Charlottesville, Virginia is one of my favorite places on earth. I have such fond memories and associations with that place. As a long-time Virginia Cavaliers fan, I think of the few times I’ve partaken in UVa football games at Scott Stadium and shot hoops in UVa’s basketball arena alongside one of their players at that time (Jeff Daniel, a 6’9” forward… it’s not often I feel small). The mountains, the trees in the fall, the historic roots… it’s such a cool place.
However, in recent days and weeks, the thought of Charlottesville has become a not-so-pleasant stimulus. Instead of drawing my heart toward the blue and orange, the Rotunda, or Mincer’s, it has begun to take me to much darker places. It has become a battleground on which the so-called “white nationalists” have taken their stand against, you know, basically anyone who doesn’t look like them. The “Alt Right”/KKK element among us has chosen this beautiful city as the place to demonstrate their ugly, evil hatred.
Why Charlottesville? Well, it has to do with a statue/monument of Robert E. Lee. A short while back, city officials decided to take the monument down, because of the connotations it carried for many of its citizens. The pulling down of this monument became the rallying cry for those who want America to be as white as possible and who treat non-whites as less than human.
I was recently reading a Facebook conversation about all this. During this conversation, one person blamed the conflict in Charlottesville on the city officials who removed the monument, stating the ever-present argument that it’s a part of American history and we can’t ignore it. Now, that’s true, of course. We should never disregard or ignore history. However, I would argue, remembering history and learning its lessons are entirely different from facilitating a monument to the Confederate general who led the charge, practically, against the freedom of black people in America. Whatever other factors may have played into General Lee’s allegiance to the Confederacy, this fact remains: his leadership, if successful, would have led to the continued enslavement of blacks in the American south.
So, when someone says, “It’s a part of our history and we cannot ignore that,” I want them to recognize that such a monument is not about remembering history. It is a monument such as would be erected for a war hero or great political leader. It’s not just a statue commemorating something that happened in the distant past. It is a memorial, honoring the man whose efforts would have kept black people in chains.
I can’t help but think that the people who get caught up in the whole “history” of such monuments must be all or mostly white. In fact, I can remember how much my mother revered General Lee. She talked about him being a good Southern gentleman, “God-fearing” even. I can only imagine that sentiment coming from white folks. And, I can’t imagine a statue of General Lee having any kind of positive association for black folks. As the father of a black child, it certainly makes me uncomfortable. How do I explain to my son why, here in 21st century America, we have a monument built to the guy who would have kept black people in slavery?
The statue had to come down, just like all such statues. We should not honor people or organizations who seek to oppress others. Its why Confederate flags should never be flown on public buildings (what people fly at their own house is up to them… although it’s a pretty sure sign of racism living in that house). To over 30% of our population, such things represent oppression and their ancestors being treated as less than human. General Lee had to come down.
To the folks who say such monuments are important and should be left where they are, I ask you to consider who is using this event as their rallying point. The KKK… the Alt-Right… Neo-Nazis… white nationalists… you know, the fine upstanding individuals who think America is for whites only. Doesn’t that demonstrate what that statue really means? The razing of General Lee’s monument became the occasion for the evil, racist element in that area/region to raise its ugly head.
But this isn’t just about General Lee and Charlottesville. No, not by a long shot. For those of us who think we are reaching some kind of new low point or are incredulous that such racism still exists in America, the black community has been trying to tell us for decades that the sentiment of white supremacy is alive and well. And, by and large, white America has remained silent, perhaps even choosing ignorance rather than engaging in what our black brothers and sisters are seeing and experiencing. No, racism is in full effect in America. It expresses itself in the young boy who wouldn’t play with my son because of his brown skin and it expresses itself in a white supremacist driving his car into a bunch of anti-racism protesters.
Honestly, we are not used to seeing such brazen displays of organized racism these days. On July 4th, as usual, my family and I visited the Chippewa Valley Museum. And, as usual, we paused at the corner of the museum in which historical KKK activity in the Valley is mentioned. The only thing that makes that conversation manageable with my boy is to tell him that activity was short-lived (although the KKK is likely still active in western Wisconsin). However, here we are, with white hoods, swastikas, and tiki torches on our television screens and Facebook feeds…today… in 2017.
So, why are we seeing this now? What has emboldened such brazen displays of organized racism? What has empowered the American cockroach of white supremacy to come into the light instead of scurrying into the dark corners of our society? There is a reason the cockroach stays in the shadows. It’s because it’s afraid. So, what is behind this explicit racism in Charlottesville? Why have these racist groups, the KKK, Neo-Nazis, the Alt-Right, etc. become so visible? They are no longer afraid of the light. Suddenly, they feel safe to come out of hiding and flex their muscles. Why?
Make America Great Again… Yep. I think that phrase and its connotations are the fuel for the burning crosses’ (or tiki torches’) flames. There were so many voices who tried to bring attention to President Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric during his campaign. His blanket statements about Muslims and Mexicans horrified many, but not enough of us to keep him from gaining the most powerful position in the world, other than God’s. But it’s not really those blatant statements I find so problematic in this moment. No, it’s this one: Make America Great Again.
