After Charlottesville

Earl Lewis, President of the Mellon Foundation and Nancy Cantor, Chancellor of Rutgers University-Newark call for courageous leadership following the recent incidents in Charlottesville

Vigil in Support of Charlottesville, West Chester, PA, August 2017. Photo courtesy of Garen Meguerian/CC BY-NC 2.0

The events of the last week are an abhorrent reminder of our nation’s long, unresolved history with racially motivated violence. What we have witnessed since is an attempt to legitimize white supremacists and hate groups that last had a formidable presence during the Jim Crow era, when they openly terrorized the nation.

Back then, it was a black and white world, and the attempt was to subordinate blacks in order to elevate whites. But in the intervening years, we have inched ever closer to the establishment of a non-white majority in the United States. Today’s hate groups fear the creation of such a multi-racial democracy; they harken back to a reductionist perspective of this nation as one built and controlled by descendants of Europeans.

The ideology that fuels white supremacy, neo-Nazi, and ultra-nationalist behavior must be forcefully exposed and condemned, not only by our nation’s leaders, but by all Americans, lest we allow its exposition to be normalized.

There is reason to hope. One of the things that Charlottesville did is pull people together across a broad spectrum of positions, identity groups, religious communities, belief systems, experiences, ideologies, by the horror of what it was. It put a sharp focus on what it means to construct a well-functioning demography and democracy in this current age. And it did that by reminding us of the legacy of bigotry and racism and violence and fascism, and their intersection.

But this alone will not resolve our nation’s troubled history of race and violence. The opportunity here, amidst tragedy, is for people from very different perspectives, life experiences, and geographies, to relate to each other with the nuance of intersectionality that characterizes our actual demography.

This is a moment for courageous leadership. As Heather Heyer, whose life was tragically cut short did, so too must private citizens, leaders at universities and cultural institutions, in churches, synagogues, and mosques step in and acknowledge the difference between right and wrong.

We do our country a deep disservice when we choose not to address the role of iconography and the mythology it helps reinforce about the Confederacy. The Confederate cause was about maintaining slavery and white supremacy. Why is it that for so long we allowed a revisionist history of the Confederacy and the deification of those who defended the indefensible with monuments in the public square? Doesn’t our collective long quiescence bear some responsibility for the events of the last week?

Some communities and their leaders have taken action. Others will be called on to do so and others will be tested by those who demand action now. Each community deserves the right to ask how it squares history and memory. The answer won’t be the same for every community but leadership — courageous leadership — requires that leaders confront the issue head on.

As important, our country’s public officials, thinkers, and artists must respond to this moment by telling the full, unvarnished history. They must heroically expose every repugnant detail of America’s racial past, in a sustained and public way, so that there can be no ambiguity.

Charlottesville, like New Orleans, Durham, Baltimore and Richmond, is part of a process and not a final chapter. It is our choice how we craft the narrative after Charlottesville. Are we prepared to become the architects of the future we imagine, one that leverages a diverse, democratic society? Let us pray the answer is yes.

Earl Lewis, President of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Nancy Cantor, Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor, are co-editors of the book series “Our Compelling Interests,” highlighting the value of diversity in the twenty-first century.

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