After violent white supremacists rioted over plans to remove a monument of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend, killing one woman and injuring dozens more, a group of demonstrators of all races gathered in Durham, North Carolina, and pulled down a statue of a Confederate soldier that had stood in front of the old courthouse for nearly a century.
Baltimore took down its statues in secret early Wednesday morning, and Mayor Jim Gray of Lexington, Kentucky, has announced his intention to remove that city’s monuments.
Adding to the fallout was President Trump’s complete failure—three times—to strike the tone of a decent person in his responses: at first blunting any criticism by saying hatred came from “many sides,” then responding to the fallout from those remarks 48 hours later with a scripted and unconvincing pro forma condemnation of racism, and then undermining that message the next day with an improvised “All Lives Matter”-style rant, blasting a fictitious “alt-left” for violence and defending neo-Nazis for having a permit to march.
In one sense, today’s white supremacists are simply the continuation of a long line of “deplorables” running from the old Confederacy to the KKK and their neo-Nazi allies, through the segregationist Dixiecrat politicians who later took up dog whistling as part of the post-1960 Republican Party, and on to the insurgent Tea Party that took over the 21st-century Republican Party and its new standard-bearer, Donald Trump. They all spawned in the same pool of xenophobia, and despite the slow years of progress in ending segregation and enacting civil rights laws, that animus still seeps into our national bloodstream like a persistent infection.
The statues are important, not just because of the “lost cause” myth of the South that they symbolize, but primarily because until very recently, they have been invisible to most white people. And this is the very definition of white privilege—that most days, white people can go on about their lives and never even think about race.
They have walked through downtown Charlottesville, Durham, Charleston, and New Orleans and not noticed the statues of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, and other “heroes” that keep vigil over the public places of Dixie, as if they were just waiting for the moment to come back to life again.
They are not invisible to African Americans.
The invisible privilege white people experience as a result of centuries of that hatred is born and bred.
I grew up in an era when white racial awareness was a non-issue, even as the civil rights movement filled the nightly TV news. All in the Family aired, simultaneously telling stories of inclusion and racial awakening in 1970s Queens, New York, while holding up Archie Bunker as a dumb and bigoted anti-hero that conservative white America nevertheless came to identify with. You could watch the show and sympathize with Archie, or his cranky but cleverer black neighbor, George Jefferson, but not both.
The suburb that I grew up in outside Washington, D.C., was almost uniformly white, and I spent many summer weekends at my father’s cabin in rural Virginia, where the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy were lawn ornaments as ubiquitous as birdbaths. The conversation over grilled burgers and Schlitz was blasé in its casual racism—no one talked about “race,” they only talked about those “other people.” My father had an “Archie Bunker for President” T-shirt from the parody campaign of 1972. Football drew more passionate arguments than race or politics, because everyone was white and the “other side” wasn’t represented.
Many white Americans grew up with similar lack of awareness. Nelson Mandela wrote that hatred must be learned. But the invisible privilege white people experience as a result of centuries of that hatred is born and bred, and to unlearn it, it must first be seen.
We’re at the point in our national culture where that is happening.
The internet age has allowed widespread exposure of police killings of unarmed black men.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu delivered a powerful speech in May 2017 as the city took down its last monuments to white supremacy, asking why “there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame … all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans. So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.”
My own racial awareness—of my race—started in college in Greensboro, North Carolina. The UNC campus there already was fairly well-integrated. There were contradictions, for sure. My dorm was integrated. Fraternities were mostly not. My friend’s hip hop radio show, the first ever on the campus station, was arguably more popular than my classic rock show. My roommate’s stepfather was among five people killed in 1979 by KKK and American Nazi Party members during a march in support of mostly black textile workers. (All suspects were later acquitted of all charges by all-white juries.) The counter at Woolworth’s where four black students sat down for lunch one day in 1960 and ignited the fires of the modern civil rights movement was just downtown, but one of the state’s U.S. senators, Jesse Helms, was an unapologetic Confederate monument in his own right.
The internet age has allowed widespread exposure of police killings of unarmed black men, and the Black Lives Matter movement has risen in response. We are now in a time when people across the political spectrum unite to condemn obvious symbols of racism. It’s a time when white people can no longer hide behind “southern pride” or “honoring history” when they shrug at symbols of the Confederacy. White people can’t allow that privilege to go unchallenged any longer.