Thoughts After Charlottesville

The August hate-based rally in Charlottesville was horrible in so many ways. The obvious hatred, the overt violence and threats of further violence, and the sense that vile elements of Nazism and the KKK are virulent and public in our midst today are terrifying and disturbing. The intensity of the hate, fear, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism on display in Charlottesville is imprinted on the minds of many of us who saw video footage of the events. We must stand against every manifestation of neo-Nazism, white nationalism and white supremacy in the clearest and strongest and most united terms. We must stand with all who are targeted by these groups – people of color, Jews, LGBQT, immigrants, etc.

The fact that we cannot count on the highest leaders of our country to provide moral leadership now means that even more of the responsibility falls to the rest of us.  It is significant that many have spoken out forcefully against the neo-Nazi’s, white nationalists, and other hate groups; and so many have participated in demonstrations and counter demonstrations opposing race-based hatred and anti-Semitism.

While we need to respond to the specific incidents, we also need to recommit ourselves to the longer term work of eliminating racism, white dominance, and anti-Semitism from our society. It is encouraging that many white people are not only acknowledging that racism is a major force in our nation, but are also facing the fact that the problem is not just with those who appear openly racist.

All of us who are white bear some responsibility for the fact that we have not yet taken sufficient action, have not yet been outspoken enough, and have not yet sufficiently bridged the barriers that racism has placed between people, to eliminate the power racism has in our society. Mass incarceration, the increasing wealth gap between white families and black and brown families, continuing job and housing discrimination, the erosion of voting rights, and our continued failure as a society to provide young black and brown children with the lives and schools they deserve, are all examples of our collective complicity in allowing injustice based on race to continue to shape our society.

At the same time, blatant, explicit anti-Semitic acts, including harassment and targeting of Jews and defacing of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, have increased in the United States, spreading fear and dread. In the first quarter of the year anti-Semitic incidents were up nationally by 83 percent over 2016.   In Massachusetts there were 38 such incidents in the first quarter of 2017, compared to 50 incidents in all of 2015. Nationally hate-crimes against Muslims are up 91 per cent in the first half of 2017 compared to the same time period in 2016.

A large percentage of white people in this country are not in favor of explicit racism or the mistreatment of anyone based on their religious heritage. Nonetheless, racism continues, as do other forms of mistreatment.   This is, at least in part, because all of us have been subjected to a dominant narrative that says that white people have different interests than people of color; Christians have different interests than Jews and Muslims; that it’s okay for white people to have the bulk of the power and wealth in our country; that people of different races and different religious heritages don’t really want to be in each others’ lives; that perhaps white people really are in general superior to black and brown people; that significant social change is out of our reach; that society will work well if we each narrowly pursue our self-interest without regard for the effect on others; and our lives will be happier and easier if we don’t rock the boat and if we generally go along with the way things are.

This is the narrative we’ve been hearing from our media, many of our politicians, much of the entertainment industry, etc. for many years. This is a version of the same story that was developed to get white working class people to support slavery, even when they didn’t benefit from it. It’s the same story that led a great many white people to tolerate lynching, and support segregation, mass incarceration, and ongoing oppression of African Americans.

It is a story that separates people from each other. This separation allows the richest individuals in the U.S. to claim an increasingly huge and disproportionate share of the wealth of the society for themselves, while keeping the rest of us too divided to challenge their dominance. It’s a story that leaves our integrity compromised and our isolation from each other in place. It is a story which is false.

It is time for all of us who believe in social justice to tell a different story. We get to tell a story about how all of us of all racial and religious heritages are part of a single social fabric. That we are in this together. That it is natural and right for us to love each other. That as Cornell West says, ”justice is what love looks like in public.” That we want a society in which no one is exploited, mistreated, or left out, and in which everyone is respected and valued. If we can tell this story at every possible opportunity, then we can begin to live out this narrative .

We who are white can do the significant work we need to do to join other people as respectful partners, give up our expectations of white people being dominant, and thereby regain a piece of our humanity that we have lost. Together we can rectify the systemic injustices of the past and present. All of us – of every race and religious heritage – can reach for each other and build a society that works for everyone.   This will not be easy or quick. But over time, one relationship at a time, one study/reflection group at a time, one organizing project at a time, we can bridge that which has divided us from each other; we can unite to back each other’s key goals. As a united, diverse people we will be powerful – powerful enough to build the world we want.

Russ Vernon-Jones
August 2017

Note:  These are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Steering Committee of the Coming Together project.