There are people who are going to read this and be angry with me. Some people might unfriend my on Facebook. Some might want to argue with me. At this point, I couldn’t care less. In light of events in Charlottesville, VA since last night silence is a privilege I will no longer exercise. Wanting not to hear or read about events is something only those who are insulated from the potential dangers of events at UVA spinning out of control can afford. Of course, I’m far removed in many respects, so I could be silent. But I cannot.
First, what’s happening in Charlottesville is not some aberration, something strange and foreign to us as a people. On the contrary, the mass expression of hatred and a desire for violence against minorities is older than the the Republic. When H. Rap Brown said, “Violence is as American as cherry pie,” he wasn’t defending Black Power tactics. He was talking about things like Charlottesville. Because, you see, it’s not new. From the first African slave markets in 17th-century Virginia through the 3/5ths clause of the United States Constitution; the outlawing of freed blacks across the South in the decades before the Civil War; the rise of the first Ku Klux Klan led by a former Confederate Army General and the institutionalization of segregation and white supremacy across first the old Confederacy then the rest of the country; Chief Justice of the United States Roger Taney, writing in Dred Scott v. Ferguson that even freed African-Americans were not citizens, having no rights a white man need respect; the racial terrorism of lynching and the acceptability of the white rape of black women; the destruction of African-American communities in Tulsa, OK and Rosewood, FL; the lynching and murder and continued segregation of African-American veterans returning from war in France in 1918; race riots across the country in 1919 and 1920; massive resistance to school desegregation; George Wallace declaring, “Segregation forever!”; the Ole Miss riots; the harassment and murder of volunteers registering people to vote; riots in LA, Rochester, Newark, Detroit, Harlem, and Chicago; the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King followed by white celebrations; the anti-busing riots in Boston; the destruction of a Philadelphia neighborhood in 1985 because of a small group of MOVE radicals; the on-going murder of young black men by police departments with impunity and without consequence; stripping the Voting Rights Act of any enforcement mechanisms; the criminalization of Black Lives Matter.
Eight years of racist hatred against the first African-American President of the United States.
What’s happening in Charlottesville is just another moment in our ongoing national pageantry of racist violence. If you really think it an aberration, are shocked and saddened, and wish to separate yourself from the torch-wielding mob, please remember we cannot do so without continuing to accept this as part and parcel of American life. We have indeed made great strides, legally and socially. That has not eradicated the dark heart of America, our ugly, evil hatred of those different than we are. Our Constitution is a racist document. Our national wealth is constructed upon centuries of chattel slavery, white supremacy, and the capitalist exploitation of our inherent, institutionalized racism. Even our religion has been hijacked by this demonic stain, with denominations and churches enforcing segregation and white supremacy. Until and unless we see this clearly, accept it as part and parcel of being American, then we shall fail to deal honestly with events in Virginia.
When people demand an example of institutionalized racism – as if I or someone else had made up the idea out of whole-cloth, contrasting events last night and today with what happened in Ferguson, MO a few years back makes it so clear. When a community marched peacefully against decades of racist police practices that culminated in the murder of an unarmed young black man, the police who met them were militarized. A single image captures the absurdity of that particular moment:
Last night, hundreds marched through Charlottesville carrying lit torches with not a police officer in sight.
In Ferguson, it was a community tired an angry at official neglect and harassment. They weren’t anti-police; they wanted better police.
In Charlottesville, they chanted Nazi slogans like “Blood and Soil”.
I want to be very clear here so there’s no misunderstanding: the widespread disdain for BlackLivesMatter among whites ignores the reality of blue-on-black violence as well as the desire African-Americans have for their lives and their persons treated the same as whites. Those who claim this is already the case don’t see the truth expressed in these contrasting photos.
This is an American problem. White racial grievances have certainly been encouraged by politicians, aggrieved and enraged whites soothed by promises to make America great again. I want to be clear here on this point: The Republican Party has done more than just play footsie with the darkness that is racist America. When Ronald Reagan began his 1980 campaign for the Presidency in Philadelphia, MS – where two young Jewish men and one young African-American man were murdered for the heinous affront of registering black voters – he was making it very clear to any who were paying attention where he and his party stood. In the decades since, whether it was the Willie Horton commercial, Jesse Helms’s “white hands” commercial, or last year’s love affair between the Klan and the Trump Campaign, highly-visible Republican candidates for high office have certainly been unafraid to make clear where they stand regarding race relations in America. Indeed, the whole idea behind Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan relies upon the ridiculous notion that under Barack Obama, the United States somehow lost respect around the world, or that our domestic life was somehow destroyed. Trump campaigned on white grievance; not a single Republican spoke against it, most denying it all as liberal fantasies. In many ways, what’s happening in Charlottesville right now is not at all surprising or shocking, but rather the result of Republican coddling of racists for over a generation.
Yet, these people are not somehow “un-American” or otherwise not part of our civic life. They represent some of the oldest, darkest parts of what it is to be American. Until and unless we’re willing to claim this, events like this will continue.
And we must rid ourselves of the idea that “non-violence” is a strategy that will work. People who carry lit torches, chant racist slogans, and are part of organizations promoting violence against minorities aren’t interested in dialogue; they won’t be won over by peaceful counter-protests. Force and the threat of violence can only be met with superior force. There will, alas, be blood.
We cannot escape ourselves, no matter how much we might wish to do so. As events continue to unfold in Charlottesville, with the State Police dispersing the fascists, a car plowing into counter-protesters then speeding away, and surely more violence to come, we need to watch and see this all-American show unfolding before us.