Charlottesville, and the Spirit of America

american flag flying on cloudy day

Content note: racism and racist history, including violence.

Reactions to the white supremacist terrorist attack in Charlottesville: “This isn’t America!” “This isn’t the real America!” “This isn’t who we are!”

Fellow white people in the U.S.: Please stop saying this.

White supremacy, and the violence that supports it, has been baked into U.S. culture since Europeans invaded the country. The country was built by slaves who were forced to build it, whose labor was forced out of them by violence, who were owned by other people as property. It was built by Chinese railroad workers, who created the iconic U.S. railways under brutal and appalling working conditions, and who suffered discrimination and bigoted violence for their troubles. It was built on land stolen from the native people who were living here first, who were driven out by a systematic and gruesome campaign of genocide. Jim Crow; exploitation of Latinx migrant workers coupled with bigotry and brutality; the KKK, which was once considered a respectable organization; racist voter suppression; racist police violence during the civil rights movement; racist police violence today… I can’t possibly list every example of this. Read some history if you’re not familiar with it. Charlottesville was not a fluke or a freak: it was part and parcel of a significant strain in U.S. history and in our present.

Yes, something is different right now. White supremacists in the U.S. are more emboldened than they’ve been in a while — and they have the support of the White House, which scares the living crap out of me. But white supremacy isn’t new. Black and brown people have been dealing with it for centuries, and it never went away. It didn’t just pop up in the last year. It just became more visible to white people.

So please stop saying that what happened in Charlottesville was un-American.

I understand that when people say “This isn’t who we are,” it’s often an aspirational statement. It can mean, “This isn’t what we should be. This goes against our best ideals. We can be better than this.” People have an idea about the spirit of America, about the vision of liberty and equality and justice that’s written into our documents and taught in our schools. And they see the terrorist attack in Charlottesville as a violation of that spirit.

But the spirit of America is a complicated mess, and white supremacy is deeply woven into it. For millions, white supremacy IS the spirit of America. That’s their ideal. That’s what they want. Whether they state it openly in the form of white nationalism, or somewhat more subtly by calling for Muslim bans and Mexico walls and making America great again, the vision of the terrorists in Charlottesville is exactly what they want. Liberty and equality and justice are certainly part of this country’s spirit — but so is white supremacy and the violence enforcing it.

And the notion of American ideals being liberty and equality and justice? That’s gotten plenty of airtime. It’s in pop culture, history books, political speeches — it’s everywhere. Nobody needs to be reminded that Americans like to think of ourselves as valuing liberty and equality and justice. We do need reminding that millions of us don’t value these things. We do need reminding that the country was founded on white supremacy and other forms of violent oppression.

So stop. Derailing. When people are talking about white supremacy, stop derailing the conversation with wishful thinking fantasies about what you want America to be. If what you mean is “This isn’t what we should be,” say that. We can speak out for our ideals without participating in denial, trivialization, and historical revisionism. If we want to work towards our country’s best ideals, we need to be willing to recognize how often we fall short.

(Parts of this blog post were first written on my Facebook page.)

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Charlottesville, and the Spirit of America