I was celebrating my brother’s college graduation on Saturday night when I saw the news on my phone: Torch-wielding white supremacists were gathered at Robert E. Lee Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. They were protesting the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general. Yet the images I saw made it clear that their goal was not simply to protest, but to intimidate. The scene was eerily reminiscent of a lynch mob. As a Black student at the University of Virginia, I was angry. Neo-Confederates were demonstrating less than two miles from campus. The knowledge that the mob was led by Richard Spencer, a UVA alumnus, made it even worse. My ancestors were terrorized, beaten, and murdered by mobs that looked just like that one.
One could be forgiven for thinking it was 1965. White supremacists carrying torches marching through Charlottesville, VA, demonstrating not far from the campus of the University of Virginia. That UVA has a large African-American population among its student body is not insignificant. Unbeknownst to the rest of America, Charlottesville has become the unofficial capital of the White supremacist movement. Yesterday’s terrorist attack (let’s call it what it is) protesters is merely the most egregious and saddest aspect of what’s happening to America.
Racist, homophobia, Islamophobia, and fear of anything non-White, non-Christian, and non-heterosexual certainly weren’t invented by Donald Trump or the 63 million low-information voters who cast their ballots for him. What they’ve done is to make White supremacism fashionable again. It’s become acceptable to be publicly hateful, discriminatory and exclusionary. If that’s what “Make America Great Again” means, this country is in trouble. How can anyone claim this country is “being great” when it means hating those not fortunate enough to be White/Christian/Conservative/heterosexual?
I don’t mean to infer that all 63 million Trump voters are alt-Right racists who believe America is and by rights should be the property of the White race. That said, they did validate a movement which devalues a large segment of the population because of skin color, religious/political beliefs, sexuality, and/or gender. They broke it…and now all of us are being forced to buy it.
Trump voters are responsible for electing a President who embraced White nationalists during his campaign. Donald Trump campaigned on hatred and divisiveness; what we’re seeing now are the consequences of his refusal to condemn those responsible for race-based hatred and violence. The alt-Right is his base…why would he condemn them when they’re a big part of the reason he’s sitting in the Oval Office.
Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer said he “hopes racism cannot gain a foothold” in this city. Many Virginia politicians have jumped in to proclaim the torch mob does not represent our values — even the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans issued a statement condemning the demonstration. It has been encouraging to see the many swift condemnations of Richard Spencer and his followers.
But I’m also worried that people will think of this as an isolated incident. I’m concerned that most will blame this on the outside influence of Richard Spencer. I don’t want people to ignore the truth, which is that white supremacy is a real force to be reckoned with, and has deep roots within both Charlottesville and UVA. The Spencer-led torch act of intimidation represents a resurgence for racism and an escalation of recent trends. In order to combat this, we must fully acknowledge both our troubled past and existing structures of racism.
The specter of racism looms over all of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, just as it does for the whole of America. It was the cornerstone of our school. Brick by brick, our school was built by people who worked out of fear of either the lash or sale. And for more than 40 years after its founding, UVA owned its own slaves.
Thomas Jefferson, UVA’s founder, contributed much to the birth and initial growth of America, and that’s what most White Americans tend to focus on. What’s too often ignored is that Jefferson was a slave owner whose worldview had much in common with modern day haters like Richard Spencer.
His opinion of Blacks was anything but progressive:
Jefferson wrote that Blacks are “inferior to whites in the endowments of body and mind.” He wrote that Black people were driven by uncontrollable impulse and their “existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.”
Some of Jefferson’s writing provided the basis for relatively modern race-based “science” and eugenics. During the latter part of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, UVA was a leader in the study of eugenics.
If you’re wondering what significance the “science” of eugenics may at one point have had, it was how the Nazis justified their efforts to exterminate Jews. That belief remains alive and well among those who believe wearing Nazi regalia is an appropriate exercise of their 1st Amendment rights.
