A year ago, white supremacists marched, unmasked, in Charlottesville, Virginia. They soon turned violent. A neo-Nazi plowed into a crowd of counter demonstrators, injuring dozens and killing one woman, Heather Heyer. After the march, a crowd of white supremacists savagely beat DeAndre Harris, an African-American man. It might be tempting to think of Charlottesville as an aberration, or as something that could only have happened in the Trump era, and yet, neither is true. The protests that took place in Charlottesville stand as part of a long legacy of racist violence in the United States.
The march demonstrated how completely we have failed, as a nation, to acknowledge the brutality of slavery, and that of its progeny, sharecropping and Jim Crow; the physical, sexual, and psychological abuse of a racially stratified social system; the torture, and the ongoing racial terrorism of an economy and a polity that was founded on the basic premise that blacks were not human and were to be counted among one’s property.
Interim Vice President and Director - Governance Studies
Director - Race, Prosperity, and Inclusion Initiative
Senior Fellow - Governance Studies
Senior Fellow - Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center
The monuments to Confederate potentates speak both to the tyranny of racism and to the missed opportunity to complete the social transformation that was the aspiration of Reconstruction. These statues were predominantly erected in two periods: at the end of the 19th Century, as post-Civil War racial progress was violently reversed, and again during the Civil Rights era, as many whites engaged in “massive resistance” to the legal end of segregation.
Today, again, we are experiencing a period of reaction to the possibility of racial progress. We have had countless opportunities to turn what is certainly one of the most depraved legacies of the United States into a national conversation, a national acknowledgement, and a national effort to right the foundation of our social relations and politics. This time, we must do better.
We have not done what others have done. South Africa, a country with a sordid history of race relations, started the process of coming to terms with the brutality of apartheid by holding a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995 that invited victims of gross human rights violations to give statements about their experiences.
In Germany, public schools teach even the youngest about the Holocaust, starting early to train young minds about how human beings can be truly cruel to others and about how to hold one’s nation to the highest standards of ensuring and respecting human dignity. There are monuments across Germany, on city streets and public spaces, to the victims of Nazi crimes.
We’ve done nothing similar. And so, Americans walk by the sites of slave auctions, of lynchings, of massacres, with little knowledge of the terrible history that shaped their hometowns. Instead, our monuments have proclaimed the gallantry of those who fought a war to preserve the ownership of human beings.
So, where does that leave us? It’s heartening that in the year since the Charlottesville march, there has been significant public conversation about statues commemorating Confederate heroes and even more so, that many such statues have been removed or affixed with placards contextualizing their history. We have to start somewhere.
It has also been illuminating that as part of popular culture, episodes of enduring racism while doing innocuous things like barbecuing at a park, have been thrust into the public consciousness. It has been very affirming that films starring African Americans have become international blockbusters, negating a long held attitude in Hollywood that black faces could not commercially carry a franchise. Even tech firms have gotten engaged by shutting down white supremacist social media outlets.
The closest we have come to engaging with what it means to be a nation built upon racial tyranny is the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, opened earlier this year. This memorial is a first of its kind, dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people and those who have been subjected to continued racial terrorism. It could represent a significant first step to acknowledging our particular history here in the United States.
After Charlottesville, President Trump blamed people “on both sides” for the deadly events. His words are an echo of the Confederate monuments, an effort to whitewash the past. This false characterization of history, this unwillingness to name the problem, stands between America and the achievement of the ideals we have always claimed to embody.