What’s Happening in Charlottesville Should Surprise No One
By Cville dog (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s all connected. When I was a student in primary and secondary school, a recurring theme every time we went over the American Civil War was how General Robert E. Lee was actually not a racist. He didn’t actually believe in the institution of slavery. He was simply a patriot who believed in states’ rights. So when the South decided to secede from the Union, he felt compelled to support his native state, Virginia, and command Confederate forces. In this context, Lee was framed as a hero of sorts. He was the epitome of the Southern Gentleman, a man motivated by duty, heritage, and freedom. It wasn’t until I arrived to college that I realized how that was all whitewashed nonsense.
The statue of Lee in downtown Charlottesville represents the same whitewashing of history I learned as a child and teenager. It’s also linked to the intricate history of higher education’s connection to white supremacy and slavery. Craig Steven Wilder discusses this in his book, Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (2013). I recommend you check it out. In Ebony and Ivy, Wilder explains how the oldest colleges and universities in America were created with slave labor. Many of the names of academic buildings and halls came from the names of the plantation owners who donated their slaves. This is the whole reason my friend and classmate Maxwell Little called for the removal of the Thomas Jefferson statue from the University of Missouri’s campus.
White nationalists know their history. They know that the Ivory Towers of academia originally belonged to them and only them. This is why they marched on the University of Virginia’s (UVA) campus. They know UVA was theirs until the oppressed demanded otherwise. Removing a statue commemorating the values of white supremacy is conflated with higher education becoming more inclusive. They know it’s all connected.
I’m no longer surprised by the things that white supremacists do—whether it’s have klan rallies, shoot and kill unarmed black folks, or bring us closer to nuclear warfare than we’ve been in decades. It’s all par for the course. I’m also not surprised when counterprotestors show up and refuse to protest with just words. The sad truth is it’s impossible to reconcile with everyone. It’s impossible to make someone see your humanity when their entire life and identity is invested in you being subhuman. Moreover, from the perspective of the white supremacist, America is being made great again. The Commander-in-Chief won’t even openly condemn them. In fact, he wants everyone to just understand each other.
The violence that occurred in Virginia is clear evidence that the violence associated with the early to mid-century Civil Rights Movement is not isolated to that era. People are just as angry now as they were then, and if anything, are angrier. We had a black president, more black folks are getting degrees than ever before, and Confederate monuments are being removed. This sort of progress begets inevitable violence.
What happened in Charlottesville isn’t new. It’s a repetition of the same tensions, the same bigotry, and violence. What is new, for many people at least, is that this happened in the 21st Century, in an age with ubiquitous social media. The primitive, illogical rage and hatred on display was blatant and unrestrained. The people marching with their store-bought torches were unmasked and unrepentant. Charlottesville shows us that people are less willing or mandated to simply tolerate hatred when they see it.
I hate racial violence. It strikes me as some of the ugliest and most all-consuming violence. It permeates every facet of our society, including our laws, media, education, words, and bodies. And more people are waking up to this. More people are realizing the life and death implications of white supremacy. More people see that it’s all connected and they’re not going to take it.
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