In the midst of outrage and shock over the death of George Floyd, many Americans want to respond in a way that will bring about positive change—they just don’t know how.
Sophia Nelson, commentator and author of the book “E Pluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founders’ Vision for a United America,” joins the podcast to explain how we can move forward as one nation and work together to vanquish racism in our country.
We also cover these stories:
- In a call to governors, President Donald Trump urged them to be tough when it came to the violent protests over the death of George Floyd.
- Former President Barack Obama and George Floyd’s family members are speaking out against the violent riots in the wake of Floyd’s death.
- The Minnesota attorney general says he will hold the police officers involved in the death of George Floyd to “the highest degree of accountability.”
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Virginia Allen: I am joined by Sophia Nelson, commentator and author of several books, including her latest, “E Pluribus One: Reclaiming Our Founders’ Vision for a United America.” Sophia, thank you so much for your time today.
Sophia Nelson: Oh, it’s my pleasure to be with you, and I’m looking forward to our discussion.
Allen: Me too, me too. Now, Sophia, that vision of a United America is really currently being tested in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Can you take just a moment and remind us of that vision that the Founding Fathers had for a united nation?
Nelson: Yes, I think that’s a great way to open, particularly, in a moment like this, and be clear we’re in a moment, and we’re in a very American moment.
I’m an optimist, even in a dark moment like this. America has been here before, and the whole intent of my book “E Pluribus One,” where I translated the word “unum” into “one,” is based on our motto.
1780, Charles Thompson is tasked by Sam Adams, cousin to John Adams, to come up with a national motto, and he comes up with e pluribus unum—out of many, one.
Now, you have to put it into context, right? Because think back to 1780, we have now won our independence. We are a new nation, and we have 13 colonies at the time, 13 individual states. And none of them agree on a whole lot of anything.
I mean, if you think, again, Massachusetts and Virginia agreed on everything or Rhode Island and South Carolina agreed, they didn’t. And yet they were in agreement in their purpose of unity.
I think that what we’ve lost in this moment is that we are under some mistaken belief that we all have to agree, that we all have to see the world the same, or even experience it the same, and we don’t, because that’s not reality.
What we have to get back to is understanding that we are Americans first. And … a moment like this I have never seen in my lifetime, and I am in my early 50s, I regret to say, but I am, and I have never seen a moment [like this] in my lifetime.
My parents are classic baby boomers, grew up in the civil rights era. Mother from the West Coast, father from the East Coast, very different experiences growing up.
But I listened to their stories and I still have a grandmother who’s alive at 90 who went through all of this—I mean, World War II, she’s seen it all. She’s seen the movement, the marches, and she’s still someone that I talk to about this [regularly].
They experienced something very different than those of us who were born after, like, let’s say, late ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and beyond. We’ve had relative peace, we’ve had relative privilege, we’ve had relative success, and not a lot of conflict, but here comes this moment.
I’ve never seen anything like this before in terms of what I like to say, my white brothers and sisters, those who are my neighbors, my friends, even family members, because—and lest people forget black and white people get married in this country—we have relatives that are a part of our family, they may look different but they are.
I’ve never seen a moment where white citizens are equally outraged and upset, like really upset. This one struck a nerve here that I think is going to end up unifying us.
What we have to remember is sometimes we fight, sometimes we disagree, but when Americans sense that something’s not just and not fair, harking back to Dr. [Martin Luther King Jr.] and the civil rights era, when people saw what happened at Selma on the bridge, it changed and shifted the country because people saw people peacefully walking across the bridge, being hosed, being beat, having dogs sicced on them, and people … like Viola Liuzzo, who was one of the white women who went down to help and was murdered by some Klansmen while she was driving civil rights workers.
So, this moment is one of those moments where we have to look at ourselves and say, who are we? And we’re Americans, and when we get our ire up—and right now there are peaceful protests, but there are also those who are rioting and not doing the right thing.
