Rex Tillerson Calls Hate Speech 'Poison'

Image: Rex Tillerson
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivers remarks on August 1, 2017, at the briefing room of the US State Department in Washington, DC.Paul J. Richards / AFP - Getty Images

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By Abigail Williams and Andrew Rafferty

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday denounced hate speech as a “poison” that threatens public discourse during his most extensive remarks yet after last weekend’s violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“We all know hate is not an American value, nowhere is it an American value," Tillerson said. “So we condemn racism, bigotry in all its forms. Racism is evil. It is antithetical to American values. It is antithetical to the American idea.”

The remarks, which came during an address to interns and fellows at the State Department on the importance of promoting diversity in the workplace, were an implicit rebuke of comments made by President Trump following a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia which left one woman dead and 19 others injured.

President Trump has said both white nationalists and the counter-protesters share responsibility for the violence — a comparison that received widespread criticism. He also said the removal of Confederate statues would lead down a slippery slope that could result in the removal of statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

"You had a group on one side that was bad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say it, but I will say it right now,” President Trump said earlier this week.

In contrast, Tillerson on Friday invoked Washington’s vision for America as "a government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

The quote came from a speech delivered by the United States' first president in a synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island.

The top U.S. diplomat did acknowledge the importance of protecting freedom of speech saying it was what set America apart from other nations but added, “We do not honor nor do we promote or accept hate speech in any form.”

“Those who embrace it poison our public discourse and they damage the very country they claim to love,” Tillerson said.

He also acknowledged the State Department’s own diversity gap and laid out a road map for increasing diversity in the agency’s highest levels.

“As the arm of the U.S. government representing America around the world, the U.S. State Department should be a clear display of America's values and of our people, not just in our mission but in the composition of our work force," Tillerson said.

As part of steps to close that gap, Tillerson has directed that for every open ambassadorial position there must be at least one minority candidate. Currently around 12 percent of senior foreign service officers and those in senior executive positions are non-white.

“Now they may not be ready, but we will know where the talent pool is," Tillerson said. “A big part of developing our minority leadership is identifying qualified individuals five and 10 years before they are ready to become senior leaders and managing and developing their careers, as we do others, so that they’re undergoing preparations for those senior roles over time.”

The State Department will also be re-examining and expanding recruitment efforts, reaching out beyond the “Ivy leagues,” building more relationships with historically diverse colleges and universities and looking harder at veterans returning home from service and looking for the next step in their careers.

Looking out to the young crowd, Tillerson told the audience of “future leaders” it was their responsibility to carry the efforts towards diversity forward. After delivering his strongest condemnation yet of hate and racism, Tillerson then closed with a message on personal integrity.

“I can’t emphasize to you enough the value of that quality that exists in you. It’s yours; you own it. It’s yours alone to decide how you use it,” Tillerson said. “If you choose to conduct yourself committed to a life of personal integrity, you will be whole and complete. I promise you. If you choose to compromise or give away your personal integrity, you will have a life that is neither whole nor complete. I know this because I have seen it happen to others.”