A year ago this weekend, carrying tiki torches, Confederate battle flags and banners, tens of thousands of neo-Nazi, alt-right and white supremacists gathered from 35 states across America for a massive rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Anti-Nazi and anti-fascist counter-protestors clashed with them. Many were severely beaten. On the final day of the rally, a white supremacist launched his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one, wounding 20 others.
A year later, with white nationalists set to gather in front of the White House today, white supremacy is clearly on the rise. Hate groups find it easier to migrate from the political margins into the mainstream. Blatant advocates of racism are now described as preaching a message just as “reasonable” as any other. After this tragedy, President Trump responded by saying there were good and bad people both for and against white supremacy. When this president was elected, former KKK leader David Duke tweeted with pride: “Everything I have been talking about for decades is coming true and the ideas I’ve fought for have won.”
Racism has been called “America’s original sin.” Has there been progress in facing our racial issues? Certainly. In 1939, 83 percent of European-Americans said African Americans should be kept out of white neighborhoods. Things are better: The African-American president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, recalls how his childhood in rural Southeast Texas was transformed in 1965 by the government-funded Head Start Program: “It transformed my life and created possibilities.”
Yes, improvements have reversed much of the Jim Crow era. Yet we have a long way to go toward a society free of racism and systemic disparities. Race conjoined with violence continues to affect our communities. A Times/CBS survey last summer showed six of 10 Americans feel racism is on the march. Racial profiling — beginning even in pre-school but expressed in variant forms (such as “driving-while-black”) persists as a creeping mold in musty corners of society.
One recent survey suggests that almost half of Anglo Americans claim they’re just as likely to face discrimination as African Americans. Seriously? Many of us may mean well but may also be quite naïve, blind to our own biases.
I remember my grandfather lamenting the arrival of an African American into his neighborhood and his fears that his property value would plummet. Most Anglo Americans like him would never have considered themselves racists, yet fretted over the mixing of races. Still, the notion of “race” is a social construct without any basis in biological or genetic research. Ground-breaking advances in DNA research remind us that all of us have roots in Mother Africa.
Last year’s tragedy in Charlottesville should provoke serious conversations about our past and shared civic future. White power movements will always attract people so long as some believe they are better than someone else because of the color of their skin. But instead of pointing fingers, we must spend more time looking in the mirror. Local organizations such as the Community Race Relations Coalition and NAACP are open for any and all of us to learn and participate in positive steps in building bridges of mutual respect instead of division and distrust. As an African proverb explains: “Perhaps we do not understand each other because we do not love each other.”