How much racism will white Americans tolerate?

A battle for the racial soul of the U.S. must be waged among white Americans.

Protesters march down North Broad Street in Philadelphia in response to a white nationalist rally held in Charlottesville, over the weekend. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Slocum
Protesters march down North Broad Street in Philadelphia in response to a white nationalist rally held in Charlottesville, over the weekend. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Slocum

The past week has been marked by a tumultuous stream of violence, protests, counter demonstrations, and presidential proclamations stemming from a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. While the uproar is sustained by the removal of Confederate monuments, that struggle is merely a facade covering the much more complicated reality. A fresh battle for the racial soul of the U.S. is afoot, and it’s being waged among white Americans.

This isn’t a race war as it’s typically understood: African Americans and other marginalized peoples taking their fight for civil rights and dignity to the streets against an oppressive and dominating white male-led establishment.

To be sure, elements of this historic struggle are present and ongoing as part of our nation’s evolution toward a more perfect union, but the current and immediate battle is unique because it’s being waged almost exclusively among white Americans. This was exhibited violently in the streets of Charlottesville, where a clear majority of the participants on both sides — KKK and Nazis versus anti-racism activists — were white people. All of the dead, including 32-year-old Heather Heyer and the two Virginia State Police pilots, Trooper Berke M.M. Bates, 40, and Lt. H. Jay Cullen, 48, were white Americans. Literally, this was a white-on-white riot.

What took place in Charlottesville and the resulting political fallout represents an internecine struggle over the quantity and quality of racism that white Americans want to embrace or tolerate as the nation grows increasingly multicultural. While they are ardent and aggressive activists in the fight against white supremacists and deserve to be heard, members of marginalized communities — African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and women of all colors — are not the primary actors in this unfolding drama. Rather, it is incumbent upon white Americans to accept and deal with the fact that soon the nation will no longer have a white majority population.

The evolving demographics of the nation lies at the heart of the struggle, churning racist passions on the right-most fringe of white America. The unmistakable message of avowed white supremacist Chris Cantwell’s brazenly racist rants is that white men are losing their grip on exclusive power in the U.S. Such fear was the rallying reason for the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, not the putative argument of preserving a Confederate memorial of General Robert E. Lee.

“The biggest thing is a show of strength,” Matthew Heimbach, a self-identified white nationalist and one of the rally’s organizers, said in an interview with USA Today in advance of the demonstration. “To show that our organizations that have been divided on class, been divided on religious issues, divided on ideological grounds, can put 14 words — ‘We must secure the existence of our people and the future for white children’ — as our primary motivating factor.”

On the other side, anti-racism groups have sprouted to challenge the white nationalist threat. Thousands of people, mostly white Americans, but also joined by racial and ethnic minority activists, organized nearly 700 rallies following the violence in Virginia, according to a Salon report. “Everything that happened [in Charlottesville] was horrifying and demanded a response,” a man who identified himself as Justin told a reporter as he participated in a “Rally for Peace and Sanity” in Brooklyn, New York.

While marginalized communities might be the stated objects of concern, its members are unlikely determine the final score in this political struggle. Left-leaning groups such as Black Lives Matter and traditional civil rights groups like the NAACP and National Urban League are rightfully outspoken and critical of the administration, but they were incapable of preventing Trump’s election and don’t yet wield enough power to drive him from office. For the time being, the fate of the nation rests with the white men of the GOP.

I find it useful to think of marginal communities as a political football, kicked around by two combatant teams composed primarily of white men, specifically political leaders of the Republican party. As things stand presently, the two most powerful teams on the field are the white nationalists and the GOP leadership, which in effect is the same team. Trump rose to political power by employing racist, dog-whistle appeals to the far-right and the Republican establishment did little to prevent it from happening. If a course correction occurs, it will fall to leaders within the GOP to resolve this moment of national racial anxiety.

What would that look like? It would look like leadership, putting the national interest ahead of petty, partisan politics, and recognizing the reality that the America of the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries will not be the country of future generations. History offers guidance that it’s possible. The nation’s first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, challenged the prevailing mores of his day to free black slaves from bondage. A century later, President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, demanded that racist members of his party and region embrace a sweeping package of civil rights reforms. In both of these profiles in courage, political leadership rose to the task — and succeeded in trying to make America live up to its ideals.

Whether a similar jolt of progress can happen at this moment, however, is murky. The current prospects seem dim as few GOP leaders have dared challenge the president  to repudiate his base of support among white racists. Frankly, until the GOP demonstrates a willingness to do that, showing courage and demonstrating national leadership that brings the nation wholly together, their struggle can not be resolved. Or, to put it another way, as competing groups of white Americans wrestle with the racism embedded in the White House, they will determine the soul and spirit of an emerging America.