Raw images of white supremacists battling with counter protesters last weekend in a bucolic college town elicited shock and outrage across the nation, prompting many observers to declare that what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia wasn’t representative of America. As their argument goes, this nation is better than the media projections of neo-Nazis and Klansmen shouting racist slurs, beating a black man with poles, or, worst of all, a white supremacist deliberately driving a car into a crowd and killing a woman.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
What the nation — no, the entire world — witnessed was the latest revolution in a repetitive cycle of racial angst that has erupted periodically in the United States since its founding. Ostensibly, the spark igniting the latest struggle was Charlottesville city leaders’ decision to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee from a downtown park. But that’s merely a pretext to a much longer, and purely American struggle, to maintain white superiority in a multicultural and diverse nation.
As the U.S. inches toward a society with no racial majority, a hard-right and racist segment of the white population fears its exclusive domination of American life and values will be supplanted by blacks, Latinos, women, gays, and immigrants, Carol Anderson, an African American studies professor at Emory University, told me during a recent phone interview.
“There are white men in America who still haven’t recovered from the ‘60s and believe that’s when the nation turned against them and their supremacy,” she said. “That’s the fight these racist men are fighting for. They want restore the old Confederacy and their place at the top of America.”
Let’s be clear and honest: What happened last weekend was all about race in America, specifically white male supremacists’ angry and violent backlash over their mistaken perception of losing premium status in the nation. They share these misguided views through internet chat groups and social media sites like a virus that infects a younger, disillusioned generation with grandiose notions of their slipping place in America’s racial hierarchy.
“They want restore the old Confederacy and their place at the top of America.”
When framed as such, there is, in fact, nothing new about what the world witnessed in Charlottesville. It’s happened many times before, only to be ignored as an aberration in our national effort to build a more perfect union. Indeed, there is a discernible pattern: black Americans demand and attain a measure of social progress, only to be met by legal retrenchment and often illegal, violent attacks by racist whites. A version of this pathetic drama has played out in similar, almost clockwork-like precision every two generations or so since the Civil War ended in 1865.
With President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, some four million black slaves were released from bondage, but were never totally free to live as equals among whites in the South or North. During the Reconstruction period that immediately followed the war, southern state legislatures passed “Black Codes,” a set of restrictive laws to control the freedmen. Reactions to the Black Codes prompted federal intervention and led to black Americans voting or the first time in the nation’s history. Some black men served in southern statehouses and even the U.S. Congress. This moment of black social progress lasted about a decade or so, as white reactionaries — led by the terrorism and violence of the Ku Klux Klan — reversed the gains of newly enfranchised black Americans.
By 1877, white men had restored their supremacy over life and freedom all across the South.
With the turn of the 20th century, black Americans fled southern towns in such large numbers that the exodus was later termed a “Great Migration,” which reshaped life for black Americans from primarily the sharecropping South to urban-ghetto North. Instead of assimilating into a white mainstream, as waves of ethnic whites had done before them, white racial prejudice and restrictive laws diverted black Americans into crowded, hypersegregated public housing projects. As Boston College historian Carlo Rotella writes:
Black city dwellers found it difficult to follow jobs and capital out of the inner cities. Recent migrants from the South had risked everything to get to the city. They had no reserves to finance another move, let alone to buy property. Those who could afford to move—the comparatively small black middle class of teachers, professionals, and highly skilled workers—encountered an array of legal and illegal barriers designed to keep them where they were.
Once more, progress beckoned as the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, opening the floodgates for a generation of civil rights activism and legal challenges that ultimately led to President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” which expanded opportunities for black Americans, as well as other racial and ethnic minorities and women.
In a practical sense, the incomplete success of the Great Society lies at the core of white racist resentment today, said Anderson, who is the author of the best-selling White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Nation’s Divide. “For all the reporting about Trump supporters concerns about economic anxiety, that’s not what this is about,” she told me. “What drove them was racial anxiety and fear of whites losing their place in America. That full embrace of white supremacy was what put [Trump] in office.”
To be sure, President Donald Trump is the enabling leader of those espousing white superiority. Trump emerged on the political scene largely as an unapologetic liar, spreading the easily disproven argument that the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, was not an American citizen or born in the United States. As a candidate for president last year, Trump embraced leaders of the white nationalist movement such as Steve Bannon, who is now a White House senior adviser and ran a website that espoused racist ideology. What’s more, Trump’s campaign rhetoric emphasized banning Muslims from the U.S. All of these positions resonated with the white supremacist’s dreams of an exclusively white-led, white-dominated nation.
So, as Anderson noted in an article for The Guardian, the violence and the deaths of three people associated with the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville was predictable, an eerie déjà vu of American history. “This is just what many feared the Trump presidency would unleash,” she wrote. “David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, supported that view when he said on Saturday that the march ‘fulfills the promises of Donald Trump’ to ‘take our country back.’”
If Charlottesville 2017 is examined in context and through the long lens of history, it becomes increasingly clear that the resurgence of the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacy isn’t an anomaly, something atypical of the nation’s character. Rather, it’s an ever-repeating cycle of just what America has been and continues to be — a nation at war with its racist past and present.