Charlottesvile: When Have White Lives Not Mattered In Amerika

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    white supremacists at Charlottesville riot

    When have white lives not mattered in America because they were white? And who exactly is “replacing” white Americans who dominate our culture?

    James Baldwin once said that to be black in America is to live in a constant state of rage.

    Rage, not just about modern expressions of inequality, but about its roots and persistence. Rage about the slow pace of progress and the many obstacles that get put in the way of that progress, over and over. Rage about 200 years of slavery, another hundred of Jim Crow, and 50 years since of fits and starts untangling the nation’s legacy of white supremacy, and the infuriating insistence that, suddenly, we ought to simply stop talking about that legacy in order to move past it.

    Baldwin’s quote was manifest of all that — a sweeping statement of collective understanding and intention.

    But think of how infrequently we see that rage expressed, in explicit terms, against the perpetrators of inequality.

    Can you imagine, for instance, a group of six or seven hundred black men gathering to march and chant about their anger? Can you imagine them grabbing torches, going to a public square and stomping around, loudly intoning about black power and nationalism, about how America’s institutions are still freighted with the stench of historical bigotry?

    What would the response look like from local police? A shrug, or a nod to the idea that this is acceptable political speech.

    And if it turned violent, would the president of the United States feebly mouth something about evil on “many sides”?

    There are many lessons to draw from what happened in Charlottesville over the past weekend — not least of which is the emboldened face of racist expression — but the one that stands out is imbalance.

    We live in a nation where aggrieved African Americans are told, pretty routinely, to watch themselves and not get out of line. Lawful acts often lead to violent responses or death, as we have seen so often with the unjustified police shootings captured on video.

    But a group of torch-bearing white men can assemble and march and chant racist slogans, and it’s seen as a “protest,” not a riot.

    And there’s the imbalance of mooring here, too. Black rage, as Baldwin said, has its roots in history and the present.

    But what, precisely, is the source of the raucous white rage we saw on display in Charlottesville?

    The marchers wore shirts that said “White Lives Matter,” and said over and over, “You will not replace us.”

    But when have white lives not mattered in America because they were white? And who exactly is “replacing” white Americans at the height of hegemony in our culture?

    The march was ostensibly about the statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee that stands in a public square and may be removed.

    But removing the statue of a white supremacist (and, by the way, insurrectionist) from public grounds is not an assault on “whiteness” the way America has been, since its inception, an assault on black equality and dignity.

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    America’s original, sinful path of racial subjugation and oppression can’t be compared to white fear of the push for equality.

    They simply aren’t the same thing.

    And yet, there is a false equivalency afoot in the very logic that inspired the bigoted rally in Charlottesville, and it is not isolated to this garish and haughty display of hatred.

    We are increasingly caught in a strange argument about who’s more responsible for American racism, as though African Americans have ever had power, as a group, to pursue the kind of bigotry that has marked American policy since the original Constitution.

    Let’s go back, just for a second, to the most recent presidency.

    Barack Obama only spoke sporadically about race during his eight years in office. When he said he could relate to the fear that black families felt after Trayvon Martin, the black teenager killed by a vigilante in Florida, lost his life, white critics decried his “racializing” of the moment.

    It was as if the weight of history’s delisting of the importance of black life connected in no way to what happened, and Obama was somehow wrong for drawing a parallel.

    Why? Obama’s carefully chosen words were mere acknowledgment of truth: that if he had a son, he might face the same peril that Martin did.

     

    And yet, the current president — elected by a minority of voters — courted bigoted votes during the campaign, has filled the White House with white nationalist thinkers like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, and continues to flippantly talk about racial oppression as though it’s cute, or funny.

    The Justice Department has dissolved efforts to work with police departments to stop unconstitutional dragnetting of black men, or excessive use of force. And his White House has threatened to walk back provisions that provide the kind of opportunity that counters the nation’s history of inequality.

    His actions are overtly tailored to reinforce the idea that racial imbalance is defensible, and needs girding. His presence in the White House, from which he cannot only enact policy but also help shape the national conscience, represents an emboldening of white rage. That’s what we saw in Charlottesville.

    A president who embraced equality, and spoke out tepidly to appease those who believed any show of black consciousness on his part was itself racist, was followed by a president who has welcomed bigotry into the White House and courted support from its corners.

    The nation has slipped into a far darker era, and Charlottesville is likely just the beginning.

    Stephen Henderson is Editorial Page Editor of the Detroit Free Press, where this column first appeared. Follow him on Twitter: @SHendersonFreep.

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