I want to just say to them that rioting isn’t going to get you what you want. That’s not who you want to be. Protest is who we are as Americans. That’s what we do. We march, we have the Boston Tea Party, which some would argue was a riot, and sometimes we have to get attention.
So, I just think that what I was trying to say in my book is that the Founding Fathers, with all of their flaws—and they had many, slavery was a part of our beginning.
And as you can see, we’re dealing with that right now in the 21st century. Don’t forget, America started [in] 1607 here in Virginia. 1619, the first slaves arrived. So fast forward 400 years later, Virginia, we’re still talking about this. So we’ve got work to do, but the reminder is, what they wanted us never to forget is that we are one America.
That’s why [Abraham] Lincoln saved the Union at all costs, because had we lost the Civil War, had the Union lost, we would be a nation split in two, South and North. And I don’t know what would have happened with westward expansion. All of that would have been in jeopardy. We wouldn’t be the country that we are now.
So unity of purpose is what I think people have to focus on. Not that we always agree, not that we always are going to like the same things, but that when we know something is not American, when we know it’s not right, we know it’s not who we are, we buck up against it and we challenge it. And that’s what’s happening right now, and that makes me proud.
Allen: I want to talk more about the power of this moment that you brought up because I think that’s so significant. We’ve never quite seen something like this, where it is just, like you say, it’s hitting a nerve deep within people that’s causing a response to George Floyd’s death, a death that never should have happened. What was your first response when you learned of Floyd’s death and saw the video?
Nelson: Regrettably—and I suspect if you were to talk to [Heritage Foundation President Kay C. James], and Kay wrote a wonderful piece for Fox that we all read that was powerful. She didn’t mince words.
[If] you were to talk to any black person, you know what they’re going to tell you? They weren’t shocked. Appalled, yes. Shocked, no. Where our white citizens, they’re both shocked and appalled.
And I say that because before we lost George Floyd, we lost Breonna Taylor, the EMT worker in Kentucky, we lost Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, jogging. We lost before that. We could go through anyone from Philando Castile to Trayvon Martin to … we can keep running down the names and it’ll be a long list. Tamir Rice.
So this happens often, tragically, and for the black community. And I was saying … on a radio show this morning on NPR … that I got the talk when my dad bought me a car.
I was 16, and before he gave me the keys, [he] sat me down and explained the rules, which are, if you get stopped by the police, here’s what you do: You don’t say anything smart. Your hands are visible. Make sure you have your license and registration. If you have a problem, you call me. Back then we didn’t have cellphones, we had to use a pay phone.
I remember that vividly. My brother got the same talk when he got a car. And so to this day, my brother, who’s a grown man with children, I will check on him and make sure, particularly during times like this, “Hey, you be careful. I don’t want you doing X, Y, Z.” And he laughs because I’m his big sister, but it’s not funny. But he thinks it’s pretty amazing that at this stage of our lives, I’m still tracking his whereabouts like that.
That’s very common in our families and in our communities. Kay talked about this in her piece.
So I think that for me, my reaction was very different. Appalled, disgusted. I think what really affects us, though, Virginia, all of us, is it hits our humanity.
And what we all don’t understand as human beings is, wait a minute, this is a person. And why didn’t those other police officers do something because they had the power to tackle the guy, say, “Hey, you’re being excessive,” or, “Man, you need to leave him alone.” They had the power to stop that and they did nothing.
And others were filming it, and you can argue they were doing something by filming it. But I’m concerned about the callousness that we have as a culture. We’ve become a very coarse culture. We don’t value life, and that starts all the way from the beginning of life to the end of life.
We don’t value life in the 21st century the way we did when I was coming up, or when my parents or grandparents were coming up. And there was a difference in knowing right and wrong in that, “Hey, I’m not going to watch something like this go down. I’m either going to get involved or I’m going to get help.”
And I think that’s what really has disturbed all of us, that this was videotaped and the rest of us watched it. We were all witnesses to a murder. And I think that’s what has everybody a little bit messed up.
Allen: Yeah, I know. Thank you for bringing up Kay Coles James’ op-ed, we’ll be sure to link that for our listeners because it is so well articulated. Exactly what you’re saying.