On the surface, Mr. Trump seemed to leverage that statement to talk about things like bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States. But it’s not that connotation that’s the real problem. It’s the whole idea that America has been great in the first place. In regard to that concept, my guess is one’s perspective on America’s so-called greatness is dependent upon their experience of America. When I look back on American history, the only people group for which America has truly been great, from the beginning, are white men of European heritage, and especially those with some significant measure of wealth.
I know this will ruffle some feathers, but I need to say this right now: America is not, nor has it ever been, great from any kind of holistic perspective. Let’s be honest. Europeans may have founded colonies that would eventually become the United States, but the “New World” did not belong to them. There were peoples already here, native to the land. The early Euro-Americans drove the Natives from their land, virtually killed their cultures, and devastated their populations. And before we were even an official sovereign state, we were brutally enslaving Africans, buying and selling people as if they were livestock.
It is clear that when “our” Founding Fathers bought into the idea of “all men are created equal,” they didn’t actually mean all men. What they meant was all men born of European heritage are created equal (not women, not Africans, not Native Americans…). However, they didn’t sweat the details with that statement. They must have understood that all of their colleagues and fellow land-owning white men would have understood what they really meant by all men.
And our history falls in line with this understanding. All people are, in fact, created equal. We are all made in God’s image. We have inherent value as human beings. But, that’s different than how the Founding Fathers interpreted humanity. And because this is the case, minority groups in America have not experienced the reality of all humans being created equal, which is their birthright. And if someone thinks this is only the past, that things have changed and this is no longer reality… I beg to differ. Research wage inequalities between genders and between white men and everyone else. Take a look into how many unarmed blacks are shot by the police (especially as compared to unarmed whites). See the events in Charlottesville.
Now, don’t get me wrong… there are great things about America. I am incredibly grateful that I even get to write this without fear of reprisal from the government. I get to meet with my church and worship freely. I have opportunities for advancement in life that many, many people around the world could only dream of. I do not take these things for granted. But, NONE of these things can overshadow how people of color have been treated throughout American history. For most people of color, I would surmise, America has never been great.
So, when President Trump talks about making America great again, what is he actually saying? All I can tell you is what I hear from my perspective: “We are going to go back to a time when white supremacy was understood and celebrated among the American people.” That’s how that phrase sounds to me. And, I’m pretty sure there’s a fair share of white Americans, whether consciously or subconsciously, who hear the same thing… and want that.
Most certainly, I believe these Klansmen, Nazis, etc. have received that message through those words. They see President Trump as their comrade in arms. Don’t believe me? Ask David Duke. They see him as being in the fight with them. And him not calling out the acts of these people in Charlottesville as racially driven terrorism only exacerbates that dynamic. They continue to feel empowered and emboldened to make their presence known and to intimidate those who would oppose them.
However, frankly, I am glad they feel so empowered. Why? Because we are seeing the truth. There are white people living in this country who have been oblivious to that heart of bigotry still living in America. And some of these are good people who, for whatever reason, have not seen it. I think in the past I was one of them. Acts such of those seen in Charlottesville this weekend are helping us to see the truth. The reality of what lives in us, and I mean Americans when I say us, is coming to light. The truth is being shouted from the rooftops, if you will.
For the overt white supremacists, they have crawled out of the shadows and we can see they are still around, still active, and still dangerous. For many of us other white folks, this is a wake-up call to the realities of what is not only around us but what is living in us as well. If we have ignored the voices of our black brothers and sisters as they have cried out about injustices, why have we chosen that ignorance? What is it in us that makes us think the victims are the bad guys? What is it in us that chooses to believe racism is something from the past when the black American community has been consistently telling us otherwise?
And, as for President Trump, I believe he bears personal responsibility for what happened in Charlottesville. While he didn’t don a hood, tote his assault rifle, or bear the dreaded tiki torch, he has done literally nothing to condemn the organized racism which caused the event nor the blatant act of terrorism perpetrated by the white supremacist driver of that car. If the Alt-Right folks, including the driver of that car, had been Muslims, all hell would have broken loose. But no, what we get from our President is how responsibility for the events fell on all sides. No, Mr. President. The violence was perpetrated by one side, which seem to comprise some of your voting base. It was a white supremacist who killed a protester and injured others. And you, Mr. President, are the one who gave him the “courage” to do so.
So, what now? I don’t know. Let’s love on each other. Let’s make friends with people across whatever lines divide us. More than anything, let’s repent of our roles in facilitating and perpetuating institutional racism in America. Let’s ask God to show us the dark crevices of our hearts where racism lives. Let’s humble ourselves and learn how love self-sacrificially. And, let’s see the truth for what it is. America is far from great… but it can be great. The story is not finished yet. We can, by the grace of God, actually make America great… for all Americans.