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Tillerson: ‘Hate is not an American value’

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks to media during a press conference at Premier House on June 6, 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand. Rex Tillerson will meet with Prime Minister Bill English and Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Brownlee, with discussions expected to include regional stability, counter-terrorism, military commitments in Iraq and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered a powerful condemnation Friday of both hate and those who “protect or accept hate speech” in any form — a sharp contrast with comments made by President Donald Trump on the white supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Speaking at the State Department to a diverse array of participants in one of the agency’s student programs, Tillerson said the events of the past week had raised the issues of race relations and diversity in the workplace and that he wanted to address the topic.

“It’s simply important to say — although I think it’s well understood and embraced, I’m certain, by everyone in this room — we all know hate is not an American value, nowhere is it an American value,” the top US diplomat said.

“Those who embrace it poison our public discourse and they damage the very country that they claim to love,” Tillerson said. “So we condemn racism and bigotry in all its forms.”

“Racism is evil — it is antithetical to America’s values, it is antithetical to the American idea,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson’s remarks stand as the toughest yet by a Trump administration Cabinet member against the President’s declaration at a New York news conference that there were “fine people” in the crowd of torch-bearing white supremacists chanting phrases such as “Jews will not replace us.” Trump also equated the actions of neo-Nazis and white supremacists and those protesting them, saying “both sides” were responsible for violence.

The top US diplomat has come under fire for suggesting that values shouldn’t always play a role in foreign policy decisions. In May, he told his department that “if we condition too heavily that others must adopt this value that we’ve come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance our national security interests, our economic interests.”

But Friday, he stressed that within the US, he sees those values as nonnegotiable. The US does “honor, protect and defend freedom of speech, First Amendment rights,” Tillerson said, noting that it’s one of the qualities that sets the US apart from repressive regimes.

But he followed it with a caveat, saying the US does “not honor, nor do we protect or accept, hate speech in any form.”

Tillerson drew on US history to illustrate that a commitment to diversity, tolerance and acceptance was embedded in the country’s origins and was part of its founders’ vision.

He quoted an address that George Washington, the nation’s first president, delivered at a synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island. Tillerson said Washington told the gathered crowd that his vision for the new country was “a government which to bigotry gives no sanction; to persecution, no assistance.”

In commenting on Charlottesville and efforts to remove statues commemorating Confederate figures, Trump drew comparisons between George Washington, a founding father, and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who was a leader of the secessionist movement during the Civil War with the aim of preserving and expanding slavery.

Tillerson also drew on President Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered in the middle of the Civil War, when Lincoln called on Americans to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

And Tillerson made what might have been an indirect reference to Trump’s tweets that seemed to double down in his defense of white supremacists in the face of widespread criticism, including from the Republican Party.

“What Lincoln knew, and we are sadly reminded today, is that painful racial tensions are part of our experience as a nation,” Tillerson said. “We too, today, should seek to bind up the wounds. We must pursue reconciliation, understanding and respect, regardless of skin color, ethnicity or religious or political views.”

Tillerson, who is in the process of restructuring the State Department and cutting its budget by as much as 30%, spoke of the importance of diversity and the agency’s efforts to improve on that score.

He announced that fellowships and internships that were thought to be on the chopping block will remain, that hiring freezes announced when he came on will be temporary and that a new class for Foreign Service Officers will start in October.

Tillerson said diversity would be an important part of his plans to reorganize the department and noted that only about 12% of senior foreign service officers are non-white. “We need a more deliberate process to cultivate the abundance of minority talent we already have in the State Department,” he said.

Going forward, relevant committees will have to consider at least one minority candidate for every ambassadorial opening, Tillerson said. “Now, they may not be ready, but we will know where the talent pool is,” and be able to focus on developing their careers and leadership skill going forward, he said.

Recruitment will also expand. “As some of you know better than most, America’s best and brightest are not just from the Ivy League, but they’re from a lot of other places in the country: Laredo, Texas; Detroit, Michigan; Roanoke, Virginia,” Tillerson said.

“They’re kids sitting (in) the front row of their high school classes,” he said. “They’re veterans from our military who are coming out of service, looking for the next part of their career.”

Tillerson closed by stressing the importance of personal integrity in leading a “whole and complete” life.

“It’s those things you do when no one’s looking — that you do the right thing, not only when people are watching,” Tillerson said. “The choices you make.”

“If you relinquish your personal integrity, you choose to take a shortcut, you chose to compromise a rule, you choose to move ahead at someone else’s expense, you may have a short term gain out of that,” he said.

“If you choose to compromise or give away your personal integrity, you will have a life that is neither whole nor complete,” he said. “I know this because I have seen it happen to others.”