In today's insult-driven, hate-filled and fear-mongering world, it's too easy to find outrage in the least things.
A Chattanooga women's march fizzles when "balance" becomes a slight. A Tennessee law honoring Confederate General and early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest remains on the books despite some saying Forrest's bust has no place in the Capitol. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee last month became one of the nation's first Republican governors to say the Volunteer State would continue to welcome vetted refugees despite a Trump administration offer to let states ban them, and in keeping with the canon that no good deed goes unpunished, Hamilton County's commissioners and mayor waffled on a similar open-door humanitarian policy for people persecuted in their home countries.
Tennessee doesn't have a monopoly on short-sighted bigotry. We see headlines every day of similar problems across the nation — including a neighbor to our south — Newnan, Georgia.
But there, shaken by an April 2018 Saturday when a group of neo-Nazis held a long-planned rally in the little town of 40,000, some Newnan residents decided to embrace their town's growing diversity. A year after the white nationalist rally, the town put up 17 large banner portraits of ordinary — and diverse — town residents. And it was all good. Well, almost.
There was acceptance and pride for the banner celebrating Helen Berry, an African-American woman who for years worked at a sewing factory, and Wiley Driver, a white worker who folded and packed blankets at a local mill before his death in 2017. There were nods for Jineet Blanco, a waitress who arrived in Newnan carrying her Mexican traditions and dreams. There was dignity for two Baptist pastors — one black and one white.
But the Shah sisters — two American-born Muslim women in their 20s, wearing the same style of hijabs they had when attending high school in Newnan years before — became a flash point.
James Shelnutt, a Newnan native and construction company owner, was driving through downtown when he saw their picture: "I feel like Islam is a threat to the American way of life. There should be no positive portrayals of it," he told The New York Times, which wrote about Newnan's growing pains on Sunday.
"Shelnutt turned to Facebook, encouraging residents to complain. The thread quickly devolved into anti-Muslim attacks and name-calling," The Times wrote.
Shelnutt's post drew nearly 1,000 responses, most defending the sisters and accusing Shelnutt and others of being out-of-touch and racist.
Shelnutt's response? "I do not feel like the two women in the photo are radical or dangerous," he said. "I just do not think Newnan should be pushed to embrace Islam."
How is a portrait of two young women in hijabs sitting quietly on a sofa with their hands folded in their laps pushing Newnan — or any town — to embrace Islam? Is the portrait of black Rev. Rufus Smith Sr., pastor of New Mt. Olive Baptist Church, standing quietly in his mauve and purple bow tie and matching pocket hankie, pushing Newnan to embrace Christianity? Are Christian women wearing crosses as necklaces pushing Jesus on Newnan or the rest of us? Are priests in banded collars pushing Catholicism? Is a man in a yarmulke shoving Judaism down our throats?
How is it that these young women's portrait seems any more a threat than the portrait of Rev. Jimmy Patterson, who is white, Baptist, and also is sitting on a couch with his arms folded?
Truth be told, Patterson may be more a threat to Southern mythology than the Shah sisters, since he was one of several ministers who led a unity service to protest the 2018 neo-Nazi rally. What's more, he used the occasion to apologize for slavery. In researching his genealogy, Patterson found an ancestor's will bequeathing slaves to other family members. Patterson kept the will secret for 13 years, telling his family about it only days before going public, The Times wrote.
"One by one, he began to read the names in the will, humans considered property, lumped in the same category as cattle and furniture. Some people in the church gasped. Some began to cry as Mr. Patterson talked about the sin of racism, passed down almost like an heirloom, and all the years it had taken him to unlearn his own prejudices. And then he asked for forgiveness," reads The Times story.
As for the Shah sisters, they were hurt, and the backlash made them realize much of Newnan doesn't know Newnan.
"We have been here seven years," said Aatika Shah, 22, "and now because they have never seen us and then saw our picture, they somehow think we don't belong."
Newnan, like Chattanooga, has seen strong growth — especially from newcomers from other backgrounds. Newnan's Hispanics have more than doubled, and the Asian population is up more than fivefold.
Chattanooga's foreign-born population jumped by more than 68%, from 7,573 in 2013 to 12,786 in 2017, according to new analysis of census data by Point2Homes, an online real estate marketing firm. And no, refugees did not drive that spike. Jobs did, and our percentage growth in foreign-born residents rose faster than in any other major U.S. city.
We should learn a lesson from Newnan and start this important community conversation.
We can and do represent the diversity of the human race, but we must understand that neither hijabs, crosses, yarmulkes, skin color nor country of birth should threaten anyone.