OPINION: Words have power
Two weeks ago, on the Oregon House floor, some of my Republican colleagues invoked Nazi Germany in discussing optional vaccine verification tools for businesses and employers and Gov. Kate Brown's mask rules.
Comparing public health protections meant to slow the spread of a virus that has already taken more than 590,000 American lives to the atrocities of the Holocaust is deeply insulting. Such a comparison betrays a dangerous ignorance of history. It trivializes the atrocities and generational trauma perpetrated by a fascist, criminal government and it distorts and confuses public health efforts that could save lives. It is an insult to decency and human life.
Words have power. A long, documented history of anti-Semitic propaganda consistently precedes anti-Semitic action.
I have experienced first-hand what happens when we normalize this sort of language: It emboldens more virulent anti-Semites to act out. Earlier this year, an anti-Semitic attack targeted me directly. Posters were placed around my community, crudely attacking my fight for gun safety. I was described as a "gun grabbing Jew." Next to the words was an edited photo of me, complete with a yellow Star of David pinned to my chest — the same yellow star my family members were forced to wear during Nazi occupation and in death camps. Having been the subject of this explicit Nazi imagery mere weeks ago, hearing my colleagues compare positive public health measures to that level of violence and evil is appalling.
Now, this weekend, Clackamas Commissioner Mark Shull called vaccine verification "Jim Crow 2.0." This statement and comparisons to a "police state" is an affront, particularly to our Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. This language ignores the realities of systemic oppression, driven by Jim Crow laws, exclusion acts, mass incarceration, voter disenfranchisement, disinvestment, health disparities, gentrification, redlining, and police violence.
I will spell out explicitly the difference between a private business requiring vaccine verification during a deadly pandemic and racial segregation: these communities cannot avoid the systemic generational discrimination they have experienced; it is a discrimination based on the nature of who they are. In contrast, not one American will be forced to receive an unwanted vaccine or wear a mask.
Words have power. Words have consequences. Communities of color face higher infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths, all while vaccination rates remain the lowest. A choice that leads to more COVID-19 spread, like prematurely abandoning public health guidelines, harms these communities the most.
The Holocaust and Jim Crow are not memes or buzzwords to be appropriated for political rhetoric. They were horrific, real experiences for millions of people, experiences some of us still must relive and face every single day. I would like to believe the people using this rhetoric do not intend to harm anyone, but it is not about the intention; it is about the impact. I urge my colleagues and fellow elected officials to reflect on the impact of their words on their colleagues, constituents, staff and on the people who look to them for leadership.
Rachel Prusak is a West Linn resident and the state representative for House District 37.
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