On Friday evening in Charlottesville, a coordinated group of white supremacists marched through the University of Virginia campus holding torches, shouting “white lives matter”, and setting the stage for the Unite the Right rally on Saturday. The rally, which protested against the removal of Confederate monuments and sculptures within the city, galvanised white supremacists from various groups, most notably Ku Klux Klan sympathisers, Neo-Nazis, and leaders of the so-called “alt-right” movement.
With their faces unmasked and identities uncloaked, the protesters raised their arms and chanted “blood and soil”, in the Nazi tradition, not fearing their association with the hate group and its ideology. The rally highlighted not only the growing normalisation of the white supremacist movement in the United States, but also its intimate synergy with the administrative and institutional leadership in Washington, DC.
US President Donald Trump, his rise and subsequent regime, have emboldened white supremacists of every stripe in America. Of course, championing such an ideology in modern times is neither new nor unprecedented. In fact, both an Ivy League law school professor and a member of congress have done so recently.
The expected crowd of 6,000 joining them on Saturday extinguished fears of stigma or punitive action. Even more forceful was the tacit endorsement from within the Trump Administration. White supremacy is well-represented in Washington, DC, today and well-embedded in the structures that precede the current administration.
After all, the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville are the conspicuous face of a broader and stratified movement, which includes statesmen, CEOs, and other prominent faces hidden from our gaze but well-positioned in mainstream society.
Therefore, white supremacists are hardly ideological deviants or fringe segments of society nostalgic for American apartheid. While mainstream political discourse has framed them as such for decades, the movement in Charlottesville showed that the visible foot soldiers on the ground are intimately connected to state power and policies seeking to abolish affirmative action, suppress the vote of communities of colour, enforce Muslim bans, and limit immigration to English speakers.
Unfortunately, our historic and present-day treatment of white supremacy gives individuals like the protesters in Charlottesville little reason to be ashamed or fear stigmatisation. As a country, the US has not gone far enough to disrupt or dismember white supremacy as a prominent ideology. Instead, support for white supremacist ideology within the US has historically been permitted to fester nearly unabated.
A concrete example of this is the Confederate flag - a symbol proudly displayed by white supremacists during the Charlottesville protests. The historic significance of the Confederate flag is that it symbolises a faction of defectors who left the Union and went to war to preserve a way of life that included white supremacy, Black subordination and chattel slavery.
A great American myth holds that racism erodes as time passes. However, reality consistently reveals that racism fluidly adapts to prevailing political norms, demystifying the idea that it is perpetually diminishing and declining. Events in Charlottesville, and the swelling movement of explicit and unabashed white supremacy that it represents, illustrate that modern racism is mutating back to its original out-in-the-open form.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Charlottesville is America everywhere’.