A Year After Charlottesville, are White People Co-Conspirators in Confronting White Supremacy?

The conversation between the two white women sitting next to me at a café in the suburbs in Washington, DC went like this:

“Are you going to the protests this weekend?”

“No…I don’t want to be around that negativity. I know progressive white people are supposed to be there but it’s too much for me. I can’t deal with it.”

The two women were discussing the white supremacist rally and counter-protests happening on August 12th in Washington, DC, on the anniversary of the hate violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia. A year ago, the Unite the Right rally brought people affiliated with the KKK, white nationalist and Neo-Nazi groups to the campus of the University of Virginia and the city of Charlottesville. A reported Nazi sympathizer drove his car into a counter-protest, killing 32-year old Heather Heyer and injuring 19 people. [Listen to my August 2017 Solidarity Is This podcast (Episode 11) to hear the experience of Vilas Annavarapu, a South Asian student at UVA who encountered the white supremacist marchers.]

On the one-year anniversary of this hate violence, a Unite the Right 2 rally is being planned in Washington, DC along with a range of counter-protests organized by Black Lives Matter DC and the Shut It Down DC coalition. People of color, as well as white people, are standing together this weekend to stop white supremacy. And in Charlottesville, community members and public officials have been working to address the racist history of the city and how it continues to play out today.

The white supremacist rally at University of Virginia in 2018 (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

But there are still many white people like the ones who were sitting next to me at the cafe — and some people of color also — who see the dangers of white supremacy in this country but still choose to turn away. Why? Because it doesn’t affect them personally; because they have the privilege of turning their activism on and off as it suits them; because it’s too emotionally draining to be surrounded by hateful language and signs; or because it has become customary to even humanize white supremacists and their motives, leading to the false sense that “they can’t be too bad.”

Let’s be clear: the threat that white supremacist, nativist, and anti-Muslim groups pose to all people in America is very real and very dangerous. These organized groups believe that the United States should be a white and Christian nation governed by straight men. Their beliefs are forming the basis of inhumane immigration and refugee policies being implemented by the Trump Administration. Restrictions on refugee entry, the Muslim ban, “Buy American, Hire American”, the separation of families and prosecution of asylum seekers at the border are all intended to change the racial landscape of America and send us back to the days of national origin quotas and the Chinese Exclusion Act. As Matthew N. Lyons explains in his essay, Ctrl-Alt-Delete: The Origins and Ideology of the Alternative Rights, “[T]he majority of Alt Right-ists supported Trump’s campaign because of his anti-immigrant proposals; defamatory rhetoric against Mexicans, Muslims, women, and others; and his clashes with mainstream conservatives and the Republican Party establishment.” It’s not surprising then that the Trump presidency has emboldened white supremacists to be even more visible; according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there were 954 recognized hate groups operating in the United States in 2017, 100 of which are white nationalist groups.

White people must see white supremacy and racism as their issues too. Let’s not forget Heather Heyer, the white woman killed by a white supremacist in the Charlottesville violence last year. For white people, confronting racism must also go beyond the extremist beliefs of white supremacists. There are white people in this country who feel that they are experiencing a racial backlash and subjected to discrimination. There are disgruntled Trump voters who hold negative opinions about immigrants in their towns. All this resentment takes a toll on white people too, mentally, physically and financially. Physician Jonathan Metzl traces the health implications of racist policies on white people In his upcoming book, Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland.

Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, holds a photo of Bro’s mother and her daughter, Heather Heyer, murdered a year ago in the Charlottesville hate violence (Photo: Joshua Replogle, AP)

The bottom line: white supremacy kills everyone, and no one gets a pass right now, especially not white people who must become co-conspirators with people of color to confront white supremacy. Being a co-conspirator is different than being an ally. Co-conspirators recognize that they have a personal and collective stake in taking on the cause of racial injustice, whereas allies stand on the sidelines as supporters who don’t have to take any risks. Think of allies as people holding signs that say “Black Lives Matter” or writing Facebook posts for people who agree with them already or deferring to the leadership of people of color. Think of co-conspirators as people who do all of that and who also take on the responsibility of addressing anti-Black racism in their own communities and make strategic interventions in the spaces and networks where they have influence to change culture, policy, and actions.

Being a co-conspirator means understanding and acknowledging that white supremacy is a “white people issue” as opposed to one that only affects people of color. It means building honest and authentic relationships with people of color, which includes following their lead in multiracial coalitions and organizations. It also means taking on the responsibility to develop ideas and strategies to confront white supremacy and racism within white communities. It means having those messy, draining, and difficult conversations about racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia with people who hold bigoted viewpoints. It means intervening and disrupting hateful incidents and rhetoric to become upstanders rather than bystanders. Being a co-conspirator means reaching out to Trump voters to build bridges because people of color shouldn’t have to bear the burden of taking this on too in addition to the work we already do to build power within our own communities.

Graphic Courtesy of the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights

The two white women seated next to me may not show up with signs at the counter-protests this weekend, but will they show up in their communities as co-conspirators? For white people who claim that they care about equity and justice in a multiracial America, being silent, being passive allies, switching their activism on and off, or leaving the struggle entirely in the hands of people of color must never be choices, not this weekend as we remember Charlottesville, and not in the future.