Over this past weekend, my oldest son was watching the news about the protests and tragedy in Charlottesville, VA, and turned to me to proclaim, “America is the most dangerous country in the world.” <sigh> Of course this is not true, and I was immediately saddened that my son’s innocence in our country had been tarnished. However, it opened his eyes to a larger reality that communities of color face daily, and allowed me to have a broader conversation with him about what’s going on.
Let’s start by saying that racism is bad. Communities of color don’t like racism in any form, and we especially don’t like it when racism is overtly laid bare in our streets and communities. Charlottesville is a wonderful city – home to the University of Virginia – and it just happens to be in what used to be the Confederate South. During the Civil War, the South was identified by those lands either south of the Mason-Dixon Line (starting at the Delaware / Maryland border if you’re driving on I-95) or those states who sided with the Confederacy. However, in modern day America, Charlottesville is in an interesting gray area – it is south of Washington, DC which some would constitute as “The South.” However, it espouses generally moderate-to-progressive policies, making it more like Austin, TX – stuck out there as a politically blue bastion in an otherwise sea of red. After the 2016 presidential election, the mayor of Charlottesville – Michael Signer – proclaimed his city as “a capital of the resistance” against an administration that ran counter to the values of his city, state, and country. Eliminate the recent hostilities within this city, and you have a wonderfully charming city in the heart of VA. As Virginia becomes more and more blue, Richmond, Norfolk, and other areas in the state embrace a more Northern (read: liberal) mindset, and Charlottesville is no different.
Long ago during the days of the Jim Crow South, the city of Charlottesville erected a statue of Robert E. Lee (commissioned in 1917, and finally erected in 1924), who was the general of the Confederate Southern armies against the Union armies of the North. Though the North won, many statues, monuments, and celebrations of the losing effort were erected in the South to commemorate a time when the South was smelling themselves (as the kids say). Slowly, these bastions of racism and hatred are being removed from the public arena out of deference to communities of color who find them offensive. Recent national events, including the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, led to a movement across the country, including the rise of groups like Black Lives Matter. People realized they had the power to change their communities. Confederate flags are being removed from state houses. Confederate monuments are being removed from public lands. And statues to Confederate heroes are being removed so that all residents can appreciate their communities without reminders of a time when hatred and bigotry were prevalent. The statue of Robert E. Lee represents a time when slavery was accepted and encouraged, and leaving it standing is a tacit approval of the racism that his legacy evokes.
The democratically elected leadership of Charlottesville voted to remove the statue. However, racist organizations, fearful of a world where equality for communities of color will displace them from dominance, have chosen this landmark to make their stand. They make this stand, much the same way as Custer did – against overwhelming odds. The city and its residents want the statue removed. The state leadership wants the statue removed. Most Virginia residents would probably agree that the statue doesn’t represent their current values. However, these racist organizations have an ace up their sleeve – a Trump card if you will. During and after the presidential election, it has been made implicitly clear to them that their actions – those supporting bigotry and hatred and racism and nationalism and other memes of a bygone – age will be tolerated under the Federal government. And so, they protest. They decry the will of the democratically-elected representatives of Charlottesville. They cry foul that their way of life might be impugned, while they celebrate a culture of hatred and ignorant thinking. They are not broad-minded enough to embrace a modern culture with its diversity of thought and infinite possibilities, so they bury themselves in their fear of change and impose racial fear upon others. This is their Waterloo. This is their Little Big Horn. They fight against overwhelming odds, knowing that they are in… the minority. Fear is uncomfortable, and change takes them farther away from away from a foundation of xenophobia. So, they rail against this change, and fight for a statue of a man who lost his own great war.
It is worth noting that they used the proper channels to register their protest. They filed the right paperwork, and began a lawful rally – unethical by any standard, but legal. They quickly deviated from their rally plans, and their event became as illegal as their arguments are immoral. They knew there would be counter-protesters. They knew their rally was public knowledge, and that there would be those opposed to their points of view. They knew there would be media coverage. So, they made their signs. They donned their armor – clothing decked out in the symbols of hatred. Some wore masks to hide their identities, and some were unashamed of their bigotry. They shouted their slogans and chanted their propaganda. They stood up for what they believed in, and railed against those who stood shoulder to shoulder with justice and liberty and equality – the principles upon which this nation was founded. These groups in support of the statue of Robert E. Lee fought their good fight, and in some cases, the event devolved into belligerence and physicality. These groups brought out the worst in our society, and they were ready for it. They brought us down to their level, and they wallowed in their muck and mire of small-minded principles. The Mayor and Governor condemned their actions, and still they marched. Until the worst occurred.
