The white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, gripped the nation in August, as a far-right extremist killed a peaceful antiracist protester and injured more than a dozen others in a vehicular attack. The outpouring of rage was both immediate and strategic. Demonstrators against fascism and white supremacy shut down a white nationalist rally in Boston, and similar demonstrations elsewhere have been canceled.
While the presidency of Donald Trump has legitimized the growth of an openly fascist right, it has also mobilized a new wave of resistance and brought renewed focus to the pivotal role of college campuses in political and ideological struggle. Some PSC members offer ways of moving forward below.
Education is key
Organized violent racist groups such as the KKK and the Nazis existed before Donald Trump became president and they will exist after he leaves office, but his presence in office has emboldened these groups in ways that we have not seen in recent US history. Antiracist activists have been exactly correct in organizing counter-demonstrations to exhibit, for all to see, the small following these violent racists have.
Of more concern are the much larger segments of the white population who voted for Trump and actually believe, demonstrated in poll after poll, that whites are now the chief victims of racial discrimination and that their rights are being violated. This belief permeates large segments of the white population and has even found articulation on the Supreme Court in numerous opinions of the late Justice Scalia. It resembles, in some respects, what the Germans felt after WWI, and the Confederates after Reconstruction. As we have seen, those who harbor this belief remain strong supporters of Donald Trump, and now form the backbone of the Republican Party, which has become the dominant political party in the United States, and which Noam Chomsky has characterized as “the most dangerous organization in world history.” Republicans feel they can consistently maintain these views and simultaneously condemn the KKK and Nazis for their racist violence. However, these forces will eventually morph as the Klan and Nazis begin to run presentable khaki-clad candidates in future elections as Republicans.
Any antiracist activist strategy to deal with this dilemma must begin with education, but it must also fight for a fairer society, which includes the elimination of class and racial barriers set up by institutions across this society that drastically narrow the numbers of beneficiaries of a defunct and rapidly degrading capitalism that has recently been turbocharged by neoliberalism.
CUNY School of Law
The Jewish questions
Like many who grew up in liberal, secular Jewish families, I experienced the fear of my grandparents’ generation from a distance. In my own political experience, fear of anti-Semitism was most often used to suppress criticism of Israel and to shore up a conservative establishment that belied the values of progressive Jews. As a result, many progressive Jews of my generation found our political identities outside the Jewish community, whether through the labor movement, movements for immigrant rights or racial justice or elsewhere. Like many Jewish progressives, I’ve long been deeply cynical of how the Israeli government and its defenders manipulate fear of anti-Semitism to justify the oppression of Palestinians. Even so, I can’t say I anticipated that right-wing Israelis would dismiss the appearance of actual Nazis as less of an enemy than antiracists, as the Israeli prime minister’s son did recently.
Fortunately, more and more Jews, led by young people, have recently demanded that Jewish institutions stand for the progressive values of the communities they claim to represent. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, If Not Now and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice are building new alliances and challenging everything from training exchanges between the Israeli military, US police and ICE to the Jewish establishment’s condemnation of Black Lives Matter for expressing solidarity with Palestinians. It has always been the right thing to do; Charlottesville has only highlighted that it is in our self-interest as well.
LaGuardia Community College
A gendered struggle
I am a daughter of the South, but black women like me have often been silenced and effaced from discussions about Southern heritage and public history. I remember growing up in a majority black town in South Carolina and seeing a Confederate statue that honored a fallen soldier in the middle of Main Street. It seemed that none of my ancestors had been consulted about its erection despite the fact they had roots in the area that extended back to the town’s colonial past. My hometown, like Charlottesville, another town where I lived, provided amplification and voice for only two groups of Southerners, white men and women.
