What happened last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, is not new or unique to Donald Trump’s America.
What happened last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, is America.
Above is what a white supremacist rally looks like. It’s basically like what I imagine a KKK meeting is except no one felt pressured to wear the robe and hood. I think the real kicker is all those who raised their right hand in “Hail Hitler” fashion and carried around swastikas and other Nazi paraphernalia. In spite of the “alt-right” or “white nationalist” rebranding over the last 18 months, the reality of these individuals is much simpler and far more sinister.
These are neo-Nazis. These are racists. These are bigots. Describing them as anything else gives them cover.
The reason they marched on Charlottesville, VA, was to protest the removal of a General Robert E. Lee statue. Lee was a Southern General, probably the most well-known of the bunch. He fought for the losing side, the side opposite President Abraham Lincoln and the Union. In other words: Robert E. Lee was a traitor to the United States, and this is the hill the neo-Nazis want to die on.
I lived in Blacksburg, Virginia from August, 2008 through May of 2009. The college I went to is the chief rival of the University of Virginia, which is where Charlottesville is located and where this Robert E. Lee statue stands. I’ve never been to the UVa campus, nor that part of the state as a whole. But I do know Virginia, because I know America.
It’s funny. No matter where you are in Virginia — the airport, the mall, a random CVS store — you see one motto more than anything else. It could be on a postcard, a bumper sticker, a T-shirt… anything, really:
Virginia Is For Lovers
I always sort of enjoyed that. People don’t say lover or lovers enough, that’s what I think. For all the shit the state has gone through in the last decade, from the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 to this Nazi parade, Virginia usually stays out of the news. It’s quiet. It’s low-key. And it isn’t that different from most places in the country.
I remember my roommate’s girlfriend, she lived out in Jefferson Forest. One night, during one of those weeks where we all had a three-day weekend, or whatever, my roommate and I went out to her house to eat dinner with her parents. They were good people to me; they were all about southern hospitality (even though I’m not sure if Virginia is technically South); they asked me about myself and what it was like in California.
We were all at the dinner table, and the dad was this very southern guy. He was from Georgia, kind of short and stocky and was balding. He walked around with a goddam gun inside of a holster on his belt. It was normal to everyone else so it quickly became normal to me, too. I didn’t even think about homeboy with the gun.
But he was what you expect of people in the South. He was that cliché middle-aged white guy. He said if Barack Obama ever visited that city he would shoot him. That was something he said at the dinner table.
I probably laughed. I don’t know. All I know is he wouldn’t actually do that. It’s just the way guys like to talk most of the time. There are some guys who say things, and I know they mean it. Like, they don’t talk a big game unless they can prove it. And there are other guys who just talk and it doesn’t really mean anything. When they are 10 they say they are really good at baseball. When they are 16 they say they are really good at skateboarding. When they are adults they say just about anything.
But when it comes to threatening to beat someone up, or in this case threatening to assassinate someone, it’s always hot hair. They aren’t really about it.
Here’s the thing: that dad from Jefferson Forest, whose daughter dated my roommate, is not on an island. I have at least one uncle who would say the same type of thing and it wouldn’t be that big of a deal. This is not exclusive to people living in the South or the Extended South. There are people all over the country who casually say things like that.
Anyway, Charlottesville. When it is absolutely in your face, you see it. When three people die from an organized white supremacist rally, you notice. Donald Trump has been in office for eight months, but it’s not like racism began when he started campaigning. This is a sentiment that has existed in the underbelly of America since it dawned.
For better or worse I have a tendency of writing about millennials. Millennials arrived after the Cold War and during the technology boom, so we didn’t have the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation while also having all the world’s information at our fingertips. In most ways millennials get it; most of the time we are on the right side of history, particularly with respect to equality for all and climate change.
But we are only one generation.
In the South, there have been like ten generations of people since the Civil War ended. There are a shit ton of individuals who have grown up in families that sympathize with the Southern cause, who believe they just happened to be part of the losing side. So yeah, this has been bubbling.
I think the key word in this is emboldened. White supremacists and neo-Nazis didn’t spring up out of nowhere, but Donald Trump’s election has emboldened them to come out of the woodwork. It has gotten to the point where they can march out in the open with tiki torches and no hoods to cover themselves. Their president is cool with it, so they have no fear and no shame — which can oftentimes be a dangerous combination.
This is not a Charlottesville problem, nor is it a Virginia problem. This is an American problem.
When Michael Brown was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri, 159 people were arrested during the subsequent protests. In Charlottesville over the weekend, there were four arrests. And people tell me it’s a problem when black football players kneel during the National Anthem?
Can you even imagine if Ferguson protesters were armed to the teeth like the white supremacist militia that formed in Charlottesville? I shouldn’t have to explain how that story would have ended. It seems to me like there is one rule book for white people, and another for people of color.
And don’t get me wrong, I am as sick as anyone about having to talk about race in 2017. Most who feel that way do it for a different reason. They like to think the past is the past, and that the best thing for all parties is to just wash their hands and get over it.
That’s not me though. I’m tired of talking about it because it’s 2017. Because we are supposed to be past it, as a country, the same way we are supposed to be past gay people getting married and women having control of their own bodies. America is a big bubble for most people. They have no idea that the rest of the West moved on a long time ago.
The way I have moved on is by saying racist jokes to my black and Mexican and Asian friends, the same way they say racist jokes about white people. The way I have moved on is by saying gay jokes to my gay friends, the same way they give me shit for being with dumb trashy women, or whatever. It’s a circle, and we are all in the same boat.
I am a white guy, but I am not a white supremacist. I care about my black brothers and sisters, but I am not a social justice warrior. It is as simple as that. With any sort of exposure and experience with people of all kinds, the only reasonable way to turn out is the way I am. A majority of millennials — maybe as little as 60 percent or as much as 75 percent — feel the same way I do. That is the future of America.
But there are tons of Americans who believe good fences make good neighbors. They believe what their parents believe, and what their parents believed before them and so on. This is anti-progress, anti-intellectual, and basically goes against everything the idea of America stands for. These are generally the same people who are allergic to facts and base their belief system on feelings that can’t be substantiated.
We shall overcome, but if Charlottesville proved anything it’s that racism never went anywhere. It’s here.
And tragically, we have to own this.