No Place for this Hate

My hometown (sort of) was gripped by organized political violence yesterday as torch-wielding white supremacists gathered near the University of Virginia.  The “Unite the Right” rally of this past Saturday (and Friday night) brought hundreds of neo-nazis, Klan members, white nationalists, and prominent leaders like Richard Spencer and David Duke all to downtown Charlottesville.  What started as mass political violence on Friday night devolved eventually into an act of terrorism when a man drove a car through a crowd of counter-protesters killing one and injuring nineteen others.

In the wake of the violence, one of the phrases I heard most often – from friends on social media, Senators, community and activist leaders, and Governors – was that there was “no place” for white nationalists in Virginia.  No place for this racism in Charlottesville.  No place for this hate in America.  Phrases like that ring comforting in the wake of an episode of terrorism and coordinated mass political violence, but in this case, they simply aren’t true.

In the chaos, it is easy to forget that Charlottesville was not chosen for this violence by accident.  The largest gathering of white supremacist groups in decades gathered in a small, culturally liberal city in the wine country of the Appalachian foothills to defend a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from removal by the city council.  This goal is not extreme.  Whether or not monuments like the one in Charlottesville’s Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park) should be preserved, renamed, or removed are a completely normal fault line in our cultural politics.  But this says less about the Klan or the neo-nazis gathered in Charlottesville and more about the kind of cultural politics we consider normal.

The Civil War was fought by a secessionist South to preserve the institution of slavery and defend a social order in which the superiority of white men was forever enshrined in law and enforceable by violence.  This is spelled out explicitly not only in the public rhetoric of secessionist politicians and the editorial pages of prominent southern newspapers, but in the very “Declarations of Causes” that several Confederate states issued issued to explain their position.  It is not up for debate.  But in elementary school, when asked why the Confederate states seceded, the correct answer was “states’ rights.”  “Slavery” was listed as a choice and would be marked ‘incorrect’ if chosen.

Robert E. Lee was a slave owner who personally supervised the lashing of runaways and “released” his slaves on December 29, 1862; three months after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, three days before it went into effect, well after those slaves had escaped his plantation and crossed the Potomac, and after his property had been occupied by Union troops.  He sanctioned the return of blacks caught in the wake of his advancing armies to slavery (regardless of whether or not they had been slaves in the first place), turned a blind eye to the brutalization and massacre of black Union soldiers by his officers and their troops, and his views on the proper place of black and white Americans are memorialized in his personal papers.  

But we bend over backward to make him the quintessential Southern hero.  Flat out lies about his motives, his actions, and the nature of his slave-holding spill from the mouths of apologists every time his vaunted place in our history is questioned.  We rationalize his ownership of human beings by explaining his conflicted position on the practice (probably nonsense; definitely irrelevant).  We excuse his use of slave labor as his only option for keeping his father-in-law’s farm out of debt, as though no other slave owner’s racism had been a complicated mix of bigotry and profit-motive.  We erect statues to generals and politicians who commanded armies in defense of the institution of slavery and defend those statues as markers of our history but we distort our history beyond the point of recognition, ignore the despicable actions of those enshrined, and dismiss their painful significance for others in our communities in order to do so.

It’s no coincidence that Generals like  Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart and politicians like Jefferson Davis are enshrined in communities to which they bear only the most tangential connection.  It’s no coincidence that parks and schools and highways were renamed, statues were erected, and monuments were put in place, not immediately after the Civil War, but decades later following the collapse of Reconstruction, the reestablishment of the Dixiecrats’ political monopoly, and in the early years of Jim Crow (Lee Park was renamed and the statue put up in 1924; the statue of Lee in New Orleans erected in 1884; the statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue in approximately 1890).  Statues and parks and schools were established or renamed in honor of these men for the sole purpose of making the political order known to any who might be inclined to forget it.

I would love to think that there is no place in America for this kind of hate, but unfortunately I don’t believe that to be the case.  This was a moment when white nationalists and neo-nazis exposed a ‘normal’ propensity in our cultural politics to defend symbols of our reverence for segregation, slavery, white supremacy, brutality, and secession.  Say what you will, but the “Unite the Right” extremists defended the statue in Emancipation Park for what it actually is: an eighty-year-old monument to black subjugation and white supremacy.  When that monument comes down, they will move on to another.  There are hundreds if not thousands strewn across the South to choose from.  When they do – before I say that there is “no place for this hate” – I will listen for the thousands of apologists and sympathizers who come out of the woodwork to ‘condemn the violence’ and spout platitudes about heritage, distortions of history, misconceptions, and outright lies, in order to rationalize the political positions of Klan members and neo-nazis.  I hope I’m wrong, but something tells me that this sort of hate is here because it feels safe and oddly at home.