I slept in the backseat while the driver transported me from Charlottesville, Virginia over to Washington & Lee University. We approached a steep hill on the edge of town as the driver announced our arrival. My blurry eyes took a moment to adjust to the late afternoon sunlight, but they soon came into sharp focus. A six hundred square foot Confederate Flag, flying from an eighty-two-foot flagpole, welcomed me to Lexington. The oversized tribute to a heritage of hate was, to me, a powerful warning: be on alert for potential danger. None materialized for me that day. But it did for many others this past weekend in Charlottesville.
We should all be reminded that the racial violence that shook Charlottesville did not come out of nowhere. The type of violence beginning to typify Trump-era America came with warnings of potential dangers to come, caution about how our twisted public discourse about race has created the climate in which white supremacist violence has begun to flourish. These dangers embedded in our public discourse about race include the danger of false equivalence; the danger of conflation, and the danger of misrepresentation and underestimation.
Two groups clashed in Charlottesville. White nationalists, white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan members and allied terrorist organizations stormed the town to protest a Confederate monument. Anti-racist and anti-fascist citizens convened a multiracial challenge to their advancement. The neo-conservative movement spanning the past almost forty years in the U.S. has deliberately perpetrated the myth that these two groups share equally righteous motivations, equally valid moral positions, and the equally justifiable right to petition local and national governments for redress of their respective grievances.
The most strident recent attempts to perpetuate this false equivalency came from a president and a professor. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.” Mr. Trump’s initial condemnation made clear that the hate coursing through James Fields’s and the White nationalist movement’s veins was equally on display among the very protesters who put their lives on the line to arrest the white supremacist scourge.
He has made similar condemnations. “These people are very disruptive people. They’re not innocent lambs,” President Trump once said of citizens protesting his anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric at a campaign rally (he refused to condemn a supporter who kicked and punched those protestors).
On a different front, the intellectually dishonest darling of the right, Dinesh D’Souza, would have us believe that today’s Democrats and Republicans espouse the same ideologies the parties held almost one hundred fifty years ago. In a Twitter rant, met with apoplectic delight among the alt-right, Mr. D’Souza blames “Democrats” for the death and carnage resulting from the Charlottesville terrorist event.
Charlottesville witnessed the Trump-age fulfillment of the long neo-conservative dream: to so effectively demonize those who champion racial equality that white supremacists can once again effectively vie for, if not outright claim a moral, rhetorical and civic high ground in the battle to define America’s national identity and core values. The danger in perpetuating this false equivalency is that Charlottesville will become nothing more than a platform from which to justifiably stage future events that compete equally for their morally, ethically and politically bankrupt cause.
But the propensity to conflate white supremacy with white supremacists was another warning of things to come in Charlottesville. The scene – white men, marching in white garments, and carrying torches while they hail the Nazi salute – must be horrific even for many conservatives. But the naked and unabashed display of white supremacy by avowed white supremacists makes it all too easy for people to ignore their complicity with the former because they don’t associate with the latter.
Many Trump voters disregarded his racism, xenophobia, and Islamaphobia because they believed his position on abortion (or similar single-issues) was more important. The representatives of one of the country’s largest Christian denominations – the Southern Baptist Convention – refused to denounce explicit racial bigotry. Academics like Mark Lilla claim that non-white identity politics is to blame for the country’s moral and racial divide and decay.
Even so-called Democratic party leaders say the way to heal the country and move forward is to push the grievances and interests of immigrants, Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, and other minorities to their rightful place on the political fringe, re-embrace the law and order politics that devastatingly incarcerated and disenfranchised millions of black and brown people through the Reagan and Clinton eras, and renew our commitment to champion the interests of the white working class.
These actions, silences, historical revisions, and policy prescriptions for the future all work hand-in-hand to advance the interests of white supremacy. But if these people and the public at large see white supremacy advancing only through a handful of neo-Nazi’s wearing swastikas and white sheets, then we greatly misunderstand white supremacy’s insidious nature.
Finally, we should remember that a lifeless statue brought white supremacists to Charlottesville. It and others like them have littered cities, towns, and college campuses across the country for so long that we’ve forgotten that symbols have immense power. In an age when the fringe right has been emboldened by decades of elevating the plight of disaffected whites above the undeserving black and brown underclass, and strengthened by their social media crowds and a president who made bigotry a national ideal, we can no longer misrepresent and underestimate the power and purpose of symbols.
The white supremacists who showed up in Charlottesville claimed to be there to promote the free exercise of ideas, as exhibited by the misguided attempts by the ACLU to protect their free speech rights. But the words of David Duke are more true to form. They came to take action, to launch a campaign to “take our country back.” These actions – including the violence they incited – is part of this campaign, one launched to protect an inspirational symbol, ideology and tactics of white supremacy.
These dangers persist. If we do not collectively resist, so will the violence perpetrated in Charlottesville.