By Darryl Lorenzo Wellington
In the days that immediately followed the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, I attended one of the many rallies held across the nation in support of efforts to dismantle racism, and its emblems.
The crowd in Santa Fe, N.M. consisted of activists, individuals and families, and they all had similar words of dismay on their lips. They all voiced similar prayers of comfort. Following the visible resurgence of the most hateful emblems of racial animosity in Charlottesville, Virginia – the KKK, the neo-Nazi movement, and televised images of hordes of white men chanting “Blood and Soil!” – the country reeled. We found ourselves grappling with our most pernicious “Here we go again.”
We find ourselves in a moment where the present resembles the past. The ugliest iconography in modern history returns. The language that led to tragedy in the past leads to a death in the present. Yet again.
Significant numbers of Americans have seen the events, including the televised symbols of hate, and since then they have felt hurt and befuddled by imagery irreconcilable with their notions of the place their country should be.
What happened in Charlottesville? In the literal sense, violence ensued when heavily armed militia, white supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered at the University of Virginia campus to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from the campus. Counter-demonstrators met the white supremacists, leading to clashes. One of the right-wing supremacists, a man named James Alexander Fields, was arrested for murder when he allegedly drove his car into a group of peaceful counter demonstrators, resulting in the death of 32-year old Heather Heyer.
Heather Heyer’s death was pointless, reinforcing the moral decay of the white supremacists in Charlottesville. Heather Heyer was a white activist who died in the cause of civil rights activism, like Viola Luizzo in 1965. Yet it is 2017 and here we are, adding new names to the lists of black and white civil rights martyrs that included the nine victims of the church massacre in South Carolina, and now, Heather Heyer..
Some say the violence may have spiraled partially because Charlottesville police failed to keep the two rallies separated – but white supremacist gatherings often embrace violence.
The question of why vitriolic hatemongering and violent racism sustains its grip in this country cannot be separated from the question of why the nation elected Donald Trump into the office of the Presidency – a person who fantastically attempts to placate the situation by blaming “both sides” even though the violent proclivities of the right-wing faction was self-evident.
President Trump has irresponsibly downplayed, if not denied the entire history of racist violence, which has been as been inextricably linked to white supremacist ideologies like a horse and a carriage.
I happened to meet a very young woman in the crowd at the rally in Santa Fe who told me she was a college student in Charlottesville (spending her summer vacation in Santa Fe.)
I naturally asked her for her local impressions. She had been away from Charlottesville over the past month, but she believed that until recently “everyone got along.”
She thought race relations in Charlottesville had suffered a setback following the protests and she emphasized that the leaders of the militias and other violent groups were not locals. But she was inspired that the counter demonstrators overwhelmingly outnumbered the invading hate groups.
I agreed with her whole-heartedly on the last point. I grew up in the South myself – and still frequently visited home – so I challenged her emphasis on “outsiders.” Her optimism was good-willed, yet smacked of a typical white inclination to only want to see a partial picture of a major problem –whether to blame “both sides” like Trump, or to believe the entire problem lay with sinister and manipulative “outsiders.”
I asked if she’d often heard the heinous and calculated racist Southern myth that “the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery?” Yes, she admitted, she had. Often.
What about the immense racial economic disparities in the South? Hadn’t she noticed how many white Southerners and conservative governments took those historic disparities for granted?
Today I live in a state with a very small black population. I have heard racist comments against Arabs made by people who apparently believed I would not mind because I was black, not Arab.
Together, the young woman from Charlottesville, Virginia and I decided that for all the lip service given to anti-racist ideals, the reality remains that millions of Americans have not confronted America’s never-ending “Yet again.”
The real work following this rally would come when she and I faced Americans who give lip service to Martin Luther King’s ideals, but prefer to “sit on the fence,” never acknowledging or discussing systemic racism, historical racism, or racism in the criminal justice system. For as long as millions of whites choose to let their voices remain muted, silence remains complicity.
Darryl Lorenzo Wellington is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change.