Trump’s election made right-wing violence inevitable

Anti-racists should focus less on symbols and more on present-day manifestations

The governor of Virginia has declared a state of emergency in Charlottesville and local police have declared an unlawful assembly alert amid clashes ahead of a planned white nationalist rally on Saturday, August 12. Video: Reuters


“The past is never dead. In fact, it’s not even past.” So wrote the great Southern author William Faulkner. I was reminded of his quote as I watched the horrific racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, perpetrated by white supremacists and neo-Nazis of the “alt-right” espousing ideas that some mistakenly thought had been consigned to the dustbin of history.

This violence particularly upset me because I studied history as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, where white supremacists just marched with torches. I called Charlottesville home for five years and once walked the street where a neo-Nazi terrorist from Ohio mowed down 10 pedestrians, killing one.

The alt-right descended upon Charlottesville over the weekend to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate Civil War General who fought for the rights of slave-owners. In retrospect, it is hardly surprising that the removal of the Lee statue provoked those who want the US to be what it was for most of its history: a place where whites openly dominate.

The symbols of America’s history have become controversial in recent years as communities have sought to distance themselves from their racist pasts. South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse in 2015 after white supremacist Dylan Roof murdered nine people at an African-American church. That same year, someone spray-painted “Black Lives Matter” on the Lee statue in Charlottesville. In addition to highlighting the unjust police killings of African Americans, the Black Lives Matter movement called attention to the symbols of racial supremacy. Earlier this year, the Charlottesville City Council decided to remove the statue.

There is little doubt that the Lee statue was intended as a monument to white supremacy. It was erected in 1924, nearly 60 years after the Civil War ended with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, just over 60 miles south of Charlottesville. In the 1920s, African Americans in Virginia and across the US suffered discrimination, segregation, disenfranchisement, and the terror of lynching. Jim Crow was the context in which this Confederate general was celebrated.

Primary goal

Historical symbols clearly matter, but I wonder whether their removal should be anti-racists’ primary goal. For one thing, when do you stop? I don’t remember noticing the Lee statue when I lived in Charlottesville. But memorials to Thomas Jefferson can hardly be missed. The author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States founded the University of Virginia and lived in nearby Monticello. Jefferson was also a slave-owner who tried to prove scientifically the inferiority of people of African descent and who fathered children with his slave, Sally Hemmings. Racism is so deeply ingrained in America’s past that it is impossible to excise it from its landscape.

As a historian, I am uncomfortable with the removal of historical symbols. Better to add a plaque to the Lee statue stating that the city no longer endorses the racist values of Lee, the Confederacy, or those who erected the statue to his memory during Jim Crow. Removing symbols like the Lee statue can falsely suggest that racism is really past. Leaving them standing while disavowing the values of their erectors would help ensure the past cannot be forgotten.

Anti-racists should focus less on racism’s historical symbols and more on its present-day manifestations in American social and political life. My most disturbing memory from the year I taught in a Charlottesville secondary school is of a young African-American teenager who frequently cursed at me. Eventually, a fellow teacher told me that the girl was upset because her father had recently hanged himself in prison. Racism and inequality structure daily life in Charlottesville and in America as a whole. Correcting them will take a great deal more than removing a statue or simply standing up to white supremacists.

Pressing issue

Nevertheless, the most pressing issue today is the empowerment of the alt-right by Donald Trump and the Republican Party that supports him. It is hardly surprising that Trump declined to immediately condemn white supremacists specifically for the terror in Charlottesville, condemning instead “violence on all sides”. Trump has emboldened the alt-right by openly courting their support through his racist rhetoric and policies and by appointing one of their heroes, Steve Bannon, as his chief political adviser.

The violence in Charlottesville was shocking and disturbing, but it should not have surprised anyone who has been paying attention. After Trump’s election, a demonstration of violence by white supremacists was almost inevitable. If it hadn’t occurred in Charlottesville, it would have somewhere else. And it will probably happen again before too long.

Racism in America today is very much alive. While understanding its history is vital, removing symbols of racism’s not-even-past hardly begins to address the present danger of the alt-right and its enablers.

Daniel Geary is Mark Pigott Associate Professor in American History at TCD

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