I remember the first time I saw the strange, ominous Confederate flag waving from my neighbor’s door. I had moved to Matoaca, Virginia, from Illinois. I was seven years old.
From my bedroom window or front yard, I could look up to see the flag waving proudly from its post beside the door of the neighbors’ house across the street.
I don’t remember the exact words my parents said when I asked them what the flag meant. All I remember is learning that this flag celebrated the South’s unsuccessful fight to preserve the right to own human beings. From that point on, that sinister symbol became permanently stitched into the fabric of my life.
I grew up seeing the stars and bars flown outside of other neighbors’ homes. I learned to drive on Jefferson Davis Highway, behind pickups with the flag sprawled across their rear windows and sedans with faded, more modest Confederate bumper stickers. An ultra-polite high school classmate carried around Harry Turtledove’s alternate history book of the Civil War in which the South wins. He venerated Robert E. Lee as a gentleman and a patriot and proclaimed Lincoln “not my president.” I shopped or watched soccer games alongside men and boys wearing the flag on their sweatshirt or T-shirt, emblazoned with the words “heritage, not hate.”
I did not realize how habituated I had become to this symbol until one day I drove my youngest sister to visit her shy, white fellow band-geek boyfriend and came face-to-face with the flag sprawled across his parents’ garage. Watching her walk inside, I understood that I was being asked to trust the members of this household to treat my sister with kindness and respect even as they signaled their admiration for the nation that would have kept our ancestors enslaved. I couldn’t do it. The shock of seeing the flag in this context made me realize that even though I knew it represented something I despised, it had become background noise.
These are the symbols and emblems of hate that saturated the landscape of my youth. So when white supremacists showed up in my current hometown of Charlottesville last year, I didn’t understand why the term “Nazi” was being used to label all these groups. I still don’t. Not only does it ring false, but it is not useful.
“Nazi” feels like a foreign import, something that was defeated long ago. But the white supremacy that descended on Charlottesville — and that has a sequel rally planned for this weekend, in Washington, DC — is not some distant threat. It’s a homegrown ideology, and it’s one that we are far from defeating.
Why the term “Nazi” helps distance us from our reality
“Nazis” are easily legible as a long-since-conquered enemy of human decency. Neo-Nazis are easily dismissed as clinging to an antiquated ideology of white racial superiority in an age when the idea of a “master race” has long been banished in polite society.
To utter the term “Nazi” is to invoke universally condemned images of death camps, terror. To say “Nazi” is to imply backwardness — that this ideology is a throwback to a more ignorant and intolerant age in human history. To say “Nazi” is to disavow the Americanness of anyone who dons a swastika or gives a Nazi salute, to reflexively cast them as counter to the values of tolerance and diversity that our nation holds dear.
To say “Nazi” in reference to the mobs who wrought havoc on Charlottesville last year, arguably, is expedient. After all, reasonable Americans have reached a consensus that the genocidal violence of Nazi Germany was some of the worst the world has ever seen and that the ideas and actions of today’s neo-Nazis are abhorrent. Why split hairs in a search for more precise terminology? Why not refuse to adopt the terminology of “alt-right” and “white nationalist” and instead use a label that we can all understand and that ultra-effectively resists euphemism?
Some people at Saturday’s rally identified as actual members of the American Nazi Party and carried flags with swastikas. But the label doesn’t encapsulate the people who showed up representing America's homegrown ideology of white supremacy.
For me, as a scholar and a resident of Charlottesville, the Nazi label erases the ordinariness of this impulse to display and defend the symbols of a fallen iteration of white patriarchy. The people I grew up with — the families that fly the Confederate flag on their property, the teenage boys who wear the flag stitched onto their khaki baseball caps — are not Nazis. They are ordinary white people who deny that their veneration of a mythologized South amounts to white nationalism. The spectacular displays of violence characterizing Charlottesville’s conflicts over Confederate monuments, when viewed in local and historical context, point to white racial pride that has its source right here in Virginia, not Nazi Germany.
It’s easy to argue that appreciation for Confederate history does not amount to personal racial hatred. But Confederate flags and monuments do the symbolic work of invoking historic violence — on the part of governments and individuals — against African Americans. Beyond representing the Confederate States of America, the historic project designed to keep African Americans enslaved, Confederate flags and monuments signal the many forms of racial terrorism that white Southerners inflicted upon black Southerners in order to shore up racial supremacy in the wake of emancipation. Fresh after the end of the Civil War, for instance, it was a group of Confederate veterans who created the Ku Klux Klan. The white racial pride encoded in these symbols is built on the oppression of African Americans.
Charlottesville is filled with symbols of white supremacy
Charlottesville is a city filled with tributes to white supremacist patriarchy. In terms of statuary, in addition to the statues of Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, there are monuments commemorating eras of American history before and beyond the Civil War. Some of them have long been a topic of conversation among people concerned about the city’s representations of history in public space.
Traveling down Main Street toward UVA, you walk past a statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, with Native American guide Sacagawea crouching below the two white men. Further down the street is a statue of Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark, called “Conqueror of the Northwest.” The statue depicts Clark as a grand hero while Native Americans beg for mercy at his feet. Both statues venerate local men whose exploits furthered extended white supremacy by seizing the North American landmass and subjugating all of the peoples contained therein.
No discussion of monuments to white supremacist patriarchy would be complete without including Thomas Jefferson, the founder of UVA and a thinker who laid some of the ideological foundations of America. Statues and paintings of Jefferson abound in the city and on campus, presenting an often uncritical picture of the Founding Father. Yes, Jefferson famously objected to slavery — but less famously, he articulated the many reasons African Americans could not be incorporated into broader society on a basis equal to whites. He argued both of these positions even as he fathered children by Sally Hemings, an enslaved girl he owned.
This fact, while accepted by professional historians and the many African Americans who trace their ancestry to Jefferson, is denied by many white Virginians who resist any slight to the character of this local hero.
The public discourse surrounding the Charlottesville rally obscured the controversy surrounding the statue of Robert E. Lee, which still sits proudly in the recently renamed Emancipation Park. Anti-racist activists have spent the past year trying to take down this one statue in a city where bronzed figures of white patriarchs loom prominently in public spaces. It’s a statue that represents a failed attempt to preserve the institution of slavery — an institution that most Americans can agree was contrary to the values we hold dear today.
But efforts to take down the statues have been met with violent resistance by groups that insist that the uncritical celebration of white heritage, even in the treasonous form of the rebellious Civil War, is preferable to creating public spaces that acknowledge and attempt to repair racial injustice. And it’s at this site that white supremacists from across the country chose to gather to spread their message of hate.
I can understand how people unfamiliar with the ubiquity of Confederate symbols in the South might find the analogy to Nazism compelling. However, for many of us who observe the conflict from south of the Mason-Dixon Line and with the benefit of historical context, the term “Nazi” cannot sum up the groups that appeared in Charlottesville. We recognize it as something much closer to home.
When we’re talking about people who are galvanized in large part by defending Confederate symbols, the term “neighbor” is far more accurate.
Lindsey E. Jones is a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia. She studies histories of black girlhood and African American education, with special focus on her home state of Virginia. Find her on Twitter @noumenal_woman.