinner as one of our first dates should tell you two things: First, I know how to show a girl a good time.
Second, what the ADL does is deeply meaningful to me. ADL combats anti-Semitism, for sure. But the genius of ADL is that its mission is much broader. The ADL’s mission is to ensure “justice and fair treatment to all.”
And, we’re all here because we know the same evil that drives Anti-Semitism, also drives racism, ethnic discrimination, and homophobia.
We’re all here because we know that old quote by George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
But these times also teach us that remembering is not enough. What is required of us, is something more.
In this last year, the long-established norms of American democracy are being threatened every day, and all at once. I’m reminded of the quote from the Protestant pastor who survived seven years in death camps. You know the one, too. “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist…”
Well, today, it’s not first the immigrants and then the Muslims. And then the women and then the refugees. Then black people and then our trans community. It seems they’re coming for everybody all at once. Powerful voices from so many different directions. This is the opposite of the frog in the pot of hot water. This is happening so quickly, to so many communities, that it is overwhelming our ability to collectively comprehend what’s going on.
When the sea level of normal shifts so rapidly — when proven falsehoods masquerade as the gospel truth — our boundaries shift. Our tolerance for intolerance changes. Holding truths as self-evident becomes more difficult when truth itself is made slippery. It is not enough to state plainly what is plainly happening, even when telling the truth has become a radical act, though we must do that.
We have to do more. We have to take action. ADL’s important work is to never let even the most minor raising of hatred’s ugly head go unnoticed and unannounced, lest the community’s silence otherwise be interpreted as collective acquiescence or approval.
Being the Mayor of Austin means I get up every day and get to do the important work of the ADL from City Hall. Sometimes, that work is relatively easy. Sometimes, it is dauntingly hard. I’ll give you an example of each. First, let’s talk about immigrants and transgender bathrooms.
The debate about both issues begins, as it often does, with the spreading of fear. And in that conversation, we lose track of what is true and what is not.
The truth is that the incidence of crime in this country among immigrant populations, even undocumented, is lower than in the general population. This issue has never really been about safety. But when truth is lost, fear grows. I was interviewed earlier this year on TV and I laid out the truth on immigration when asked about SB4. After the commercial break, one of our Texas legislators followed me on the set, looked at the TV camera, and said: “If your mayor won’t protect you from murderers and rapists, I will…”
Similarly, the push for the trans-gender bathroom bill began with creating unfounded fears. In truth, there are no reported incidents of assaults associated with trans-gender bathrooms. The effort is to divide us by making us fearful of one another. When I publicly encouraged any trans-gender troops kicked out of the military, in a new proposed policy, to apply to be Austin police officers, the front page of the white nationalist publication Daily Stormer criticized me as “Austin’s Jew Mayor,” and accused me of wanting to “Keep Austin Weird” in a pretty unpleasant article on a page with hateful illustrations.
But the heading was correct. I was trying to keep Austin Austin. I am proud to be part of a community that rejects fear and rallies around our immigrant and trans-gender communities.
But let’s be honest. That was also a relatively easy and safe thing for us to do. In this community, the real truths about immigration and trans-gender communities are widely known and support is widespread.
But fighting for the truth and for respect and against fear and hate is not always so easy.
Let’s talk about the Veterans Day Parade and the Confederate flag.
A couple months ago, I met with the Sons of the Confederacy who have for a long time carried a Confederate flag in the parade. These are people fiercely proud of their great-great uncles. The members don’t support slavery today and they believe that their ancestors didn’t join the Confederacy to support slavery either. They were very angry with me when I told them I was considering not leading the parade. They believed I was disrespecting their ancestors and trying to erase them from history. They did not think that my spending that weekend honoring and serving vets in other ways (as I did with serving meals, writing cards, attending vet concerts and events) demonstrated sufficient support for vets because it would be less visible. And I have also heard the same disappointment, and even anger, from a significant part of the community, and even some friends.
Knowing this perception would exist weighed on my decision and it hurts. My father was a disabled vet so the importance of honoring vets is personal to me. It’s part of the reason that I successfully led the city-wide vet homelessness campaign.
This decision, again, begins with a search for the truth. Many students in Texas schools are not taught that the “corner-stone” of the Confederacy, according to its Vice President Stephens was “…that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.” I ask you, what is the message we send to our African American community when we celebrate any Confederate symbol? Sure, we must remember our history. In our schools, libraries and museums. But that does not mean we celebrate these symbols in parades.
Every African American mother I know has what’s called the “Talk” with their sons growing up, about how to make sure they stay alive when they engage with the police, and none of the white mothers I know have had that same talk with their sons.
As mayor, the message I must send, not only to the African American community, but to our entire community, is that no one should be afraid in our city. And we must say that every time, and everywhere, as clearly and unambiguously as we possible can. Even when it’s hard or not universally popular, we need to be true and act on what we believe is right. It’s not enough just to “remember”
When it becomes impolitic to point out discrimination and hatred, it comes out of the shadows and into the open. When messages or symbols of white supremacy in any form can operate under the cover of our political system, then they parade around in broad daylight with the sanction of polite society.
When politics prevents us from looking evil in the face, then it can take off its hood and march with torches through an American city. Only the Statute of Liberty should be carrying a torch these days, and her message of respect must echo in America’s cities everywhere.
We’re doing our part here, in Austin, as many ways as we can. And we could not be doing this as well without the leadership and guidance of tonight’s Community Hero, Dr. Colette Pierce Burnette. She is a treasure in this city and one of my personal heroes, too.
By the way, her University, Huston Tillotson, is becoming an increasingly greater presence in the civic life of our city. I know this event is an ADL fundraiser, but if you’re looking for another incredible giving opportunity, this school is a good one.
Diane and I thank you for this recognition. I wish we lived in a better world in which everyone was safe from anti-Semitism, racism, hate, extremism and bigotry. I wish the world was more like the ideal we hold in our hearts. But until then, you can count on us to continue the good work of the ADL.
Diane and I need you to stay in this fight, to redouble your efforts, and to know that what you do now will help determine our future. Please never miss an opportunity, no matter how small, sometimes especially when it’s small, to act, to not only remember but also to affirmatively send a message. Let’s help our city move forward to our most perfect ideal — beginning with making sure everyone feels safe.
It’s in your honor, we humbly accept this recognition.