Last night, a mob of white supremacists surrounded a group of very young, very brave University of Virginia students. Standing at the foot of a statue of Thomas Jefferson, the students held a handmade banner: UVA Students Act Against White Supremacy.
This morning, those same white supremacists emerged again, continuing to protest the removal of Confederate statues from city property in Charlottesville. Again, they were met by counter-protestors – students, clergy, citizens – executing their right to stand peacefully against hatred, bigotry, and racism. For this, many were injured. One died.
This afternoon, many of this nation’s leaders decried those same things the counter-protestors did: hatred, bigotry, racism. But it was only after extreme violence – the natural end of white supremacy – that they did so. And then, they did so via Twitter, or prepared statements. None of them were injured. None of them died.
The President, given the chance to echo the words of Republican leaders, refused to do so. He condemned violence on “all sides” and in doing so equivocated swastika-flag-carrying neo-Nazis with “This little light of mine”-singing grandmothers.
As any woman, person of color, Jew, Muslim, LGBTQ*, differently-abled person, or other member of a marginalized group – of which, in this country, there are sadly far too many – can tell you, this equivocation is not new. The standards to which white, male, Christian men are held are vastly different than those to which we who are not those things are held.
Some were surprised by the President’s comments. We were not: the brazen gathering of white supremacists and neo-Nazis, their violence, the refusal of the President to condemn their beliefs and actions, is just another day in today’s America.
How did we end up in this place?
Institutional discrimination is at the heart of all this, of course: the nation that once enslaved people of color has found it impossible to leave notions of race behind. We’ve all heard the saying: when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression. White men have done all they can to retain that privilege, and they are helped by our broken perceptions of guilt and innocence.
When a black teenager walks peacefully along the street at night, he is presumed guilty and executed without trial. The man who shot him – not quite white, but white enough – is presumed innocent and never charged. When a black man is pulled over and follows the law that requires him to note the presence of his legal firearm, he is presumed guilty and executed without trial. The white man who shot him is presumed innocent and found that way in a court of law.
When a woman is raped, she is presumed drunk and “slutty” and tried in the court of public opinion while, all too often, ignored by those who could help her. The man who raped her is presumed too young, just a little mistaken, and slapped on the wrist as to not impact his future. When a Muslim man enters an airport, he is thoroughly searched and, even after all of that, occasionally asked to get off the plane he’s paid to travel on. Those who ask him to do so are presumed innocent and reasonable.
Through all of this, the silence of those of privilege and in power is deafening. The rest of us are outraged, but not surprised. Never surprised.
How can we be surprised when a man who rose to fame questioning the legitimacy of a black man’s American citizenship will not decry white supremacy today? How can we be surprised that white men feel no shame – not even enough to cover their faces with white hoods – when no Republican leaders and far too few Republican voters decry their extreme views? How can we be surprised that neo-Nazis are so vocal about their beliefs when elected Republicans limit voting access for young people and people of color, refuse to guarantee equal pay for women, and dismantle the very programs that work to rectify generations of policy based on white supremacy?
I am glad to see Republican leaders denounce the actions of white supremacists in Charlottesville. I am hopeful that they will translate those denunciations into policy that creates equality instead of maintains the status quo. It is unlikely, yes. It is far more likely that discrimination continues behind the closed doors of this Administration and Congress, while those in them Tweet feebly about violence. Maybe it is foolish to hope.
But if a group of college students can be brave enough to face a mob of violent white supremacists, I can be brave enough to believe in a better America than this – someday.