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What it’s like to be a Black student as white supremacists march in your college town

“Why aren’t more people alarmed that the KKK is in Charlottesville?” “They never left.”

Ty Wright/Getty Images

I was celebrating my brother’s college graduation on Saturday night when I saw the news on my phone: Torch-wielding white supremacists were gathered at Robert E. Lee Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. They were protesting the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general. Yet the images I saw made it clear that their goal was not simply to protest, but to intimidate. The scene was eerily reminiscent of a lynch mob.

As a Black student at the University of Virginia, I was angry. Neo-Confederates were demonstrating less than two miles from campus. The knowledge that the mob was led by Richard Spencer, a UVA alumnus, made it even worse. My ancestors were terrorized, beaten, and murdered by mobs that looked just like that one.

I am still livid that such a brazen callback to some of our nation’s worst atrocities occurred right in my own town. At the time, I mostly felt helpless.

But I wasn’t surprised or shocked. In my three years in Charlottesville, I have seen countless examples, big and small, affirming that white supremacy and the legacy of slavery are alive and well. A GroupMe conversation I had with some fellow students — mostly Black — sums it up.

“Why aren’t more people alarmed that the KKK is in Charlottesville?” one student asked.

“They never left,” another student responded.

I’m worried that people will think of this as an isolated incident. It’s not.

Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer said he “hopes racism cannot gain a foothold” in this city. Many Virginia politicians have jumped in to proclaim the torch mob does not represent our values — even the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans issued a statement condemning the demonstration. It has been encouraging to see the many swift condemnations of Richard Spencer and his followers.

But I’m also worried that people will think of this as an isolated incident. I’m concerned that most will blame this on the outside influence of Richard Spencer. I don’t want people to ignore the truth, which is that white supremacy is a real force to be reckoned with, and has deep roots within both Charlottesville and UVA. The Spencer-led torch act of intimidation represents a resurgence for racism and an escalation of recent trends. In order to combat this, we must fully acknowledge both our troubled past and existing structures of racism.

The specter of racism looms over all of Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, just as it does for the whole of America. It was the cornerstone of our school. Brick by brick, our school was built by people who worked out of fear of either the lash or sale. And for more than 40 years after its founding, UVA owned its own slaves. UVA’s founder ,Thomas Jefferson, was a brilliant man whose founding contributions toward American democracy cannot be denied. Yet he was also someone who owned hundreds of people and impregnated Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves, when she was only 14 years old. It is possible to fully comprehend Jefferson in both of these roles, but only if they are carefully examined and given proper complexity.

However, at UVA Jefferson is still often venerated without question or depth. The phrase “Mr. Jefferson’s University” is thrown around by students and faculty much of the time. It’s as if his ghost is ready to be consulted at any minute. Students and faculty jokingly ask, “What would Jefferson do?” At any major university event, the standard procedure is to quote Jefferson and hark back to our “founding ideals” without qualification.

What’s rarely discussed publicly is that Jefferson’s worldview would find much in common with Richard Spencer’s. And if we were to consult Jefferson today on the topic of the alt-right, his answer would be unsettling. Jefferson wrote that Blacks are “inferior to whites in the endowments of body and mind.” He wrote that Black people were driven by uncontrollable impulse and their “existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.”

This was not simply casual racism in written form. Jefferson’s writings formed the basis for later forms of race-based science and eugenics. In fact, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the University of Virginia was one of the leading schools studying eugenics. Until last fall, the building that houses UVA’s School of Medicine was named after noted eugenicist Dr. Harvey Jordan. Spencer may not have formed his vile ideology directly from his time at UVA, but it is one with long roots at this university.

UVA’s founding vision was exclusionary by design, and so what it is like to be a student of color at the University of Virginia is perhaps best summed up by sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois’s phenomenon of “double consciousness.” In 1903, Du Bois wrote that African Americans had the “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

Harassment intended to intimidate minority communities has increased since Donald Trump started his campaign

Two years ago, my friend Martese Johnson — a Black junior at UVA — was violently arrested and assaulted by three white Alcoholic Beverage Control officers near campus. These types of incidents occur more frequently than one would think, but most of the time they do not escalate to the level of physical violence that Martese experienced.

It was only a few days before the Richard Spencer–led rallies when another friend of mine — also Black, also a student at the university — had another tense encounter with law enforcement when the police broke up a party on “the Lawn,” UVA’s most prestigious housing arrangements, and he was told that he was being “resistant to leave” within his own home.

These sorts of encounters encompass a form of white supremacy, but most Black students have learned to live under the reality of extra surveillance.

The problem doesn’t stop with law enforcement. The number of targeted incidents of harassment intended to intimidate minority communities has increased since the campaign and election of Donald Trump. Last fall, students wrote the n-word all over a floor of a residence hall. A friend of mine was harassed while walking down the street when three white men in a black vehicle pulled up next to her and began yelling the n-word and making death threats. The vehicle then followed her until she could find a safe place. There were in fact, 21 instances of bias-related harassment recorded on campus in November alone.

One month ago, these fliers were placed across the campus and around Charlottesville, including the Multicultural Student Center and our LGBTQ Center.

This racist propaganda is a clear attempt to send the message that minority students do not belong here. The flier’s call to arms for white men to “stand their ground” is not an empty one. In practice, the so-called “stand your ground” laws in Florida have led to the deaths of countless Black and brown bodies.

Things are getting better at UVA and in Charlottesville — but there’s a lot more work to do

To their credit, the University of Virginia and Charlottesville have made more progress than most toward racial justice. Although Charlottesville still struggles with lingering housing segregation and income inequality, the move to get rid of the statue in Lee Park is a step in the right direction. And I was encouraged by the size and diversity of the counterprotest held the night following Spencer’s demonstration.

The University of Virginia has one of the best African-American studies departments in the world. Many of the demands put out by the Black Student Alliance in the wake of Martese Johnson’s brutalization have been met. UVA has one of the best retention and graduation rates for African-American students in the country. However, our modest but growing enrollment rate could stand to better reflect state demographics as a public university.

I love Charlottesville. I love the University of Virginia. It is out of that love that I criticize them. To me, the lesson from all of this is that is not that UVA and Charlottesville are extraordinarily racist places, but rather that racism is pervasive and integral to most of the institutions around us. We should acknowledge that the people who demonstrated in Lee Park did not come out of nowhere, and their hate did not spring up in a vacuum. When I learned that Spencer was a UVA alumnus, I realized that people like him are often hidden among us in plain sight as our co-workers or classmates.

There is no clear answer to all of this, but I do know that we cannot pretend this racism is new or that it has no roots here. As Charlottesville prepares to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee, the city should also consider initiatives or monuments that cause people to intentionally and critically engage with the past. UVA is currently working on a memorial for its enslaved laborers, but it should prepare more active measures for students and faculty to engage with that history.

It is easy to condemn the Richard Spencers of the world, the most overt and obvious racists. What is harder, however, is to tackle underlying systems of inequality and racism. The University of Virginia and the city of Charlottesville could solely respond with more rhetoric about doubling down on diversity and inclusive values. What will count more is pairing that rhetoric with tangible efforts to improve the lives of people of color within those communities. That will always count more.

Wes Gobar is a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia. He is in the history Distinguished Major Program and double-majoring in government. He is the president of the Black Student Alliance at UVA, and will be interning with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation this summer.

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