Co-authored by Adam Messenlehner
Last week tragedy struck in Charlottesville when white supremacists and neo-Nazis took to the streets of this idyllic town, brandishing Confederate flags, swastikas, and anti-Semitic banners. They dressed in battle gear, carrying clubs and shields, while shouting racial slurs and Nazi slogans too vile to reprint. The protest resulted in the tragic death of thirty-two year old counter-protester Heather Heyer, whose last Facebook post poignantly stated, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Charlottesville exemplifies the dire consequences of the political rhetoric that likely empowered these alt-right groups. Many of us were shocked by the extreme hatred unmasked – hate that many people of color and many individuals of the Jewish or Muslim faith experience, sometimes daily, in the United States – a country founded on principles of religious tolerance and equality. It is heartening that people of goodwill unequivocally and loudly denounced these hate groups, as illustrated by the massive outpouring of 40,000 counter-protesters in Boston that outnumbered the alt-right approximately 10-1. People are taking heed of the warning that silence is complicity. People are gathering, talking, posting, and praying for healing.
As late night comedian John Oliver noted, “It simply doesn't get easier than disavowing Nazis.” While it is morally obligatory to denounce the hatred spewed by white supremacists and neo-Nazis, it may be the easiest of the tasks necessary to effectuate change. The harder work is eradicating barriers that have enabled hate to perpetuate.
Visible examples exist with monuments glorifying the Confederacy. After the Charleston church shooting in 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center commissioned a study that found 1,500 symbols of the confederacy in public spaces. While some monuments have a legitimate, historic background, many were not constructed as patriotic representations of soldiers who fought for states’ rights. Rather, a significant spike in confederate iconography occurred during the Jim Crow era for purposes of intimidation and voter suppression. Determining whether the monuments should be retained for historic purposes, or whether some or all should be removed, is a decision requiring gubernatorial and legislative leadership, consultation with historians, and an informed dialogue with constituents.
The more immediate need is to address the real, but often invisible, structures that allow racism to persist. Institutional racism exists in policies promulgated by government entities like schools, our police force, and courts. Unlike the racism publicly seen in the dark hearts of individuals involved with the neo-Nazis and white supremacists, institutional racism may be less visible to the eye but its immense power perpetuates disadvantage, prejudice, and hate.
In order to break the cycle of racism, we must educate ourselves with the actual history of our country – not the whitewashed version. Consider one telling example from Charlottesville, the home of the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson, our third President, and the author of the Declaration of Independence. Less well known is that Jefferson was a slave owner and enslaved Sally Hemings, who likely bore him six children. Yes, our founders were men of lofty principles, but many engaged in contemptible acts that have been whitewashed into non-existence.
We need to educate ourselves about the discriminatory policies that have enabled economic prejudice against people of color to run rampant. Take, for example, the GI bill that provided educational and housing opportunities for those who served our country, including the 1 million black men who served in World War II. Unlike their white counterparts, these black veterans endured discriminatory admissions capacity restrictions (if they were allowed admission at all) to colleges and universities. These restrictions led many black veterans to seek admission only to historically black universities, whose housing and space limitations forced them to turn away approximately 20,000 qualified African Americans.
Likewise, we must critically examine systems, such as our healthcare system, that allowed poor black men in Alabama to suffer the terrible effects of untreated syphilis, and poor black women in North Carolina, some as young as fourteen year old Elaine Riddick, to be sterilized for purposes of “social welfare” — a health system for which racial disparities in the provision of medical treatment exist today, particularly in Southern states that rejected Medicaid expansion.
We must remove the complex web of barriers integrated in our society, such as an education system where students of color have significant disparate outcomes, public transportation policies that hinder the poor, voter ID laws that obstruct access to the polls, and a mass incarceration system that incarcerates individuals of color at a rate of 5.1 times their white counterparts. The list goes on, and on, because the racial barriers society has constructed are endless.
We must also acknowledge white privilege. Many question its existence, particularly when the number of poor whites exceeds the number of poor blacks in this country. This disparity exists solely because white people constitute the majority of the United States’ population. In fact, the Kaiser Family Foundation reports that 24% of African Americans lived below the poverty line, compared to only 9% of whites. Regardless, the concept of white privilege is not an insurance policy for economic success. Rather, it provides whites with daily benefits by removing obstacles that people of color face. Reflect on the fact that white people can purchase a house in most neighborhoods, shop without being closely watched or accused of shoplifting, see other white people in leadership positions in schools, churches, and government. Most relevant, whites don’t have people full of hatred marching in the streets threatening their very existence. The examples of white privilege are exhaustive.
Last, but certainly not least, we must reach out and listen to those who confront these barriers daily. This may require a shift in mindset-- instead of becoming a voice for the voiceless, we must make a place for everyone’s voices to be heard. A vital part of this process is elevating the voices of marginalized people based on race, gender, class, etc. It is impossible to understand problems, and come up with workable solutions, without turning to those who face them. And, if we are not already outraged, we must start paying attention.