So here we are in 2017…and there’s no credible way to argue that much progress has been made. Friday’s “Unite the Right” rally and march, complete with torches and angry White men, speaks to an undercurrent of racial hatred which is once again fashionable.
— Christopher Mathias (@letsgomathias) August 12, 2017
— Charlottesville DSA (@CvilleDSA) August 12, 2017
Remember, what's really sickening is that Hillary Clinton had the nerve to call these people "deplorable"https://t.co/JwWqhqRxJ9
— Savannah (@leftytgirl) August 12, 2017
Now imagine if these men were black. https://t.co/DT1HCyj6MY
— Zerlina Maxwell (@ZerlinaMaxwell) August 12, 2017
watch whiteness work. https://t.co/hCz5DgQ0YO
— deray mckesson (@deray) August 12, 2017
— Andy Campbell (@AndyBCampbell) August 12, 2017
The worst part of an already disgusting display of hatred and racism was when 20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of protesters, killing three (so far) and injuring scores more. This was an act of terrorism, pure and simple.
As Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said when addressing the attack, “You came here today to hurt people and you did hurt people.” The White nationalists who came to Charlottesville to protest weren’t looking to have an honest, dispassionate dialogue about the issues which concern them. They were looking for conflict and confrontation…and they got it. Now people are dead- included two Virginia state troopers- and White nationalists are claiming the mantle of victimhood.
Stay classy, eh?
— ACLU of Virginia (@ACLUVA) August 12, 2017
No one should claim to be surprised at Donald Trump’s response, in which he attempted to spread the blame around to everyone involved. Given that White nationalists are a significant component of his base, he clearly seemed to be dancing gingerly around reality. Why would he choose to offend those who were among his most fervent supporters?
Why, indeed, when he can bang out a few bland, boilerplate tweets apropos of nothing save political cowardice? Whether it’s about North Korea or White nationalist terrorism, Donald Trump is all bark and no bite.
At least one of his advisers (among other self-appointed Trump apologists) has been aggressively pushing propaganda which paints counter-protesters as every bit as responsible for the violence as White nationalists.
Michael Gerson, a Conservative and former speechwriter for former President George. W. Bush, condemned Trump’s statement as “babbling in the face of tragedy” and “[t]rite, infantile, and meaningless.”
There are times in a President’s tenure which demand a strong response and cry out for drawing a line in the sand. Trump’s response fell far short of what the moment required, and it revealed him to be the political equivalent of a Potemkin village- all facade and no substance. He’s been revealed as a coward afraid to do the right thing out of fear of the political consequences.
The violence in Charlotteville may well in retrospect turn out to be a seminal moment in his Presidency. Confronted with a situation requiring strength and calm leadership, Donald Trump displayed neither. Instead he used weasel words to spread the blame everywhere except where it truly belongs.
Presented with an opportunity to be Presidential, to call out the alt-Right for being the terrorist movement it is, Trump failed miserably, something even his own party is calling him out for.
From where I sit, responsibility for Charlottesville should be laid at the feet of the 63 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump. No, I’m not going to paint all of them with a broad brush as virulent, hateful racists…but they voted for a man who campaigned on racism, hatred, and division. He exploited White anger and manipulated it to his advantage. Neither he nor those who voted for him get to wash their hands of responsibility.
Are Trump and those who voted for him directly responsible for the violence in Charlottesville? Of course not; the people involved should be held accountable for their decisions and actions. What Trump and his supporters are responsible for is enabling, ennobling, and emboldening those who believe being White, Christian, and heterosexual makes them the pinnacle of humanity. Call them Nazis, alt-Right, or whatever descriptor fits, but the cockroaches not only function in bright light, they’ve learned to thrive in it.
Donald Trump and his supporters own this tragedy; this President fanned the flames of anger and racial hatred to manipulate Americans into voting for him…and 63 MILLION did. Those who did vote for him elected a man beholden to the alt-Right and other White nationalists. Being openly and proudly racist has become acceptable and is now considered a legitimate world view by many media outlets.
Nice work, America.