Charlottesville As Living History

There are no statues of Théoneste Bagosora in Kigali. No streets bear the name of Tharcisse Renzaho. Twenty-three years after the Rwandan genocide, there are no monuments recognizing the actors, defenders, or planners of one of the swiftest campaigns of extermination carried out in human history. Nor would anyone consider it normal for there to be statues of those responsible for Rwanda’s greatest tragedy to be cast in bronze and erected in the communities they terrorized.

The American slave trade was not a genocide by order of semantics, but that does not diminish the violence of forced labor as part and parcel policy. The Civil War was fought over the right to legally carry out human bondage. There is no room for debate on this issue, a simple reading of the Articles of Secession will suffice.

Only 25 years after that war ended, monuments did go up. In Richmond, the capital of the south, statues of the architects and sworn defenders of the Confederacy became one with the growing cityscape. Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson still look down upon motorists and pedestrians today. In 1924, as Jim Crow raged and campaigns of terror were waged against black communities throughout the country, another statue of Lee was commissioned in Charlottesville, Virginia.

While the casual observer would bristle in horror at the notion of crafting a 25-foot statue of Bagosora in the middle of Rwanda’s capital, it only took a quarter of a century for the great defenders of white supremacy to be erected in what had been the country’s second largest slave trading hub at the time of the war. The message to the city’s black residents in 1890 was clear. They only had to crane their necks upwards to be reminded of white dominion.

The disenfranchisement of black communities did not end after 1865, but rather took new forms so that white hegemony could continue. With slavery an economic and cultural stable of the United States for 250 years, who could be surprised that emancipation led not to the realization of freedom for African Americans, but to Jim Crow? When voter suppression, segregation, and terrorism were forced to go underground after the Civil Rights movement, it is not shocking that they were replaced by the War on Drugs and the state-sponsored destruction of black power movements. Today, as their logical evolutions, we have mass incarceration and a police force given impunity to wage violence on black bodies.

The language has become subtler, the laws less racially explicit, but the ideology of suppression has never changed. The United States was built on a culture of white supremacy before the country was called the United States. To suggest a current post-racial reality is to ignore how we got here in the first place. That we are 150 years beyond emancipation and black residents of Richmond and Charlottesville — not to mention countless other towns and cities across the country — must be forced to recognize the men who fought to keep them in bondage evidences a collective failure to reckon with the lack of progress we’ve made toward reconciliation.

We cannot pretend anymore, and we must contextualize our thinking to meet the ugly reality we have inherited. Eight years ago, a perfect storm of a post-recession economy, the country’s first black President, the mainstream left’s inability to understand middle America and the mainstream right’s terrifying ability to exploit them have intertwined with our racial heritage at large.

White supremacy has perhaps not become normalized at the top levels of the country, but it has been emboldened. Not all Trump voters are racist, but I’d be hard pressed to feel like I’m generalizing saying that all racists are Trump voters. Given the dog whistle campaign and the promises made, how could they not be? Stephen Miller is a racist. Steve Bannon is a racist. Sebastian Gorka is a racist. Jeff Sessions is a racist. Donald Trump is emboldened by racists, just as he emboldens them. No man, in response to a morally unambiguous situation, would blame “many sides” for violence and wait three days to explicitly call out white supremacy if their moral compass pointed in any other direction.

In order to move forward, these truths must be taken as such. Perhaps Charlottesville will be the catalyst for that, and one can hope and trust that Heather Heyer is a martyr for something more. But the first step is to discard the notion that the events in Charlottesville were an outlier, or that they came out of nowhere, or that racism as cultural identify ever went away in the first place. Look at the statues, ask how and why they got there, and ask why the men defending them are willing to murder to keep them up. The answer lies not in abstracts, but within the very fabric and foundation of the United States of America.