Historically, white women’s groups dedicated to the Confederacy spearheaded the monument movement. Yet white women’s roles in the construction of these Confederate monuments have been marginalized. The public face of white nationalism is largely male, although too many white women have been foot soldiers in the march to maintain a stronghold on the racial supremacy they believed was slipping away. If there is a lesson for us to learn after Charlottesville, it is that progressive white women must work harder to gather up their kith and kin and teach them that equality benefits us all.
Deirdre Cooper Owens
A call to teachers
The events in Charlottesville call out to educators in general, and historians in particular.
The demonstration by white supremacists and neo-Nazis with their salutes, slogans and symbols, and the subsequent calls for the removal of Confederate monuments, must be seized as teaching moments. We who teach, from elementary school through college, are responsible for instructing students and providing them with the knowledge to navigate the world.
For years, reading and mathematics, more recently STEM subjects, gained priority. Charlottesville highlights the need for knowledge of history.
Calls abound for the removal of Confederate statues. What then? To destroy them or warehouse statues eliminates historical artifacts from the public. The absence of evidence of the past diminishes history, leaving little or nothing to learn. In that vacuum historical mythmaking replaces accurate knowledge. And ignorance or myth is injurious to a democratic polity.
Educators must demand that Confederate statues become instances for instruction. Placed in museums, in collections focused on the Confederacy and its aftermath, these sites should be classrooms for students to learn the history of the Civil War, Reconstruction, segregation and Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement and the principles in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Rejected statues transform into tools for repairing the lack or shallowness of knowledge that students, whether born in this country or newly arrived, have of the history of their country so that they become knowledgeable citizens.
Lack of knowledge of history beyond the United States is even greater. Young people must learn what Nazism and fascism were, how they acquired power, what they did with that power. To know what symbols and slogans meant in actual history, what evils they wrought, empowers students to shun native Nazism. White supremacists and neo-Nazis seek to recruit students on college campuses. Educators and educational institutions must repel such efforts with the tool of knowledge of history.
Vivian R. Gruder
Queens College, Emerita
South to South Africa
White people the world over tend to be blind to racial privilege. It is hard for us to notice the perks of being white, from ready access to quality education, mortgages and health care to the absence of police violence in our daily lives. We may deplore racism but still be oblivious to the subtler forms of systemic discrimination that press down on our fellow citizens. As a result of living in this zone of racial comfort, white people tend to be extremely fragile.
Growing up in apartheid South Africa, I was exposed to one of the most virulent forms of white supremacy of the day: Afrikaner nationalism. Descendants of Dutch colonists who had settled in South Africa beginning in the 17th century, the Afrikaners repeatedly fought against the black majority during centuries of settlement and, after being defeated by the British during the Anglo-Boer War in the early 20th century, lost significant political and economic power to English-speaking whites.
The Afrikaners’ sense of themselves is perhaps best emblematized by the Voortrekker Monument. Built during the late 1930s and early 1940s, shortly before the Afrikaner-supported National Party won national elections and began instituting formal apartheid, the monument consists of a huge granite structure on a hilltop surrounded by a wall with images of an Afrikaner laager, the circled wagons which the settlers used to repel attackers. This formation offers an emblem of the aggrieved and inward-looking character of Afrikaner culture, embodying the Afrikaners’ sense that they were righteous victims whose time would once again come.
As I learned after my family moved to the US, white Southerners also feel that they are history’s victims, their proud independence as a people destroyed by the souless Yankees during what they, against all evidence, insist on calling “the war of Northern aggression.” Confederate monuments are the props of this ideology of righteous victimhood. They are the most visible symbols of a narrative that justifies forms of racial terror that stretch from the film Birth of a Nation (instrumental in the founding of the KKK) to the many decades of lynchings that took place in the Jim Crow South, to today’s emboldened racism and neo-Nazism.
As the bloody history of apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow in the US show, the myth of the white victim helps legitimate feelings of righteous rage that target subjugated peoples. Monuments that affirm this myth should be removed, but this removal should also occasion frank and difficult conversations about the dangerous myth of white victimhood.