Events this weekend in Charlottesville, Va., may have become a historic tipping point for a nation struggling with racism, moral bankruptcy, and a vacuum in leadership. The question many people in the US are facing this week is whether they want to side with white supremacists and Nazis, or whether they want to take a stand against them — and this weekend showed that taking a stand can be costly, even if it is the right thing to do.
This morning, the family of Heather Heyer laid her to rest, and in her mother Susan Bro’s eulogy, she came out with strong words, saying: “They tried to kill my child to shut her up. Well, guess what: You just magnified her.” Last night, public speaking of a very different nature was happening at Trump Tower in New York, where protesters in the streets voiced their displeasure at the return of Donald Trump, who held a press conference that quickly turned to the events in Charlottesville despite his best efforts at focusing on US manufacturing.
After watching the president vacillate wildly in public statements about the event even when members of his own party came out with clear, simple statements condemning white supremacy and violence, Trump apparently felt ready to express how he really felt, bragging about an alleged contact from Bro and his winery in Virginia. Between those comments, though, he praised Steve Bannon, saying he’s “not a racist,” attacking Senator John McCain, and making a series of derisive comments about the “alt-left” — a term coined by white supremacists to describe people who resist their presence.
He resurrected “both sides” claims, suggesting that a force of armed white supremacists waving Nazi regalia was somehow evenly matched by clergy holding hands and progressive counter demonstrators informing them that they weren’t welcome in Charlottesville. Some of those white supremacists, he said, were just there “because they wanted to protest taking down of a statue.”
He failed to mention that Robert E. Lee has become a rallying cry for those obsessed with the lost cause of the Confederacy. He also didn’t discuss the fact that Lee was a noted racist who explicitly left the Union military in order to promote the cause of overturning equality, that the screeches of “blood and soil” from white nationalists reflect a deeply rooted racist ideology that presupposes the superiority of whites and establishes the myth of a better world empty of people of colour. He didn’t mention that many Confederate monuments across the US date to the 1950s and 1960s, an era when communities wanted to intimidate Black civil rights activists fighting for equality and winning desegregation gains, that some are even later, dating to the early 2000s or even 2010s. This is not about preserving history, but about imposing a racist line of thought and suppressing diversity and inclusion in US society.
These statues, which have become such a flash point, belong in museums, and that’s where those that are being removed are going — this is not a question of destroying history or trying to wipe away the past. To the contrary, it is an effort to preserve that past and to view these statutes as historical objects that contextualise not just US history, but contemporary thought. In a nation where whites still dominate society, the long arm of racist social and political policy is never far away, and to ignore that would be a disservice.
But Trump’s disturbing comments are about much more than denying the truth of the the US’s past, and its future. They explicitly condoned white supremacism and neonazis, making it clear that these ideologies have a place in public life and will be honoured by the president and others in positions of power. The rise of the Trump Administration emboldened the growing backlash of white violence that chafed at the bit during the Obama era. Trump’s tacit nod of approval ensures that this problem will only be exacerbated in days to come, that racists and misogynists at every level of government in the United States will feel comfortable and confident being much more bold and outspoken, pushing through policies that support their ideology. It means that more white supremacists will be demanding, and getting, permits for marches and rallies that should chill the hearts of any citizen, but especially those who remember the legacy of Nazism.
This is not, of course, the first time that Nazis have rallied in the US. In the 1930s, they enjoyed lively support, including massive turnout for events in locations like New York City, and a historian who’s chronicled this ugly part of America’s past that often gets swept under the rug noted that their modern-day counterparts are more violent, and terrifying, than their predecessors. In the face of this observation, Trump’s comments suggesting that counterprotesters are more dangerous, and saying that the press is treating white nationalists “unfairly,” should be cause for grave concern.
Trump’s attacks on the press and support for racists are nothing new, but they are growing more and more institutionalised. People in the US are being confronted with a radical social shift that may have serious consequences, and while some Americans — including many communities of colour, women, the disability community, and Jewish people — have long been aware of the existence of a problem that never truly went away, even if it mutated and changed form, others are newly awakened to the reality. Will they rise to the call? Will they resist the rise of racism and white supremacy? Or will they remain complacent, ignoring the tarnish on what they think of as “American values”?
This is a moment that will live in history books, whether they chronicle the time the nation was tested and fought back, or the nation’s decline into fascism and chaos. It is imperative that everyone in the US decide what they want the future of the nation to look like, for now, the question of political allegiances has come down to something very simple: Are you for or against Nazis?
Photo: Fibonacci Blue/Creative Commons