Former president Bill Clinton took on the politics of discrimination and division in a panel discussion in Boston Friday night, never naming President Trump but pointedly addressing recent controversies that have been associated with the president’s rhetoric and the views of some Trump supporters.
Speaking on a panel before a crowd of more than 1,000 at Northeastern University’s Matthews Arena, Clinton said that racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, and other biases are nothing new. “It’s just all hanging out there now, for obvious reasons,” he said, drawing applause from the crowd.
The root of the problem, Clinton suggested, is that people are not talking to one another and listening to those whose experiences and views differ from their own.
“We do have a new bigotry in America, most of us,” he said, in contrast to biases that have existed for decades or centuries. “We just don’t want to be around anybody that disagrees with us. so we self-select our news sources, we self-select our encounters.”
Clinton, whose wife Hillary Clinton lost last year’s election to Trump, and their daughter, Chelsea, appeared at Northeastern as part of the 10th annual Clinton Global Initiative University meeting.
The event, which continues through Sunday, has convened more than 1,200 students with specialists in international issues to discuss ways to address global challenges in five areas: poverty mitigation, public health, peace and human rights, education, and the environment and climate change.
Other scheduled speakers at the conference include Congressman Joseph Kennedy III, of Massachusetts; former US secretary of state Madeline Albright; former US surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy, who was a physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and Dr. Paul Farmer, the cofounder of the Boston-based international nonprofit organization Partners in Health.
In Friday night’s talk, Clinton called on young people to seek opportunities to know people from different backgrounds and keep conversations going, to learn from those who have different experiences.
“A lot of these challenges are challenges of the mind, as well as the heart,” he said. “It’s how you think and how you feel.”
Clinton asked panelist Ibtihaj Muhammad, an Olympic medalist in fencing, who was the first Muslim woman to wear a hijab while competing for the US, about her experiences of prejudice.
Muhammad said that just a few weeks ago, a worker at a car-rental agency had accused her of having a stolen credit card and driver’s license. She couldn’t be sure, Muhammad said, whether the woman mistrusted her because she is Muslim or African-American.
“It’s hurtful, and I know that even as an American Olympian, I still am the subject of discrimination,” she said.
Clinton, in his third appearance at Northeastern, asked the students to remember that, regardless of race, religion, or any other element that makes them different, all people are connected by a shared humanity.
“We shouldn’t wait until our neighbors’ lives are in danger to treat them like our neighbors,” Clinton said.
That message was echoed by other participants in the discussion, such as Thomas Edwards, a high school senior from Houston. After rain from Hurricane Harvey flooded his neighborhood, Edwards got into a boat with friends to rescue neighbors trapped by the rising waters.
Clinton and Edwards discussed the varied backgrounds of those brought to safer ground, and the value of service to others.
“Just assimilating with people who are different from you is not as difficult as a lot of people think,” said Edwards, noting he learned the value of service at his Jesuit high school. “Just having a simple conversation can really open your mind.”
Clinton said the effort recalled to him a 1995 flood along the Mississippi River, and a visit he made then as president to Iowa. He saw a physically impaired woman delivering sandwiches to volunteers who were filling sandbags to keep the water at bay.
“She was stunted in her growth, and bones were protruding everywhere. It was obvious that she had brittle-bone disease,” Clinton recalled.
He said he approached the young woman’s father, who had brought her there and asked how he had allowed her to join the effort when it could lead to injury.
“My daughter is determined not to be a victim but a servant,” Clinton said the man told him.
He kept in touch with the family for the next two decades, he said, until the woman’s death at an early age.
“She didn’t have a long life, but she had a life that was full,” Clinton said, “deciding not to be a victim but a servant.”Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.