A year after Charlottesville, are we standing up for what’s right?

A year ago today, the country watched in horror as White supremacists from around the nation came together to march, unapologetically and unhooded, in Charlottesville, Virginia for a “Unite the Right” rally. This rally left one counter-protester, Heather Heyer, dead.

Heather Heyer was one of the young people that took to the streets one year ago today because they saw a call to action: Nazis and White supremacists were openly organizing and someone had to stand up to them.

American history is rife with moments where citizens were called to stand up and speak truth to power. I remembered reading Roots in the sixth grade and wondering if I would have had the courage to try to help people escape from bondage and into freedom. I remembered, in middle school, learning about the Holocaust and wondering if I would have had the courage to provide shelter to Jewish people. I remembered, in college, asking a White woman who had taken part in the Freedom Rides why she had participated, and her simple answer: “It was the right thing to do.” I remember wondering if I could have done the right thing in that moment.

I realized, during Charlottesville, that we are living in such a moment.

I grabbed my phone and tweeted, “If you’ve wondered what you would’ve done during slavery, the Holocaust, or Civil Rights movement…you’re doing it now. #Charlottesville

Photo credit: Ryan M. Kelly

It is easy to feel moved by injustices that announce themselves boldly through rallies, executive orders, or policy changes. But, most injustices exist in the daily struggles of people who are erased and silenced. The evils of slavery, the Holocaust, and Jim Crow were normalized and put in place slowly over time. People looked away because it didn’t impact them and they felt helpless. Racism in the United States did not begin in Charlottesville, Virginia. I wrote this tweet as a call to action. I wrote it to encourage us not to give in to helplessness, but to focus on what we have been looking away from that allowed this moment to happen.

It is a fact that a White man with an arrest record is just as likely, if not more likely, to be offered for a job than a Black man who has not. It is a fact that a White child is likely to go to a higher-performing school than a Black child, even when their parents make the same amount of money, because they are less likely to attend a school with high concentrations of poverty. Racism exists in our everyday lives — where we work and where we go to school. It is not always obviously rooted in hate, but allowed to continue in our institutions and systems.

It is also not an accident. Throughout our nation’s history wealthy White people have played off of racism and fear to limit the ability of working class people to identify with one another and build alliances. I don’t know the socio economic status of each Unite the Right protester. I do know that their fear of being replaced is part of a legacy of fear, which over time has encouraged working class White people to see their race as more important than their shared humanity with other Americans.

Of course, working class solidarity will not solve the challenges of racism. To create real change, we need to remove false dichotomies that require us to choose between economic justice and racial justice. We can all work to close those disparities while working for better, higher-paying jobs for all people and better access to education for all people. It doesn’t have to be an either/or, we can have and/both.

In the days following the Charlottesville protest, I saw many fellow Americans condemn the Unite the Right protests and say they are prepared to stand up for more justice. I saw people, including the Lt. Governor of Virginia, proclaim, “this is not what we are about.” These declarations, while noble, struck me as ahistorical. They ignore the reality that this country is built on stolen land and on the backs of stolen people.

Still, I took it in the spirit in which I think it was intended: this is not who we *want* to be.

So as I look back a year later, I wonder if Charlottesville sparked a real change — are people actually standing up for what’s right?

It is easy to feel better by engaging in moments of performative condemnation, but actually being better requires taking action to create a change. If President Donald Trump had behaved in a way that Americans have come to expect from a president — to stand up and unequivocally denounce White supremacists — it’s likely that many of us would have felt at least somewhat better. But, that performative condemnation would not have actually made things better. White supremacy and those indoctrinated to it would still exist. Nothing would have been done to disrupt the ideology or challenge the power structures that gave rise to that march in the first place. It is not enough for us to feel better, we have to actually be better. We get to decide whether we live in fear of each other, or if we stand up for each other.

Charlottesville was the home of former United States President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the oft cited words, “all men are created equal.” A truth, in theory, but in practice merely aspirational, a statement that the man who said it couldn’t live up to: Jefferson owned hundreds of slaves. This contradiction between our actions and our aspirational ideas is the story of America.

On the one year anniversary of Charlottesville, I’d like us all to make a pledge of action to actively work towards making those ideas reality. The moral arc of the universe may bend towards justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. said. But, as President Barack Obama said, “It doesn’t bend on its own. To secure the gains this country has made requires constant vigilance, not complacency.” To continue to build upon those gains requires action.

We can disrupt the denials of truth and history that allow those injustices to perpetuate as they happen around us. A few days after Charlottesville, I was on vacation on the island of Nevis. I heard a White American telling a local Black woman that President Trump was “like me and you.” My mom only heard “Trump” and jumped in saying that we don’t like him either. The local woman awkwardly said, “I was worried you were hearing us and don’t like him.” I explained, “I have a problem with someone who supports White supremacists.” The American man she was with said, “that depends on the news you hear.” I said, “No. It doesn’t. He said it himself. White supremacists, Nazis and the KKK killed an American and he said both sides are decent.” The White man was bright red. I was shaking while I said, “I have an issue with people who dispute my right to be alive.” The man then tried to distance himself from his earlier statement saying, “I haven’t been watching the news while I’m here.” In that moment, I was able to insist on the truth by saying, “You have the right to a different opinion. But he said what he said.”

We are all capable of creating more justice exactly where we stand. Furthermore, this responsibility, and the associated risks, should not fall solely on those most directly impacted. We often have the ability to be uniquely heard in the communities where we are trusted and have relationships. Whether in our schools, in our workplaces, or even in our homes, we have the ability to say something and be heard as valued members of those spaces. Sometimes, we are in positions of power, or can effectively persuade those in power, and can create change. Asking more from those closest to us is uncomfortable. However, it is also where we are likely to be the most effective. We know the experiences and adversities of those we love and can help them see other people’s experiences in a new light. They are more likely to listen to us and to care about how their words make us feel.

A year after Charlottesville, how many of us are comfortable with how history will remember what we did and how we’ve changed in response? Injustice does not have a political party. It does not have a color. It is not unique to the alt-right. And it is not unique to Trump and his followers. Are we waiting for injustice to boldly announce itself or able to recognize that it has always been in our midst? Are we able to recognize it, not only in those we disagree with, but in those we love and in ourselves?

To continue towards the direction of justice, we must stand shoulder to shoulder with other Americans in the struggle to build a more perfect union. We must speak up when we see people perpetuating ideologies that lead to injustice. And we must create more justice wherever we are and whenever we can.