I visited Charlottesville back in 2009. Back at the time, I was recruiting summer staff for the Pittsburgh Project and one of our staff alum was a student there. I drove down, he introduced me to several of his friends and we had a great conversation about doing justice in our nation’s urban centers. As I drove down, I was struck by the beauty of the campus of the University of Virginia. It has the feel of an old, historic institution. The buildings were big, beautiful, old but well maintained. It was clear that a lot of resources were put into this campus! It was the kind of idyllic campus that envied as the University of Pittsburgh where I attended has such an urban feel that you often lose sight of where the school ends and the neighborhood of Oakland begins. I didn’t spend a lot of time there. Didn’t talk to much of the student body, and the ones with whom I did speak were handpicked because they were Christian and might want to spend the summer serving the poor. I don’t know how representative they were of the student body, I’m guessing not very. It was, in some ways, just a very normal college campus.
I guess that’s what is impressed upon me from this weekend’s events. Charlottesville is steeped in the history and “heritage” of the country. It is like many old, historic towns particularly on the east coast. It is, in someways, fairly unremarkable; just a college town. And that’s the thing: this could have happened on many college campuses just about anywhere in the states. Charlottesville is America. It is not an aberration. It is who we are, both the rally and the counter-protest. It is our yin and our yang, our light and our darkness, the angel and the devil on our shoulders.
There’s part of me that wants to say that what happened in Charlottesville is a game changer. I want to believe that after the societal downward spiral that has been happening since the election that this will be the wake up call that shakes us out of our complacency and makes us take the threat of white supremacy, in all of its forms, more seriously. I’d love to say that, but I do not believe it. I don’t believe it because over the last few years I have seen so many “game-changing” moments run the course of the 24 hour news cycle and then fizzle out back into our cultural complacency. I said during the election that whether or not Trump won, we all lost because he stirred up an element in our country that had been content with staking out small pieces of real estate. Emboldened by Mr. “There’s Violence On Many Sides”, the supremacists have found fertile ground to spew their hate with relative impunity. This is just the beginning. Charlottesville exists in every corner of this nation and until the real issue is named and real accountability is ad, this will continue to happen in some form or fashion, possibly with more casualties.
The real issue, of course is white supremacy. The problem is that we only label one group of people as “white supremacists” when in fact white supremacy is far more pervasive. White supremacy is a demonic forces that undervalues the lives and hopes of people of color. It has been the dominant force of empire at least since the times of European colonialism. It creates substandard living situations and schools for black and brown people. It translates “white” as “normal” and “brown” as “exotic” at best, “other” most often and “inferior” or “dangerous” when it chooses. It makes equivalencies between black people marching for freedom and white people marching for genocide. White supremacy uses white people (usually straight, white men) as a unit of measurement against which all other people are measured. It creates a white Jesus and makes gospel of the American dream. White supremacy is supported by well meaning white folks who tell people of color “you’re one of the good ones” and people of color who throw their own kind under the bus for acceptance. White supremacy exists when a fashion that designed to communicate on an urban street corner is co–opted by a corporation, rebranded and sold for a fortune without giving back to the culture from which it stole. White supremacy creates economic and cultural barriers from ordination in mainstream church denominations. White supremacy values the tears of a white “victim” over the life of a black person. White supremacy says that an athlete who kneels during the pledge of allegiance is less redeemable than a rapist or the organizer of a dog fighting ring. White supremacy doesn’t want Idris Elba to be James Bond.
The problem with events like this past weekend is that it allows “good” white people off the hook. If you’re not a Klansman then, hell, it could always be worse! “Not a Klansman” is not the standard to which I hope my white friends aspire. I hope instead that they are actively working to dismantle the many facets of white supremacy that exist in and around them. I say “in” because it begins in the hearts of those who are tempted to see people as less than. I say “around” because it is the water in which we all swim. This is not about fringe groups, disenfranchised people with “economic anxieties”, graffiti, or hate speech. This is about a prevalent system that is built to compensate for these occasional eruptions of anger. This is about a mindset that says that black and brown bodies were fine to build the infrastructure of this country but we’ll be damned if they share in its prosperity. I worry less about the agents of white supremacy who carry tiki torches (haha! Seriously?! Tiki torches) and more about the ones who carry gavels and nightsticks. I worry less about the ones who wear hoods or red MAGA hats than the ones who wear badges and judicial robes. I worry less about the ones who roam the streets of Charlottesville and more about those who roam the halls of congress.
We’re a country of quick fixes and short attention spans. That sometimes makes me feel hopeless. We’d rather make sure that the names of those who marched this weekend are splattered all over social media than to do the work that justice requires of us. It’s not enough to put Charlottesville under a microscope, even if there were elements there that made it uniquely primed for this sort of event. We have to recognize that Charlottesville is America and then we have to do the work of repentance, healing, and restoration. I’m sorry, but much of that work will fall to my white friends, but please know that my freedom is bound up with yours and I will not leave you to this work alone.