The following was first published in print and online for Independence Day 2018. Given the heated political environment, a sprawling filed of Democratic candidates for president and ongoing concerns about Russian interference in the 2020 election, we think it’s timely to share this column from NNPA Award-winning columnist Lee Eric Smith.

Holidays are supposed to be more than just another day off. They are meant for celebration and commemoration, for reflection and reverence. On Easter, Christians think of Jesus’ sacrifice; on Martin Luther King Day, we think of Dr. King’s dream.

And so here we are, fresh off another Independence Day, and I find myself reflecting on America, on what it means to be American. And to make my case, I offer this little CNN headliner that was mostly lost in the sauce in last week’s news cycle.

After Philando Castile was killed in 2016 by a St. Paul, Minn. police officer, Russian Internet trolls tried to organize a protest rally – they set up a Facebook page, created an event, all of that. Wasn’t until actual grassroots activists in the Twin Cities smelled something fishy that they (the real activists) took over the event to avoid confusion.

“God gave him to me, nobody had the right to take him from me,” Philando’s mother, Valerie Castile, told CNN. “And then to take such a sad situation and exploit it, no, I don’t like that at all and for them to use my baby, no.”

It’s not the first time. We found out in 2017 that a Russian-linked outfit – “Black Fist” – had hired multiple unwitting self-defense instructors, specifically to teach classes to African Americans in urban settings. Why? According to their site, so African Americans could “Be ready to protect your rights… Let them know that black power matters.”

When I imagine whom Russian operatives were targeting with their 2016 social media manipulation campaign, I conjure a stereotype. I imagine white, gun-totin’ conspiracy theorists, doomsday preppers who foam at the mouth when Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones or Steve Bannon grab a microphone.

The problem with stereotypes is that if you live your life as if they’re true, you’re headed for catastrophe. So let me break it all the way down:

During the 2016 election, Russia attacked YOU – As an African American,  or a so-called “liberal” or a Democrat. Or whatever label you apply. They didn’t target just so-called “right-wingers.” They targeted ALL of us. They targeted AMERICA.

It is indeed the fundamental disease of our great nation that the Founding Fathers were talking out of the side of their collective necks – declaring the lofty aims of  “all men are created equal,” all while negotiating how not-quite human their African slaves were.

Strategically, Russia would be foolish not to exploit that flaw for their gain. They’ve even weaponized the Presidency into a fire hose of jet fuel to spray on America’s burning embers of racial tension. I can’t help but think of that classic sci-fi storyline of a villain who infects the heroes with a virus that makes them want to tear each other apart.

And to the degree that we become more polarized as Americans, that strategy works. The more we fight with each other, the more they win.

Which brings me back to Independence Day, and what it means to be American right now. Look, I know the Founding Fathers weren’t thinking of black folks when they put pen to paper. But I LOVE AMERICA – not its ills or for what some history books say it is.

I love America for its ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I love it for the resilience of its people, regardless of skin tone. I love the fact that when tragedy strikes, Americans forget their differences and pull together.

I love the fact that I can write this without fear, and that you can read it without it being filtered by government. I love that American people have the right to peaceful protest.

America is absolutely worth defending. But here’s the problem: Russia didn’t hack America’s voting system. They hacked the MIND of America. How do you even fight a war like that? I have an idea of what it’s going to take — and unfortunately, it’s counterintuitive to everything your five senses is telling you about how to respond.

Reach out and meet someone from the “other” side. Make a new friend, or at least a new acquaintance. Replace your stereotype of that person with actual, real-life experience.

And again, I’m talking to YOU.

It’s ludicrous to expect our elected officials to “work across the aisle” when we, the people, don’t do the same.

And what, pray tell, would you talk about with this “new friend?” I dunno. Just don’t talk about anything divisive, like politics or religion or whether you should put salt or sugar on grits (by the way, it’s sugar).  Start with a cheerful “Hi!” and see where it goes.

I could provide more conversation tips here: Find some way to complement the other person. Ask them about their kids. Stephen Covey’s “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” comes to mind. But far more important is to remember WHY you are doing this.

You are doing this because “The Other” whom you think you have beef with? THEY were attacked – just like you and every other American. You are doing this to prove to yourself and your new friend that so-called “liberals” and “conservatives” can have a respectful conversation without name-calling – one that exemplifies American ideals.

You’re doing this because YOU LOVE AMERICA, and as Dr. King taught us, only love can drive out this vicious, hateful spirit threatening our nation right now.

In case you actually accept this challenge (yeah, YOU), I want to hear about it. Meet somebody from the “other” side. Strike up a conversation and let me know how it goes. I’ll share some responses in a future column.

And if somehow the chat gets a little heated, remember to keep your cool. The moment a conversation escalates to an argument, America loses.

(TSD contributing columnist Lee Eric Smith can be reached at [email protected])