And you know, Sophia, I’m having that same response that I think so many people are. I’m a white female and I’m trying to discern, what should my response be in this situation? And I’ve received emails from other people asking that question, saying, “I’m a white American, but I’m obviously strongly against racism. I condemn racism. I want to do something. What can I do?”
What is your response to that question?
Nelson: Well, it’s a great question. And I’ll say a couple things about that. One, thank you. I did a post on my Facebook page and I think Rob [Bluey], who’s one of your colleagues, … kind of re-posted it and took some parts of it on something he did on the podcast website and we can link that as well, so people can see it.
But one of the things I did is I wrote an open letter to everybody on my page who’s one of my white friends, or close friends, family, whatever. My nieces are biracial. They have a white mother and a black father. And so it’s very close.
And I wanted to say to my friends, that one, you don’t have to apologize to me, so stop sending me texts and DMs like you’re doing to all your black friends because you didn’t do this. That’s No. 1.
No. 2, white guilt is not what we need right now, this moment. What we need are allies, what we need are good people to stand up and say, “OK, let me examine my day-to-day life and my interactions. Do I have friends of color? Do I have coffee with them? Do I know them in the workplace? Am I making sure that I’m inclusive of other opinions, lenses, thoughts?”
It’s the little things that may sound trite, but the way we’re going to get through this—I brought up one of my favorite quotes from the Plessy v. Ferguson case that Justice [Lewis] Powell quotes in the Bakke case.
Way down in the ’70s, you have a case that legalized segregation, and then you have a case dealing with affirmative action, and Justice Powell quoting [Chief] Justice [Roger] Taney says, “We must first be color conscious before we can be color blind.”
It’s one of my favorite lines because it’s what’s going to get us through. We have to stop saying these silly things like, “I’m color blind.” No, you’re not. I’m not. We all see color. We all see gender. It’s the first thing we see when we walk into a room, it just is. And it’s OK.
The question becomes, what are we going to do about it? How are we going to find ways to understand, have courageous conversations about the things we’re afraid of, the stereotypes?
Look, I’ll be honest—and I’ve seen a lot of African American leaders on national TV, myself included, who’ve all said, when we’re conditioned to be afraid of large black men, if I’m in an elevator and a large black man gets on and it’s just me and him, my fear of stereotype, that man can be dressed in a suit, whatever.
So it’s not just white people that have these fears because we all get bombarded with stereotypes. And there are stereotypes about black women, right? We’re all angry. Didn’t you know?
So if you buy into these stereotypes, it’s how you perceive people and see them, and then that’s how you’re going to engage them.
What you can do is what we see people doing all over this country right now.
White police officers, and God bless our police officers, this has to be a tough moment for them because they’re really seen as villains right now.
I mean, we’ve all watched the videos in places like Philadelphia and other cities all around where police have literally been beat up by citizens, beating them with signs, on their bicycles, violent.
And then the police officers are engaging back, and it’s a mess because there is this righteous anger that has met this unrighteous group of people who I don’t think are protesters at all. They’re agitators who come in to take advantage of a very difficult moment we’re having.
So we’ve all got to get smart enough when we look at what people are doing, particularly white citizens, they’ve been engaged in peaceful protests.
My pastor who’s white, of a major church here in Virginia, gave an amazing message today, I was so proud of him. And we have a diverse church. He’s a white pastor with a church that has 30% black and brown in it, which is rare in America. Most churches are still very segregated in 2021. That’s just a fact.
So, … he said, “I don’t get it because I live as a white man, but I can pray with you, talk with you, protest with you. I can do whatever we need to do to make sure that this never happens again.”
And I think it’s things like that that simply say, “We get it. We’re awake. Oh, my God, like, everything you’ve been trying to tell us, that’s really your reality.”
I think when people feel heard—what did Dr. King say? Riot is the language of the unheard. And so when people get angry …
Remember Rodney King? I’m old enough to remember that, I was just starting law school that year. And you know, I remember Jack Kemp, who you know is a hero of mine, rolling up the sleeves. He’s [housing and urban development] secretary, he goes down to LA. He takes President [George] Herbert Walker Bush with him, and they meet and they engage and they talk and they listen. And Kemp’s out throwing the football with the young kids in the street and he’s comfortable.
And it was great to see a Republican conservative be able to do that. God, I wish we had Jack Kemp right now because we need him.
But the point is that that’s how we get through, and that’s how we fix this. We talk, we listen, we cry. We lean in, we stop judging. We stop telling people what their experiences are. We stop telling them what their experiences aren’t, and we just listen and we try to do better.
And then there has to be systemic change in the structure of how we police in this country, how we do a lot of things in this country. That’s why we keep ending up back here, Virginia, because we keep putting Band-Aids on this gaping wound that’s 400 years old.
We’re not fixing the wound. We’re not cleaning it out, letting it have sunlight, and letting it heal so that the wound is healed. That’s why we keep ending up back here.
If we don’t get it right this time, tragically, we’ll end up right back here again, give it a year, give it two. We’ll end up right back here again.
Allen: Yeah. You mentioned and spoke to that need for courageous conversations, and you spoke to that on your Facebook post as well that you referred to. We’re on just a really basic level for the average person listening who has African American friends, maybe has some African American family members, where can they begin those courageous conversations with people right in their community? How can they do that?
Nelson: Yeah. I mean, we’ve been having them here in my neighborhood in Leesburg, where I live, and I acknowledge this. I live in an upper-middle class, well-to-do community. We’re probably one of the few black families here.
Our neighbors are not just our neighbors, they’re truly our friends. And in a couple of cases, they’re more like family. And even though we don’t look the same, we have talked about this.
Again, I have been surprised pleasantly about the outreach of my white neighbors. They don’t like this. They’re upset about it and they want to talk about it. And they’re asking what to do, just like you just did. And they look to me as someone who’s out there.
I was on CNN on Saturday talking about this, and we got a lot of response because what I’m asking people to do is to become color conscious and to understand that this country has a history and that the way we’re going to fix it is we have to really talk about it.
So, it doesn’t have to be deep. It just has to be listening and asking some basic questions, like, “What is it like? What do you experience? And what things do I need to be mindful of when I’m at work, or when I’m, whatever? Help me understand what maybe I can’t see.”
There’s this big discussion, as you know, Virginia, online about particularly what happened in Central Park with Amy Cooper. And the young man who was … bird watching, the young black man, and she’s calling 911 on him and telling him she’s going to get him in trouble, and he hasn’t done anything wrong. She’s dragging her dog. She clearly is in some type of crisis as a human being, No. 1.
No. 2, though, it’s things like that. Here’s a woman who it turns out was a Hillary Clinton supporter, and I bring that up for a reason, on purpose, in that her politics are more liberal. Whereas people would have thought someone that would do that, the stereotype would be … that she’s some type of rabid conservative, crazy lady. That’s not the case.
That’s a really good point because it shows that none of us are immune from this. None of us. I have prejudices as a black woman, things I have to work on, we all do.
So the only way we fix them is we confront them, and we sit down as we’ve been doing all weekend here in my neighborhood. People are usually quiet, shy. I’ve got an FBI agent on one side of me, a CIA agent [on] the other. I mean, we’ve got a lot of government people here and we’ve all been talking about this and they’re all pretty upset about it and they don’t want to ever see it again.
And they’re asking, “What do I tell my kids?” Because, you know, the kids are seeing it, right? And so it all starts with the people … and that’s how you’re going to fix it. You’ve got to be willing to talk to the people you know, and not just be polite and engaged in this kind of … you know how we gloss over things, and we don’t really want to talk about them? And we all do this all the time. We’re going to have to come up with a better way, because again, this is going to keep coming up.
