The Unity Center will have its grand opening at the California Museum in downtown Sacramento on Saturday and it’s well worth a visit.
For nearly two decades, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg has wanted the capital city to host a museum of tolerance. The idea came to Steinberg, and others, after the “summer of hate” in 1999.
Do you remember that summer? In June, three Sacramento synagogues were firebombed. In July, a gay couple in Shasta County were murdered as they slept in their home. Two brothers with white supremacist ties later were convicted of these hateful crimes.
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But as shaken as the Sacramento region was during that period, the best efforts of Steinberg (then an assemblyman) and other community leaders never could deliver a building where a Unity Center could promote a message of understanding and inclusion. In a world of negativity, it can be hard raising money for feel-good causes.
Nevertheless, Steinberg refused to give up. He eventually secured $2 million in state money to fund a wing for the Unity Center on the second floor of the California Museum.
As you enter the permanent exhibition, photos of people of all colors and ethnicities greet you, and it’s easy to assume the place will be all about sunny bromides and easy platitudes on how we all should be part of one human community.
But the Unity Center aims much higher than just making you feel good. It aims to make you think. This place essentially asks all who enter an elemental question: Are you a bystander to intolerance and cruelty or are you someone who speaks up and pushes back against oppression?
Most powerful is an interactive video that puts everyday bigotry right there on the screen, a series of convincing vignettes that strike close to home because they evoke our everyday lives. One story features a high school girl who loves to sing but is devastated by anonymous online comments that are vicious and degrading. One close friend thinks the comments are kind of funny and that the girl is taking them too seriously. Another is troubled but frozen and silent because she doesn’t know what to do. Viewers can click on these characters to hear the justifications of their actions.
These videos punched me in my gut and reminded me of childhood cruelty that came my way – and how upsetting it was when good friends either laughed along or laughed it off. They also took me back to middle school when schoolmates of mine taunted Japanese American students. I remembered one of the targets of this cruelty staring at me with a stricken look on his face. And I’m sad to say that I said nothing and did nothing.
The Unity Center reminded me of how easily intolerance can spread, from one-on-one micro-aggressions to full-scale campaigns of hate, with hundreds or thousands or millions of bystanders either laughing along – or looking the other way.
That’s what happened in California after Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. The U.S. government sanctioned the mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans. Some, like the Quakers, opposed internment and spoke up at the time. But the majority of Californians said nothing or were in favor of rounding up their fellow Americans.
It’s sad to say but The Sacramento Bee – like most California newspapers – wholeheartedly supported the internment of Japanese Americans. The paper of record was a willing bystander to an injustice that was acknowledged years later, in 1988, when President Ronald Reagan formally apologized and approved reparations for the families of Japanese Americans treated like enemies in their own country.
But a visit to the Unity Center isn’t merely a history lesson. As I left after a tour this week, I thought of all the people I’ve recently encountered who have excused or supported the words and actions of President Donald Trump. The man who occupies the White House built his political career by promoting the lie that Barack Obama, America’s first black president, was not born in the United States. Trump has talked of having a registry for Muslims, which has brought back the specter of internment.
Trump also engages in the routine trolling of famous people and private citizens on Twitter. He engages in name calling that was reminiscent of the video I saw at the Unity Center – the one in which the young woman is brought to tears by online viciousness.
Trump’s admirers often support this behavior by calling it “fighting back.” Fighting back against what? Trump’s targets have Mexicans, Muslims, women, transgender people, disabled people. He’s the troller-in-chief. And when such trolling comes from the White House, it inspires those who hate to come out of the woodwork and share that hate openly.
We’re seeing that every day now. Meanwhile, millions of bystanders laugh along – or look the other way.
So go to the Unity Center on Saturday (when admission is free and organizers are hosting a block party) or any day after that. The exhibition distinguishes Sacramento as a community seeking to transcend everyday cruelty and intolerance. And its message is as relevant now as it has ever been.