After an image of Peter Cvjetanovic’s rage-filled face, illuminated by a tiki torch, was snapped at last Friday’s white nationalist march in Virginia and subsequently spread across the internet, Cvjetanovic talked to his local news station to defend himself and the cause he traveled to Charlottesville to support: the preservation of a public statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
“I came to this march for the message that white European culture has a right to be here just like every other culture,” the 20-year-old from Reno, Nevada, told Channel 2 News. “I do believe that the replacement of the statue will be the slow replacement of white heritage within the United States and the people who fought and defended and built their homeland.”
In July, a Ku Klux Klan member told the Washington Post’s Joe Helm much the same thing about the city’s plans to remove the Lee memorial. “The liberals are taking away our heritage,” said James Moore from North Carolina. “By taking these monuments away, that’s what they’re working on. They’re trying to erase the white culture right out of the history books.”
President Trump agrees. In a Tuesday press conference, he defended the Charlottesville protesters (there were “innocent” and “very fine people” marching alongside neo-Nazis and KKK, he insisted), demonized the anti-racist counterprotesters (who he argued shared equal blame for the violence), and used the same barely coded language KKK members use to defend their cause.
“You’re changing culture,” he said, addressing those who want to get rid of public Confederate monuments like the Lee statue. (He reiterated this point in a later tweet, writing, “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.”)
The response to the protests by many across the political spectrum has been to deny the basic legitimacy of this view. Sen. Mark Warner tweeted in reaction to the protests that “hate has no place in Va.” In a written statement, Warner’s fellow Virginian Sen. Tim Kaine promised that “this is not who we are.” This notion was emblazoned across counterprotesters’ signs. Former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and Republican pundit Ana Navarro shared the general sentiment, along with other public and private figures.
Denying the Americanness of the racists who descended on Charlottesville holds a compelling patriotic power. Being drawn to that message in this dark moment is understandable, as is the compulsion of decent people to distance themselves from the countrymen they don’t recognize and the hate they don’t hold in their own hearts. And it’s very true that this isn’t what America should be. It doesn’t hold up to the promise of our ideals.
But as wrong as white supremacists are about most everything, they’re right about this: White supremacy is our culture — not just theirs, but all of America’s. It lives in our hearts and minds and institutions, and in public parks and highways across the country. Hate has a home here, and it always has.
Trump has said many things that were false and offensive about the protests. But in asserting that revering the Confederacy — and the monuments to white supremacy erected in its honor — is an American cultural value, he’s acknowledging a fact about our country that many people horrified by what they saw in Charlottesville can’t seem to.
In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that “shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” To denounce this emboldened alt-right’s actions while continuing to deny the direct link between their movement and our country’s worst unresolved sins is the precise sort of shallow understanding King was lamenting.
This newly empowered white nationalist movement, and the president’s unabashed alignment with it, shows we’ve never fulfilled the promise of our ideals. And if so many persist in looking at events like the Charlottesville uprising as an aberration instead of a logical extension of our country’s pervasive and powerful tradition of white supremacy, we never will.
You don’t have to be in the KKK to love the Confederacy
A 2016 Southern Poverty Law Center study found that there are at least 1,500 public spaces in the US honoring Confederates and the Confederacy, primarily in the South. And as the momentum to get rid of these memorials picks up — in Charlottesville and New Orleans and other cities across the South — so does the pushback from powerful people who want to protect them.
In Alabama, for example, Gov. Kay Ivey recently signed a law forbidding local governments from removing Confederate monuments from public property or renaming public schools that have been around for longer than 40 years. And, of course, our highest-ranking elected official just aligned himself with a white nationalist mob in support of this cause.
When you consider how and when these Confederate monuments came to be, the arguments that they’re points of cultural pride become more and more illuminating. In its study, the SPLC noted that most of the Confederate memorials were erected in the first two decades of the 20th century and during the civil rights movement.
These periods coincide with the 50th and 100th anniversaries of the Civil War. But they also overlap with two of the most heinous periods of racial terror in American history: the post-Reconstruction era, when white people moved decisively and violently to disenfranchise black Americans under Jim Crow, and the civil rights era, when white Southerners were desperate to keep that disenfranchisement in place.
More than historical markers commemorating a war, the purpose of these memorials is to celebrate a cultural heritage of white supremacy and affirm its enduring place in America. These are literal monuments to the racist ideology that underpinned slavery and Jim Crow, and they serve as a powerful message, not just to the white people of the South but to the black people of the South as well: Laws may change, but white supremacy remains.
It’s not hard to imagine that in the 1950s and ’60s, when white America’s carefully constructed framework of legal racial supremacy was threatened, there arose a great swell of pride for the Confederate States of America — a symbol of the last true moment that white Americans had absolute legal power over black bodies and put everything on the line to preserve it.
It’s not hard to compare that segregationist backlash to what’s happened over the past couple of years: As our country moves toward being majority minority, our first black president finished up his last term, and more and more marginalized groups are asserting their voices and rights, there emerged a powerful movement of racist, sexist, anti-Jewish, and anti-Muslim white nationalists. And then their dream candidate became president of the United States. And now, white supremacists descend upon Charlottesville to wreak mayhem and murder over a statue of Robert E. Lee, shocking a nation that wouldn’t be shocked if it were paying attention.