You know, let me finish with this point, I don’t want people to think that only in moments like this, where we see a violent death of another human being, that that is the definition of racism. That is an extreme definition of racism. One that is rare and wicked and awful, but there are other forms that are equally dangerous to us, but I’m seeing the images, again, I’m looking at white police officers take a knee.
Colin Kaepernick caught a lot of heat for what he did. People didn’t like it. And now everybody’s taking a knee.
So sometimes it takes somebody to say, “Hey, is this right?” And I’m going to kneel in reverence and respect. I’m not going to burn up anything. I’m not going to tear down any buildings. I’m not going to be violent. I’m going to respectfully say, “We need to address this.” And I see that happening now.
That’s the upside of this. That it’s still rough, but the history of America is rough. We fought our Civil War in part over race. Think about that—600,000 dead, both sides, Union and Confederate troops. That’s the price we paid to make this a more perfect union.
Allen: To our parents and our grandparents listening, you talk about having that conversation. What advice would you give them? Whether black or white, as they’re watching the news and they’re thinking, “Gosh, how do I talk to my kids? How do I talk to my grandkids about this?”
Nelson: I think that particularly those who are the greatest generation that are still with us, again, I have a grandmother that’s 90, and I know that not a lot of that generation is still with us, but I think that one of the most wonderful things you can do when you’re a grandparent, whether you’re in your 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, is sit with your grandchildren and talk to them about the world you lived in.
Talk about the Great War, talk about how America liberated, talk about D-Day. Talk about the things that you saw that really make you proud to be a part of this country. I think [that] is a very good thing just to instill that patriotism and love of country in them.
And then I think, when it comes to race, particularly, my parents were baby boomers and their granddaughters are millennials, very different.
Like the #OKboomer hashtag, the millennials are not nuts about the baby boomers and vice versa. They’re not really liking each other a whole lot. We got to work with them. And that’s my point.
It’s a dialogue that needs to take place. It’s generational, but I think that you can talk about race and you can talk about this by simply making it—I want to be careful how I say this, because this absolutely is about race, and we all agree.
However, … I wanted to make it more about being a decent human being, decent human beings, Christians, people who say they love God, we don’t kill other people. We don’t curse other people. We don’t violate other people. We don’t discriminate against other people.
I think when you can get to that core code, to borrow a word, a code that you live by, that’s what I think is missing, Virginia, in this generation.
We’ve done the wrong thing with the young people. They’ve learned to ghost, unfriend, cut off, delete, block. That’s their language. And they video everything. Everything’s on a video. So I think that we’ve erred in setting an example of how to communicate, how to have conversation, which is not texting. Texting is not talking, young people. I know you don’t know this, but it’s true.
And you know, you need to have a verbal dialogue like we’re doing right now. We’re having a conversation. You listen, you speak, you speak, you listen. And I think when we can get back to those core values—and again, this is not Republican, Democrat, liberal, it’s human, it’s American. Let’s be human. Let’s treat each other with respect and decency.
If we can operate from that place, that’s when we turn the corner, because isn’t that what this is really about at the end of the day? Isn’t racism about your utter lack of respect for somebody that doesn’t look like you or is not the same as you? Isn’t that really what it’s about?
Allen: Yeah, Sophia, thank you.
Nelson: All right. My pleasure.
Allen: I want to circle back before I let you go. Your book “E Pluribus One: Reclaiming our Founders’ Vision for a United America,” it’s so relevant right now. Tell us where we can find that book.
Nelson: You can find it everywhere books are sold. Amazon, Barnes & Noble. Hachette is the publisher, biggest publisher in the world. You can get it anywhere. You can go directly there, sometimes they have specials.
You know, just quickly, I was telling my publisher how I wished that I had written that book right now and not three years ago because, wow, is it needed now. So they’re expecting a resurgence, it’s been selling out. So thank you for mentioning it. And you can go to the website, epluribus.one and check it out. We’ve got a whole website. Everything is there for you.
Allen: Thank you so much, Sophia. We really, really appreciate your time today and just your insight and your wisdom on this topic.
Nelson: Remember, we’re in this together, OK?