Naa Oyo A. Kwate, résidente IMéRA/EURIAS 2017-2018, est professeure d’écologie humaine, d’études africaines et directrice associée du Center for Race and Ethnicity à Rutgers (State University of New Jersey). Diplômée en psychologie clinique, ses recherches portent sur les déterminants psychologiques et sociaux de la santé des Afro-Américains. Elle s’intéresse aux expériences d’identité et d’inégalité au niveau individuel, et à l’intersection de ces variables avec des facteurs structurels, en particulier la dimension urbanistique et les quartiers.
Article paru dans Fellows#28, Quels enseignements tirés des événements de Charlottesville, publication du RFIEA.
Visitors to the University of Virginia’s (UVA) website are invited to learn about the town in which it is located, Charlottesville. “A Place Like No Other”, the page announces, and “Happiness Is A City In Virginia.” The discrepancy between this vision of Charlottesville and UVA as places of exceptional collectivity and intellectual richness, and the grim imagery of white supremacists marching around the iconic Rotunda in August of 2017, is vast. It parallels the yawning gulf between America’s idealized notion of what the country is and holds itself to be, and the racism that deeply structures the United States.
In the same vein, third US President Thomas Jefferson, founder of UVA, embodies the competing tensions that undergird the American project. On the one hand, he produced the soaring rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence. On the other, he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, a book written in response to France’s request for information about Virginia, about the “immovable veil of black” in “Query XIV : Laws that the Negro is inferior to both whites and Indians”. In that section, Jefferson speaks in no uncertain terms about the inferior stain of blackness.
The two days in Virginia and its aftermath revealed that the country’s darker forces are never far from the surface. In the news coverage, they saw legions — mostly men, but including women — marching, wielding torches, chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. They saw a gang of white supremacists savagely beat a young black man while police looked on, faced with difficulty or uncertainty about what to say, think, or do. They read that a white supremacist had murdered a white woman with his car. The reality of these reports was too stark and too jarring to be denied — there are racists in our midst !
And yet the reality of racism in America is likely to be obscured precisely because Charlottesville was so jarring. It will be even easier to believe that racists look like those marching on the UVA grounds, that racism manifests, even without cloaks and hoods, with torches, swastikas, and guns. Many white people will sigh with relief that they don’t live in the South, racism’s terroir ; that they reside in a blue state, where the electorate rejected a candidate fed by racial division ; that they are fortunate to count amongst their loved ones and colleagues individuals who were equally aghast by the news.
Those who do not see themselves reflected in Charlottesville’s mirror will use the visual display of hate as a benchmark against which to measure their own progressiveness and decency, failing to see a connection between the terror in Virginia and the more mundane racism that maintains their way of life. They will continue to watch the news in communities devoid of black neighbors, and to go to work in offices where they have no black colleagues. If their privilege is challenged they will deny it vehemently, perceiving evidence about the institutional nature of white supremacy as a personal affront. They will look to the future, because to live in America is to forgo history. In the American imaginary, the country moves unbridled, only forward. Attention to history is seen as retrograde, a kind of dissociative fugue that gives inadequate credence to the resolution of the country’s racial past.
Those that terrorized Charlottesville did so under the guise of protesting the proposed removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statue. In this telling, they have taken up the mantle — they are the guardians of history. Those who sympathize with the symbols of white supremacy, whether monuments, the Confederate flag, or otherwise, argued that the true focal point was the potential dissolution of free speech.
No matter that the marchers descended on Charlottesville wielding an arsenal of weapons meant to inflict grievous injury and death. Violence was recast as “speech”, racial terror as the expression of democratic ideals. And why not ? The current occupant of the White House has shown both a lack of understanding and disregard for free speech, the rule of law, and the U.S. constitution. The imprimatur of an elected regime has emboldened white supremacists who look wistfully to a time when racism was enshrined in law and wielded by violence.
And this is the real danger : that America is headed backwards to that time. Already we are seeing a stepwise retreat from policies to protect civil rights and a concerted move towards the history books. Even before the 2016 election, several states pressed to disenfranchise as many African American, Latino, poor, and other marginalized voters as they could, with such tactics as creating new, restrictive ID requirements, eliminating early voting, and redrawing district maps in order to diminish Black and Latino votes. Federal judges have forbid these new policies, ruling that they intentionally discriminate.
The current Justice Department has argued that protections from workplace discrimination ought not extend to gay and lesbian people, and has scoffed at federal oversight for police departments that have been sanctioned for violating the constitutional rights of city residents (e.g., Baltimore, Ferguson, Chicago). And not weeks after the conflagration in Charlottesville, the president pardoned an outlaw sheriff who held unapologetic contempt for the law ; the least of his violations was his speech, calling the places he held detainees “concentration camps”.
Thus, hate speech is not the primary issue in Charlottesville. The old adage says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. To be sure, the alarming slogans chanted by white supremacists on UVA’s grounds were serious, and should in no way be trivialized. But more alarming is if those words are backed by the full faith and credit of the highest office in the land.