"This Is Us": White Supremacy in the United States

Senior Expert, Programs


The white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia again brought to the forefront the racist attitudes and beliefs that were part of the founding of our country, that have always been with us as a society and that will continue to propagate unless we have the courage to confront the hard truths about our past.

The hashtag response of “#ThisIsNotUs” was offensive to many people, and rightfully so. While intended as a rallying cry against white nationalists and neo-Nazis, it reveals complete ignorance of the realities of our country and the perspective of people of color who have been oppressed and marginalized since the first Europeans arrived.

It is important that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe called the protestors what they are: white supremacists – and condemned their acts. But in telling them to “go home” because they were not welcome in Virginia, he was overlooking Virginia’s history, the founding of the University of Virginia (UVA) and the reality that white supremacist ideology is a part of his state, is a part of our country. Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, the organizers of the march, are both UVA graduates. Racist elements are not “outside.” We cannot tell them to go home. The fact that the protestors left their hoods behind shows just how “at home” they felt.

Instead of a reactive hashtag, as white Americans who consider ourselves allies in the movement for racial justice, we need to educate ourselves about the past. For those of us who are born into a position of privilege because of our white skin, we have a responsibility to examine both visible and insidious forms of white supremacy and white privilege. Until we understand the forces at work to preserve white supremacy, we cannot deal with the problems we are facing today.

So much has been written and produced to highlight the mutation, rather than the end, of slavery in the United States, by writers and filmmakers such as Michelle Alexander, Carol Anderson, James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ava DuVernay, Bryan Stevenson, to name only a few. Yet in schools and educational institutions, we do not hear enough about these intellectual and cultural leaders. We need to learn about both the victims of past violence and the systems that have allowed injustices to occur and be condoned.

In many schools across our country, we learn an incomplete history of slavery, with a focus on a few heroes, slaves who led the fight for freedom and a few sympathetic allies who supported that cause. But do we learn enough about how slavery was justified politically and legally? Does the average high school student understand the extent to which slavery was perpetuated after Emancipation through sharecropping, indentured servitude, mass incarceration and other laws and policies put forward by white supremacists in power? Do students learn about red-lining and other forms of persistent economic subjugation? Do we know that a significant percentage of Confederate monuments were erected in the 1900s and 1960s as part of a political project to oppose desegregation and maintain white supremacy, as noted in a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center?

When the question naturally arises, What do we do? What can I do?, the answer needs to be: educate ourselves. Rediscover our history, so we can act from a place of knowledge.

While the protestors are more visible, heinous, violent manifestations of the dark side of our past and present, white supremacy is reflected and perpetuated in our country in so many other subtler, yet equally destructive ways. Part of facing our past will involve revising how we teach our country’s history so that textbooks cannot get away with reducing slavery to “immigration” or describing slaves as “workers.” Education reform is a long and contentious process. In a way, it is the last bastion of social change, an indicator of society’s progress on key issues. There are already efforts at reform, but we cannot wait. We should start by reading, learning, listening, holding “teach-ins” and forming study groups.

Governor McAuliffe called for reconciliation. But before that can happen there needs to be a reckoning and an acknowledgement of the harms done and the enduring systemic racism and white supremacy that is part of the foundation of this country. Part of acknowledgement is taking responsibility and concrete steps to affirm the dignity and rights of those who have been harmed. The grassroots-led movement to remove confederate statues, and the positive response in several cities, reflects that we are beginning to face this past and that many of us want to take responsibility.

Confederate monuments are a symbol of the continuum of racist attitudes among white Americans, both extreme racism (represented by those who erected and defend them) and more insidious forms of white supremacy, reflected by those of us who have not questioned them and have allowed them to stay for so long.

Removing symbols of confederacy from our cities, from our country, is not about erasing and forgetting our past, it is about shifting away from honoring our dark chapters to learning from them and taking steps to ensure “never again.” We need to take them off a pedestal and put them in spaces where they can be reminders of our past, so we learn from it and break the cycle of white supremacy. Many other countries have had to deal with a difficult past, and they have found ways to do it, including through education reform and truth seeking.

For most of us, the events in Charlottesville do not reflect who we want to be as a country, but we must face the truth that it is a part of who we are. We need to accept and acknowledge our dark past and on that basis, take responsibility and concrete steps to become who we want to be, as a people and as a country.

PHOTO: Hiram Wesley Evans, Grand Wizard of the KKK, during a Klan march in Washington, D.C. in 1926. (Library of Congress)