During the rally on Saturday, one of the members of these organizations, decided to take matters into his own hands. He got into his vehicle, and viciously rammed his automobile into a crowded street killing one counter-protester and injuring many others. He tried to flee the scene, but was immediately taken into custody. This was the best idea he could come up with. This was representative of his vision for America. This is how he communicated his ideals for a better country. His mother stated in interviews that she had no idea that he felt this way – “He had a black friend,” she cried. But his posts celebrating Nazis and nationalist propaganda tell a different story. Can we decry the education system of our country that diversity of culture is not taught along with diversity of thought? We cannot root out those who prey on the weak to fill them with fear and hate, but how might they feel if they knew that 1 out of every ten corporations in America were started by an immigrant? Upon hearing this, they might close themselves off to the broader American society, but will they give up every item / product that was either designed or manufactured by a member of communities of color? Will they give up cellular technology if they find out that digital wireless signals were perfected by an African American, and will they stop using iPhones made in China? Too modern – how about traffic lights? Will they stop driving if they know that traffic lights were initially designed by an African American? Their president empowers their deluded rationale, but why don’t they accept the fact that Mr. “Make America Great Again” makes all his products overseas? His American buildings use Chinese steel. That’s not “fake news” – it’s facts. Just like those facts that tell us that a diverse population does better than a homogeneous one.
In modern day America, I’m sure you knew that there are states who have enacted legislation that makes it difficult for communities of color to vote. But did you know that there are multiple states in the US where the ruling political party has introduced legislation protecting the right of individuals to drive their car into a crowd of protesters? It’s disheartening that even a slanted and bigoted vision against a diverse and culturally inclusive society can propel someone into a position of power, where they might have a direct impact over the rights of others?
And let’s come back full circle to my son. He saw reports of his horrific incident, and the coverage surrounding the protests, and he came away with the pronouncement that, “America is the most dangerous country in in the world.” <sigh> This weekend, he went to baseball practice, and nothing happened. His brother and mother went to two different birthday parties, and nothing happened. We got carry-out dinner, and nothing happened. We were able to participate in the church service of our choosing, and nothing happened. We went to the grocery store, and my sons played in our neighborhood, and nothing happened. Communities and towns and cities thrived over the weekend without violence. One incident monopolizing and sensationalizing the airwaves does not represent the overall status of the country.
Coming home from practice yesterday, we passed by Robert E. Lee High School, and he noticed the name. “Is it the same person as the statue?” he asked, and I responded in the affirmative. I then went on to explain that organizations like the Alpha Policy Forum strive to remove such names from schools because it’s a tacit approval for the Confederate principles that he fought for – slavery, bigotry, etc. I explained that people were trying to remove the statue in Charlottesville for the same reasons. I explained that good people must stand up when they see things that don’t represent everyone; otherwise, the haters will win. These protests should be peaceful – violence only begets more violence, and both sides stop listening to reason leading to a lost opportunity to resolve the situation. The civil rights movements here in America and in India and in South Africa were successful in achieving the goals that the protesters sought in part because of their non-violent methods. And so, our country is safe for members of our communities of color, in part because of the determination of those who peaceably marched for justice rather than those who ignorantly fought for continued oppression. I unfortunately had to add a caveat that, as members of communities of color, we are subject to higher incidences of violence at the hands of our own and wayward members of law enforcement. However, I quickly pivoted to point out that leading a respectful, educated, and upright lifestyle can go a long way to mitigate those tragic and unnecessary outcomes. I took a deep breath and I concluded with this point – if no one had stood up to the Confederate South and fought to end slavery, our family (living in Northern Virginia) would most likely be slaves today. That is a dangerous vision for America that I cannot afford to let happen again. That is why we must be vigilant for oppression in all forms, and speak out against it so that others may join our chorus of outrage. This policy forum stands against racism, bigotry, hatred, ignorance, and those -isms that would see a community and its beautiful people marginalized because of the color of their skin or the decision of their faith or the ethnicity of their ancestry. We are and will continue to be greater together because we share ideas and thoughts that include different perspectives. Because when small ideas are ignorant and inbred, generations of homogeneity will make them weak and desperate for anything to cling to for support. That includes an old statue for a man who lost the war.
Lean forward, stand together, and embrace our differences. Together, our love will survive their hate. And our hope shall transcend all.