But today, and always, too many would rather turn a blind eye to the depths of the racism that infects American culture than do the uncomfortable work of facing it.
This willful ignorance is one reason why a majority of Americans might be shocked at what happened in Charlottesville but the majority of black Americans probably aren’t. To be a black person in the US is to feel constantly gaslit by our fellow citizens. There are things we know to be true because we experience them daily — we get harassed by police for nothing more than driving down a street; we make less money than our white peers; our lives are so devalued that it causes a national backlash when we argue that they matter; our states and towns still proudly honor the treasonous movement that fought to keep our ancestors enslaved.
And these things conflict directly with what is supposed to be true about our country: In America, all people are created equal and there is the same opportunity for everyone. In America, all lives really do matter. In America, the past has long since been reckoned with and the playing field is now level.
So when we bring up racism and inequality, we’re told we’re overreacting. Or we’re exaggerating. Or these are isolated incidents. Or we’re just being special snowflakes. Or that Confederate nostalgia is about heritage, not hate.
But the events of the past week have shown that you can’t disconnect the hate from Confederate nostalgia. You can’t untangle the nation’s unresolved racial sins from the extremists in Charlottesville. And when our president stands before the press and provides comforting words to those extremists, you can’t say, “This isn’t America.”
On white supremacy’s omnipresence
I was raised in Virginia, and the idolatry of Gen. Robert E. Lee and the love for the Confederacy that underpinned the weekend’s protests is part of the state’s identity. Drive around the state for a couple of hours, and it’s clear the belief that Confederate history is a point of cultural pride is a mainstream one. In Virginia, symbols of the Confederacy are everywhere. And Lee is a favorite son.
There are Robert E. Lee Elementary Schools and a Lee Highway. Richmond boasts a Robert E. Lee Memorial Bridge. Washington and Lee, a prominent private college where Lee served as president after the war, bears his name. From 1983 to 2000, Virginia had a state holiday called Lee-Jackson-King Day — created when legislators decided it made sense to merge Lee-Jackson Day (a state holiday honoring Lee and his Confederate comrade Stonewall Jackson) with the newly minted federal holiday of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. After a couple of decades, it was determined that this made Virginia look pretty bad, so the two holidays were separated, with Lee-Jackson Day observed the Friday before MLK Day. Most state workers still get both days off.
Observing all of this, a visitor to Virginia who is ignorant of history might be surprised to learn that Lee’s true legacy is one of terror. Of course, there are persistent myths that Lee was anti-slavery and simply a victim of his time who was loyal to his homeland. If you want to read about how none of that is true, the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer has done a thorough myth-busting, detailing, among other things, Lee’s opinion that slavery was a good thing for black people and the cruelty with which Lee treated his slaves.
Serwer wrote, “Lee had beaten or ordered his own slaves to be beaten for the crime of wanting to be free, he fought for the preservation of slavery, his army kidnapped free blacks at gunpoint and made them unfree — but all of this, he insisted, had occurred only because of the great Christian love the South held for blacks.”
Lee wasn’t a good man, but the idea that Americans should honor him for his terrible deeds isn’t just the off-the-wall notion of tiki torch–toting white supremacists. It is a widespread belief, one that is still sanctioned and supported by local and state governments over an entire region of the US and endorsed by the president of the United States.
In an interview with Vox’s Ezra Klein earlier this year, Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, a native Alabaman, said that the way a country approaches and memorializes its darkest moments says a lot about its values — in Germany, for instance, you won’t find any monuments to Adolf Hitler. On the other hand, he said, “the American South is littered with the iconography of the Confederacy. We are celebrating the architects and defenders of slavery. I don't think we understand what that means for our commitment to equality and fairness and justice.”
Ignoring the horrors that people like Lee — who were traitors to this country besides — wrought upon my ancestors so that white people can feel good about their own isn’t something only “white culture” warriors do. This is a belief system that many of the people who are terrified by what they saw in Charlottesville probably share with the protesters. Putting white people first, it turns out, is pretty damn American: A May 2017 Rasmussen poll found that 69 percent of likely voters oppose tearing down Confederate memorials.
“In this country, we don't talk about slavery,” Stevenson told Klein. “We don't talk about lynching. Worse, we've created the counternarrative that says we have nothing about which we should be ashamed. Our past is romantic and glorious.”
Even in a much more perfect United States, there would be evil people and evil ideas. But until those who hate what they saw in Charlottesville, as well as Trump’s response to it, move beyond their shallow understanding of the racism in America’s present and past, these people and their ideas will have a home in our country. Until they accept that the racist anti-Semites who terrorized Charlottesville for two days didn’t pop up out of nowhere, and are instead deeply connected to a foundation of white supremacy that Americans at large have refused to adequately reckon with — and, indeed, still celebrate in the public square — their movement will further spread and take hold while those in denial about America’s fatal flaws turn their backs. And we’ll remain as far away as ever from the idyllic country too many claim already exists.