Ever since the horrific events in Charlottesville, where an angry crowd of mostly young white men spouted neo-Nazi and white supremacist slogans, and violently clashed with those confronting their message and their vitriol, I have been mulling over the deeper implications of this event. As has been said by many far more qualified and articulate than me, these were morally repugnant incidents that must be unqualifiedly condemned. The President’s failure to unequivocally condemn the neo-Nazi and white supremacist message was deeply troubling, but not surprising, in light of #45’s moral vacuity.
Like many whites who consider themselves anti-racist allies, I want to put as much psychological and moral distance as possible between myself and the neo-Nazi/White supremacists that marched in Charlottesville. Yet, while I was appalled at what they stood for, I was also embarrassed as a white person who has spent his adult life working for racial justice that such a groundswell of racial hatred still exists. And I wondered: where did this come from? Something deeply sick is at the heart of white culture today. And while I despise it, honesty compels me to wonder about the ways by which I benefit and participate it in this sickness.
In the fall of 1971, I went to Durham, NC to attend Duke University. Before classes started that year, I walked through much of the downtown area. I was shocked to see so many statutes commemorating the Southern cause and celebrating leaders of the Confederacy. This week I learned that there actually was a statue of Robert E. Lee on our campus I was not aware of. Not far from the campus there was a small town that had a large billboard on the outskirts that proclaimed “The KKK of Smithfield Welcomes You” (but of course not everyone was welcome). I saw the physical symptoms of segregation in the quality of the roads and homes. I visited a church were the pastor’s wife pleaded with the congregation to fight the racial integration of the public schools. Many years later, I learned that my class at Duke was only the fifth or sixth class to admit black persons into the undergraduate program. As a kid from Minnesota, this was a different world for me, one that shocked and confused me. This was the place where I went to college, a place built on the foundations of slavery, racial segregation and white supremacy.
Many of the white people I met at Duke were seemingly kind and compassionate people, but when it came to the topic of race, there was clearly a culture fixation on maintaining “Southern culture.” While I was at Duke, my racial consciousness was raised, and I am where I am today in terms of my commitment to racial justice largely because of the experiences and relationships I developed there. Even so, I did so unaware of how much privilege I enjoyed because of my whiteness.
While the focus of the Charlottesville protest was on a statue of Robert E. Lee, and the city’s effort to remove a monument trumpeting the Southern cause and the Confederacy, not all of white supremacists are from the South. The man who drove his car over Heather Heyer was from Ohio. Pennsylvania, where I live, has historically been home to one of the largest number of hate groups in the country. I recall one African American professor (who grew up in Georgia) telling me that Minneapolis, where I grew up, was one of the most racist communities he had experienced. I had a similar impression of Boston when I moved there in the mid 1970’s in the midst of city-wide violence related to a busing order to integrate city schools. Despite my initial shock of encountering the Southern cause on as a first year college student, the North has been the home to as much overt racism as the South, and the North is where my life was shaped and formed.
Those of us who have been paying attention can identify ways in which the various social and political systems that are supposed to serve the general populace (e.g. health care, law enforcement, public education, voting rights etc.) are racially biased in profound ways. Yet until the white backlash to the election of Barack Obama, many of us thought the overt, in-your-face racism in the past. However, like the early tremors of an earthquake or a volcanic eruption, we began to see evidence of a violent racist undertow in the formation of the Tea Party, which eventually led to the Trump campaign, and now has exploded in Charlottesville and other places. Many progressive whites have been lulled into thinking that racism was slowly dying, even though our black and brown friends and co-workers kept telling us stories of shootings, unwarranted arrests, unfair labor practices, disparate criminal sentences, and countless micro-aggressions they encounter on a daily basis. Overt racism was legitimized by the election and subsequent actions of the President and his cronies. Black Lives Matter brought those injustices and indignities to the forefront, the Alt-Right responded and the volcano exploded, and here we are.
In all of this my mind keeps going back to those young men chanting Nazi slogans and looking for a violent confrontation. On one level I wonder what has led to be so filled with hate for people of color, and fear for the loss of some sort of place in society as white persons. On a deeper level, I wonder what I am willing to do in response to it. My black and brown friends remind me, these are “my people,” and it falls to those of us who are white to address the sickness and insanity that feed the racist hate and fears of white folks.
One of the lessons of Charlottesville for me as a white person is that I, and I believe we white folks, have a great deal of work to do. First, we must continue to grapple with what it means to release privilege and power in the name of racial justice and equity. We must find ways to be effective allies who are truly aligning ourselves most threatened and under attack in events like Charlottesville. Second, we need to turn to our white friends, our families, and our co-workers and be willing to risk respect and acceptance and urge them to make that same self-examination, and where necessary make critical life choices to change one’s mindset, one actions, one’s parenting messages, one’s relationships and all other dimensions of our lives where our privilege and power and white folks plays a role.
In short, we need to be about the work of changing culture, restructuring institutions, and rewriting laws and policies. We must continue to change ourselves toward the goal of building a society that honors people of all races, cultures, and creeds, and makes events such as occurred in Charlottesville not only unacceptable, but inconceivable.
The task of changing culture may seem like a daunting task, but it has been done. Following World War II, Germany made such a commitment in relation to its history of anti-Semitic genocide. Today, in Germany all school children learn about the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, and why it must never happen again. South Africa sought to do the same thing with its history of racial apartheid through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Canada has been undergoing a similar truth-and-reconciliation process with its history of injustice toward its indigenous peoples. These examples are not without flaws, but they are examples of white people coming to grips with the reality of their own history of injustice and seeking to change their national narrative and culture. Nothing less can be asked of white Americans and our history of racial injustice toward African-Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asian- Americans and many more.
Charlottesville must be call to action. Last Wednesday, I participated with thousands of others in a march called “Philly is Charlottesville,” which focused on white supremacy at work in Philadelphia in areas such as education, wages, and the criminal justice system. I was pleased to see so many white folks there. However chanting slogans, condemning the current administration, removing statures, and singing songs, are only a start. We need to look in the mirror and then at our networks of fellow whites, and do the work that for way too long we have been afraid and loathe to do. I hurt for black and brown brothers and sisters who must live in a culture that calls what happened in Charlottesville “free speech,” but also feel challenged by that hate displayed, which cannot go unchecked and which must be rooted out of our individual, familial and cultural consciousness.