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Racism is an evil and corrosive thread with a deep and enduring legacy in America.
This statement is, to many white Americans, surprising and controversial.
The shock and subsequent surge of indignance often sends skeptics hiding behind the familiar refrain of indulgent liberal sensitivities and charges of political correctness.
However, it should come as no surprise: America has a long and vicious history of racism. Under the cruel lash of the whip, millions of slaves were robbed of their humanity. They were taken as property, forced to labor under brutal conditions, often deprived of even the basic right to love and care for their children.
This level of barbarism requires an anesthetizing rationalization, a program of indoctrination that subdues the humanity of all those culpable. This program is called white supremacy.
It is a doctrine meant to inculcate not only the belief that white people are by virtue of race superior, but that other races are subhuman and therefore deserving of inhumane treatment. This continued on through Jim Crow. To the conscientious dismay of many white people, the doctrine of white supremacy was not abolished by the Fourteenth Amendment or passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It is part of our cultural inheritance.
Following this weekend’s events in Charlottesville, it should come as no surprise that racism is alive and well.
The overt hatred, bigotry, and ignorance chased a climax through a maze of civil unrest, conventional violence, and an act of domestic terrorism to finally arrive at a peak level of disgust with President Donald Trump’s “Many Sides” speech. He said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It’s been going on for a long time in our country.”
And, with those words, America felt a public shame she has not felt in many years fall over her.
In November of 1991, then President George H.W. Bush offered a few choice words for a holocaust-denying, white nationalist Klansman seeking the governorship in my home state of Louisiana:
“When someone asserts the Holocaust never took place, then I don’t believe that person ever deserves one iota of public trust. When someone has so recently endorsed Nazism, it is inconceivable that someone can reasonably aspire to a leadership role in a free society. When someone has a long record, an ugly record of racism and of bigotry, that record simply cannot be erased by the glib rhetoric of a political campaign.”
Of course, the subject of his disgust is David Duke, the former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan Donald Trump struggled to disavow during the 2016 campaign. Although Trump did eventually, under public pressure, flippantly distance himself from the anti-Semitic loon, he never forcefully repudiated him as Bush did in ’91. Instead, Trump played footsies with Duke and his sympathizers. And, in Charlottesville, Duke, who attended the rally, repaid the favor:
“This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump.”
Trump’s “Many Sides” speech brought forth a new low for modern America because it failed to clearly denounce the neo-Nazis, KKK, and white supremacists, and therefore laid cover for them. The new face of the white nationalist movement and one of the organizers of this event, Richard Spencer, tweeted Trump’s statement as proof of the President’s approval:
Did Trump just denounce antifa? https://t.co/jOgiw4pPzK
— Richard Spencer (@RichardBSpencer) August 12, 2017
Donald Trump is usually hyperbolic and vicious when attacking someone. His condemnation of the alt-right, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and Klansmen is so reserved and equivocal that it is impossible to discern which side he stands on, which is precisely the point. This is no accident.
Trump has never, to my knowledge, beat around the bush when attacking someone. In fact, his attacks on his own Attorney General and most loyal surrogate, Jeff Sessions, were more pointed than his rebuke of the swastika-clad terrorists in Charlottesville. When juxtaposed with his sensational and absurd rhetoric regarding Islam and immigrants, it is hard to see either as anything but a dog-whistle to white nationalist xenophobes.
The president’s critics are quick to say he endorses the views of Duke, Spencer, and their fascist brigade of white nationalists. This may or may not be true. But it is beside the point.
Donald Trump is not an ideologue. He doesn’t appear to even possess ideals or values. He acts purely on the basis of self-interest. So, even if he did subscribe to Spencer’s worldview, he would still act in his own self-interest. If it was politically advantageous to him, he would have clearly denounced them and their actions. But he didn’t. Nor did he praise or defend them. If he had, a chunk of his base would surely have defected. Instead, he waxed obscure, enabling both sides to draw their own conclusions about his statement.
I suspect Trump’s tepid response is, in large part, owed to the fact that all he has left is his base, and this group of people represent a significant portion of his base. Sure, there were only a few hundred white nationalists marching in the streets, but there are many thousands more at home who identify with their cause. Few want to be labeled a racist in the community of their peers. People want to closet their demons, but they do not want to abolish them.
No one wants to be so angry that they lose control and lash out in violence when someone says something they find disagreeable, but few are willing to part ways with the more moderate, socially-acceptable form of anger that manifests as barbed gossip. But, in point of fact, both parties are driven by anger. Similarly, few are willing to march down the street bellowing chants of “White Pride,” but millions are willing to cast a vote for someone they believe will advance their white nationalist agenda—though they’d likely call it something like, oh, I don’t know….Make America Great Again?
Remember, in 2016, David Duke ran for a Senate seat in Louisiana and received three percent of the vote. With a half-dozen other Republicans in the field, 58,581 Louisianians voted for a former Klan leader in 2016. Nowhere near that number would have showed up to a white nationalist rally organized by him, but in the privacy of a voting booth they pulled the lever for him. Trump is the beneficiary of a similar phenomenon, but on a national scale.
In the 2016 election, three percent of the vote would have equaled roughly four million votes, more than enough to tip it in favor of Clinton. Trump’s politics prevent him from outright denouncing them, but by failing to do so he lends credibility to their movement. The next “Unite the Right” rally may be attended by thousands, instead of a few hundred.
For reasons of political expediency and self-interest, Donald Trump is using the weight of the Oval Office to legitimize white nationalism. There is an ever-darkening cloud of suspicion parked over his White House. With each day, comes news of developments in the Russian investigation that bring Mueller and his team closer to Trump and his family.
Don’t forget, you can’t bring criminal charges against the President (president) of the United States. You can move to impeach, which is a political process, not a criminal proceeding. Standing between him and possible impeachment is his base—and that is it! Therefore, self-interest and political expediency are probably intertwined in the service of survival for Donald Trump. He is leveraging decades of progress, the dignity and rights of millions, the conscience of all, as well as American prestige to salvage his name.
By no means do I believe that all or even most white people are sympathetic to the ideas of white supremacy. I do, however, believe that a large swath of decent white people are willing to overlook racism because it makes them unconformable, or ignore it in an election year because they want a tax cut and don’t see racism as an immediate existential threat. The option to overlook or prioritize racism is a feature of white privilege.
Many well-intentioned white people see their intentions blunted by the unconformable reality of confronting racism in day-to-day life. The apathetic rallying cry of liberal bystanders is: “What am I am going to do about it?”
In “Dear Theodosia,” a popular track from the Hamilton musical, Lin-Manuel Miranda conveys the deep longing of every parent to make the world a better place for their children with the following words: “We’ll bleed and fight for you, we’ll make it right for you.”
Obviously, I am not suggesting we take up our muskets—rather, that we have to organize, protest, hold our elected officials accountable, and, yes, our co-workers too. We have to be willing to have those uncomfortable conversations wherever they present themselves.
Culture is the vehicle by which our ideas and customs are passed on from one generation to the next, making the water-cooler and the bus stop the front line in the war against racism and courage the weapon of choice.
We have to do whatever we can to draw attention to the horrible truth of racism’s enduring presence in the hope that our children will not have to.
Author: Benjamin Riggs
Image: The Library of Congress/Flickr
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Danielle Beutell