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EDITORIAL: 2nd lady attack: Pa. at its worst

York Dispatch editorial board
Second Lady Gisele Fetterman, speaks to the latino community as she, husband Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, left, Governor Tom Wolf and Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine visit the York County YMCA to announce the findings of the Wolf Administration’s COVID-19 Response Task Force for Health Disparity, Thursday, August 13, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

The best and worst of Pennsylvania were on display last week — and there’s no guarantee the former eclipsed the latter.

Gisele Fetterman, the wife of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, was running a quick errand at a Braddock-area market last Sunday when she was verbally accosted by a customer. The woman, who has not been publicly identified, insulted the Brazilian-born second lady, saying “you don’t belong here” while repeatedly spitting out the n-word.

This kind of hate has become all too prevalent in recent years, in Pennsylvania and around the country. From verbal assaults to unwarranted police calls to acts of violence and aggression, people of color have been under unrelenting and increasingly hostile attack.

That the perpetrators are almost always white makes it hard to ignore the underlying — or, in the case of the woman who accosted Fetterman, downright explicit — racism and xenophobia that are at the root of this embittered, emboldened behavior.

What gives a person the idea that they have a right to insult a stranger? Tune in to a conservative media outlet. Take a gander at the feeds trending on social media. Check out the president’s Twitter account. You won’t get far without encountering hateful, divisive content.

Too often, those words and images provide the spark that ignites outbursts of ugliness. Even worse: the perpetrators often revel in their loathsome displays of ignorance.

“She didn’t hide from it,” Fetterman told CNN in describing her assailant, whom she briefly recorded on her phone. “I think people are more comfortable now being so bold in their bigotry or their hatred.”

What’s to be done?

The second lady has countered this ignorant and unprovoked attack with her characteristic grace and class. That’s hardly surprising. She has been a vocal advocate for the underrepresented for most of her public life.

A naturalized American citizen and mother of three, Fetterman has made it her mission to assist those in need: a Braddock-based free grocery store for low-income families, the 412 Food Rescue program that directs surplus foods to the hungry, programs like For Good PGH that oversee community-improvement initiatives — all while promoting inclusiveness, advocating for immigrants, and speaking out for victims’ rights. She even made the swimming pool at the lieutenant governor’s official residence available to non-profits and summer camp kids after the couple opted not to live in the mansion.

Fetterman’s assailant bellowed, “you don’t belong here”? Not only does she belong here, Gisele Fetterman is exactly the type of caring, community-building contributor Pennsylvania needs here.

She should not be abused while running a chore. No one should.

Pennsylvania has some soul-searching to do. Why do we feel entitled to hurl insults at strangers who look, act, believe, or behave differently than we do? Why do we feel it necessary to turn public-health guidelines like wearing masks into pointless, life-threatening displays of public peevishness? Why is it OK to display emblems of hate and terrorism from our flagpoles and bumpers? How do any of these acts make life better not only for society as a whole but the individual?

Pennsylvania can do better. So can America.

Our media and elected officials have been setting a bad example, either by actively participating in messaging and behavior that divides us or by supinely acquiescing to it. Most of us aren’t acting on it but too many of us aren’t stepping in to curtail those who are.

Stung as she was, Gisele Fetterman modeled a responsible, even respectful, response. She shouldn’t have to. No target of racial or bigoted attacks should. They’ve already been victimized. They need and deserve public support.

Pennsylvania is better than a hateful, unprovoked assault on a community leader. Let’s prove it.