06/27/2013 06:45 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

Nelson Mandela: A Source of Inspiration in Volatile Times

Nelson Mandela is ill and on life support. The Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act yesterday. The day before, the very same Court chopped away at the Voting Rights Act. And the day before, that Court upheld affirmative action (in part) in college admissions, but punted its responsibility to a lower court.

At the same time, Trayvon Martin's killer is on trail and celebrity chef Paula Deen is in hot water for saying the N-Word and denying the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow.

There is much hateful rhetoric in the air.

As I watched all of these things unfold, Nelson Mandela weighed most heavily on my mind. I have been traveling to South Africa almost yearly since 2003 with my daughter. I bring various groups of students and alumni to one of the most interesting countries in the world -- an incubator for gaining a better understanding about race and racism. I've always been struck when my American students can recognize racism and its ugly history in South Africa but can't see it in the United States. During one visit, we went to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and to my students' amazement there was an exhibition on American apartheid. Some of the students were completely unfamiliar with the apartheid that took place in United States and it rattled them. Others, many African Americans, were all too aware.

Thoughts of Nelson Mandela brought back much emotion for me today as I thought about the beauty of this man and the way he has listened, forgiven, worked across racial lines, refused to give up, and committed to optimism. He has lived for something so much larger than himself or material possessions and sees the humanity in those that most would forgive him for hating.

As I read and listened to the hateful commentary from those against gay marriage, I thought about Mandela and how he fought for equality and led and loved by example. How can any of us deny two consenting adults that love each other deeply the right to marry? What if someone denied us this profound right?

As I watched the high court dismantle the Voting Rights Act, a piece of legislation that I personally treasure for its impact on so many people I love, I thought of Mandela and his sense of justice for not only his own people but all of the people of South Africa - even those Whites who hated and oppressed him. Voting is a fundamental right and as a nation we should demand that everyone be able to vote and never be denied this right that so many other countries curtail. There's only one reason we deny people the right to vote and that is to control and manipulate elections. If we love our country and care about our fellow citizens, we should do everything in our power to ensure the right to vote.

As I listened to the Court's decision (or lack of decision) on Affirmative Action in college admissions, I thought about Mandela's fight for equal opportunity in education and employment for all citizens in South Africa. A visit to the country makes evident the vast inequity resulting from apartheid that will take decades to repair, but the policies and practices that Mandela instituted during his presidency have made substantial progress throughout the country. His actions were brave during a tumultuous time. We have never had an equal playing field in this country and because of this fact; we need to take affirmative steps to ensure equality in employment and access to higher education. These affirmative steps or affirmative actions have been essential in changing the make-up of the workplace as well as colleges and universities. However, we still have institutions of higher education, including most of the elite ones, that are not diverse or representative of the nation as a whole. History demanded affirmative action and our future -- a nation of immense diversity -- does as well. Don't we want all of our citizens to have opportunities?

When I think of Trayvon Martin, I am reminded of a life taken away at such a young age. None of us knows exactly what happened the night of his killing, but we do know that senseless, vigilante justice doesn't lead to the type of society that most of us want to live in. Anyone of us that has a child or a sister or brother can feel the pain that Trayvon's parents feel. Why don't we all empathize with their pain and why aren't we more outraged by the injustice that occurred? Why should the color of someone's skin matter when it comes to the killing of a child? What if Trayvon had been Peter and had been White? Still gunned down? How would we feel? Aren't all lives valuable?

And lastly, when I read the deposition that Paula Deen gave in a pending discrimination case (admitting to using the N-word) and watched a video of her discussing her families role in slavery, I was reminded of our need to 'white wash' history in order to make it more palatable. When questioned about relationships with African Americans in her family's past, Deen referred to her family's slaves (enslaved Blacks) as "workers" and seemed to ask her audience for sympathy when her great grandfather lost these "workers" with the fall of slavery. Many people are excusing Deen for her use of racial slurs and denial of American apartheid. Like Mandela, I am willing to forgive people for their missteps and hateful actions, but I do not think we should excuse racist behavior because someone is old or from an area of the country that once basked in slavery. We should never be tolerant of hate and the promotion of ignorance. At the same time, we all need to check our own behavior, use of hurtful language, and prejudices. Regardless of skin color, gender, sexuality, religion, and class, we have all contributed to the hateful discourse that seems to have permeated our nation for far too long.

The United States has every opportunity to be a role model for other nations, but we have to take a chance. I hope that we all look to Nelson Mandela for hope, inspiration, bravery, and strength to be better to each other and to look out for each other and set an example for our children. In Mandela's words, "No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite."