Evil marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Va., this weekend, leaving murder and mayhem in its wake. Young white men marched around carrying torches and sporting symbols of some of the most murderous regimes in human history.
The racist malevolence we behold on our screens is not some inconsequential fringe element but a cancerous metastasis of a sickness that has infected and degraded our body politic for centuries. The latest eruption of the infection might be the coalition of white supremacist, KKK and neo-Nazi elements that helped to elect a president with no apparent moral center, but the roots of the disease extend to the very birth of this republic. Charlottesville was yet another act in the long-running saga of the American tragedy of racial hatred.
It’s no small irony that the Charlottesville tragedy occurred alongside “Mr. Jefferson’s University,” the University of Virginia. While most Americans know Thomas Jefferson as the author of the iconic words of freedom in the Declaration of Independence, in fact, Jefferson and his Virginia compatriots George Washington and James Madison were slave masters who could not liberate themselves or their new country from the original sin of racism. Washington, Jefferson, Madison et al. had the opportunity to abolish slavery from the start of this republic, but they allowed their economic self-interests to prevail over their moral sensibilities, thus leaving a long wick on the racist ticking time bomb that not even a bloody civil war could eradicate nearly a century after the founding of the United States.
The careful cultivation of Southern resentment, white antipathy and deep racial hatred survives to this very day — survives the 14th Amendment’s obliteration of the immoral three-fifths compromise of the founders, survives the terrible years of violence and lynchings and deep discrimination during and after Reconstruction, survives Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement, survives the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., survives the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of the 1960s, survives the election of President Barack Obama and the mythology of the “postracial” society, and now appears in a reactionary presidential administration hell-bent on rolling back voting rights, repressing civil rights, overturning affirmative action and refusing to call out white supremacists, the KKK, Nazis and other hate groups by name.
The greatest danger the United States faces today is not from a hostile foreign power, scary though the threats may be, but rather from our own domestic terrorists and those who aid and abet them.
Silence gives consent. Leaders who refuse to name the perpetrators of hatred cooperate in the evil consequences of malevolence against other human beings. President Trump’s bland “all sides to blame” initial comment was a serious betrayal of presidential leadership expectations in a time of crisis — “babble,” in the words of one commentator. The president even failed to respond to the direct challenge of former KKK leader David Duke, who claimed in the midst of the rally that the white supremacists were “taking the country back” to “fulfill the promises of Donald Trump.”
Catholic leaders have spoken forcefully against the violence in Charlottesville. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops denounced the “evil ideology” that generated the violence, and many other bishops spoke out as well.
This summer I read Volker Ullrich’s powerful biography of the early years and rise to power of Adolf Hitler. I also reread Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, about American Ambassador to Germany William Dodd and his family in Berlin in the years paralleling Ullrich’s narrative of Hitler’s rise. Of course, any even modestly attentive student of history already knows this, but what these two books reinforce is the impact of pathological collective denial and appeasement in nurturing the conditions that allowed a murderous dictator to seize and maintain power. Historical hindsight shows us that Hitler could have been stopped at any number of points along the way of his early years. But people who could have intervened either did not take him seriously or looked away, and meanwhile he rose to power on the crest of a decades-long wave of bitter resentment among Germans — especially young white male Germans organized into various militia-style groups that became the SS responsible for the Holocaust — after WWI and the Treaty of Versailles.
We study history so that we don’t make the same mistakes again. When a leader does not read or understand history, a nation is easily led into making the same mistakes over and over again. Warning signs abound that unauthorized militia forces are on the rise — in Charlottesville yesterday the sight of men with long guns in camo uniforms was frightening. The internet is replete with sites spewing venom and hatred, as recently as this morning on a site that mocked and disparaged the woman killed during yesterday’s demonstrations. Modern technology allows us to peer into the deepest caves of evil, and the sight is appalling.
The flash point for the latest eruption of our national disease is a sentiment encouraged by our current president that white people must “take back our country” from … well, from whom? The implication is clear. Black people, Muslims, immigrants, liberals, Democrats, women, academics, coastal elites … the list is long. But we — all of us! — we are all among the people for whom this nation was founded, and to whom the president of the United States owes protection of our rights, liberties and security.
A trope of the white supremacists is that removal of icons of the Confederacy — Confederate flags, statues of Jefferson Davis, streets named for Davis or other Confederate figures — somehow “denies” or “abolishes” history. While a truly lame excuse for murderous violence, it’s also plain wrong as a reading of history or understanding of symbols. The statues, the flags, the symbols are not about remembering but rather about glorifying, honoring and identifying with those who wanted to keep blacks enslaved, to separate the Southern states from the union, to repress civil and human rights, to obliterate the notion of a society in which all people are truly equal and free.
On the occasion of removing statues of Confederate icons in New Orleans several months ago, Mayor Mitch Landrieu gave one of the best speeches I have read on this topic. Decrying the “false narrative” of history that the monuments represent, Landrieu said, “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy, ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that it actually stood for … To literally put the Confederacy on a pedestal in our most prominent places of honor is an inaccurate recitation of our full past. It is an affront to our present and a bad prescription for our future. History cannot be changed … The Civil War is over and the Confederacy lost and we are better for it. Surely we are far enough removed from this dark time to acknowledge that the cause of the Confederacy was wrong.”
In some ways, this moment clarifies what the affirmative action in education debate is all about. Affirmative action in K-12 schools has largely failed, as we can see in the remarkable segregation that continues in many schools and districts. That failure becomes shockingly clear in the mobs of young white men marching with tiki torches. Did those young men ever have an opportunity to sit with students of other races, listen to other histories, come to a deeper understanding of how this nation has evolved and continues as a place of equality amid great diversity? In so many ways, the sight of white men on the march in Charlottesville is the best possible case for more vigorous affirmative action.
While addressing the issues of segregation in lower schools remains complicated by residential patterns and funding formulas, the issue at the collegiate level is clear and urgent. At Mr. Jefferson’s University — the great University of Virginia in Charlottesville — the enrollment of black students in fall 2016 was just 6 percent according to IPEDS, the federal data system, while that of Hispanic students was just 5 percent. The numbers are not much better at many other major universities.
The future leaders of our nation — political, corporate, social leaders — need to learn how to respect, understand, support and work alongside people of many different races, backgrounds, belief systems, cultural experiences. Insisting on diversity on college campuses is not a sideshow, but rather, a fundamental component of the education we are supposed to be providing to our students. In the absence of other means to ensure widespread diversity of the student population, affirmative action is a legitimate tool to ensure diversity in the student body and opportunities for students who are well qualified but who otherwise might be excluded.
We must continue to promote education as the best, perhaps only, means to confront our national tragedy of racism. College and university presidents, in particular, must be clear and forthright in our advocacy for racial justice on our campuses as a means to influence society for the better. In the face of extreme provocation from the so-called alt-right and evil forces that try to intimidate us, we should be even more affirmative in taking actions for justice and freedom for the sake of all of our students and the communities who need them to be forces for good, for hope and for peace.