The torch-bearing, violence-streaked march of white nationalists through Charlottesville, Virginia yesterday, is terrifying. Present tense. Thanks HBO, but turns out we don’t need a fictionalized, revisionist look at the confederacy to imagine an America where Robert E. Lee is a hero, worthy of defense by militias and crowds shouting “blood and soil.” We get it already. It is the America we live in.
But in the wake of yet another iteration of emboldened racism, given platform and legitimacy by the president and his administration, it is important to be clear about the terms and legacy of this public debate.
White supremacy in America isn’t simply a set of informal ideas rooted in the racial superiority of people who call themselves white.
White supremacy is an institutionalized set of ideas founded on the racial superiority of people who call themselves white.
It’s not dangerous because some white people think they are better.
It is dangerous because it re-constitutes and maintains a tangible racial order where white people can become passive beneficiaries of public systems, public goods, public sympathy, and public protection, in ways black and brown people cannot. It is dangerous because this extreme perversion of “the public” excludes black and brown people. And the consequence is deadly.
So while yesterday’s staunch defense of the confederate flag and nostalgia for slavery may appear dated and unfamiliar, the political agenda underlying the protest is not.
In the last month, the Department of Justice, under the leadership of longtime civil rights opponent Jeff Sessions, resurrected white affirmative action to counter “race-based discrimination” in higher education that is costing supposedly deserving white students their so-called rightful place in our nation’s colleges and universities. The Republican-led House and then Senate each questioned and attempted to dismantle the merits of the Affordable Care Act, the only comprehensive national healthcare legislation to narrow deadly insurance and care gaps for black and Latinx patients. And just this past June, the president and Justice Department worked in tandem to request and secure voter data from states, an unprecedented move that has met bipartisan condemnation, and as the former head of the Civil Rights Division noted, is a prelude to voter purges that will disproportionately suppress voters of color.
So while a frequent response to yesterday, and the larger, more violent rally that took place today, is to support local organizations who condemn bigotry and hatred, such charity alone ignores the larger political agenda at stake. What is happening in Charlottesville is emblematic of what is happening to our democracy at large.
This fight is about who deserves the benefits of a shared America.
The answer to that question does not lie in outraged tweets. It lies in organized and sustained resistance to the resurgence of white supremacy that continues to threaten the lives, livelihoods, education, electoral participation, health and survival of people of color. There are only two sides of this and one is wrong.