The Lesson for White People In the Charlottesville Tragedy: Yes, Racism Still Exists In America and It’s Dangerous.

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harlottesville witnessed a group of demonstrators descend on their small Virginia town this weekend trying to “unite the right” under the banner of white supremacy and neo-Nazism, leaving behind dozens of injured and some dead.

When it was all over, 35 people had been injured and three people were killed. One anti-racism demonstrator was killed in a fatal attack with a vehicle and two personnel with the Virginia State police died in a crash, according to a news conference held by Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas.

(Full conference, but link starts at Chief Thomas’s remarks which came at the end)

Helicopter pilots for the Virginia State Police H. Jay Cullen, 48, and Berke Bates, 41, were providing air coverage of the demonstrations when their helicopter crashed to the ground around 5:00 p.m.

The cause of the crash is still being investigated, but Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe discussed this loss during a memorial service on Sunday morning.

He said:

I was close to both of those state troopers. Jay Cullen had been flying me around for three-and-a-half years. Berke was part of my executive protection unit. He was part of my family. The man lived with me 24–7.


A gun-metal gray Dodge Challenger was the source of the other killing and more than a dozen injuries. A counter-protest to the Nazis and white supremacist demonstration outlasted the “unite the right” crowd who fled after they attacked counter protesters resulting in a number of injuries.

As the group of anti-bigotry protesters traveled down Water St., blocks from the site of the “unite the right” rally, traffic along 4th. Street tried to weave its way through the dense crowd.

Revving its engine, the driver of the Charger barreled down the narrow alleyway smashing into the two cars in front and sending them into the crowd of demonstrators.

The driver of the Charger then threw the vehicle into reverse and sped away, likely because demonstrators surrounded the rear of the vehicle, trying to prevent him from escaping.

Heather Hayer, a 32-year-old paralegal who is believed to have been a part of the anti-bigotry demonstration, was killed while she was crossing the intersection.

“ She died doing what was right. My heart is broken, but I am forever proud of her,” her childhood friend Felecia Correa, serving as Hayer’s family spokesperson, told The New York Daily News.

Police arrested James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old from Ohio to whom the vehicle-turned-deadly-weapon is registered. Police say he recently moved to Ohio from his native Kentucky. He’s been charged with second-degree murder, multiple counts of “malicious wounding,” and one count of fleeing the scene of a crime.

His mother told reporters that she knew her son was attending the rally, which she thought was to support President Donald Trump who is “not a white supremacist” in her estimation.

She continued, via ABC News:

“I just knew he was going to a rally. I mean, I try to stay out of his political views. You know, we don’t, you know, I don’t really get too involved, I moved him out to his own apartment, so we — I’m watching his cat.”

Also speaking to the network’s Cincinnati affiliate was Fields’s high school history teacher, who noted that he had a disturbing fascination with the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. The teacher said he thought he “ developed a good rapport with him and used that rapport to constantly try to steer him away from those beliefs to show…why that thinking is wrong, why their beliefs were evil….”

President Donald Trump, who many of the white supremacist and neo-Nazis at the rally openly supported, issued two statements on the violence. In neither of those statements did he openly condemn the white supremacists, instead saying that there are hateful attitudes “on many sides” and he called for his administration to “study” what happened, as if its a mystery to how this nightmare got so out-of-hand.

(Also worth noting, Trump first offered “deepest condolences” to the families of the slain VA state troopers, but his follow-up tweet to Hayer’s friends and family only offered “condoloences.”)

However despite the lack of leadership from the White House, the Charlottesville tragedy has spawned something of a reversal for the rest of the Republican party. They are seemingly ready to finally admit that racism still exists in the United States and that it’s dangerous.

A number of GOP Senators and Representatives not only condemned white supremacy (honestly, one of the easiest political statements to make) but also have called on President Trump to do so as well.

Yet, in the past, whether the issue is troubling statements made by the president himself or the issues addressed in protests by groups like Black Lives Matter, the de facto Republican line has been to treat racism like it was a thing of the past.

In the early summer of 2015 — even before Trump entered the race — this issue was addressed by Bill Maher on Real Time (ironic, considering how his own denial of the reality of issues of race led to controversy after he used a racial slur in a joke).

Less than two weeks ago, Attorney General Jeff Sessions planned to use the Department of Justice’s civil rights division to investigate and prosecute discrimination against white students at colleges and universities, attacking affirmative action policies long-disdained by the right.

On Sunday, the Department of Justice announced it would be opening a civil rights investigation into the Charlottesville demonstration and violence. It’s fair to wonder if this would have happened had so many Republican lawmakers not spoken up so vociferously.

Until this weekend, the boilerplate response from Republicans and right-wing media stars has been either ambivalence to or doubt of the existence of systemic racism or the idea that it still affects people today.

For guys like Tucker Carlson on Fox News (who has a huge following among these Nazis because of his frequent “takedowns” of liberals) racism isn’t the problem but rather it’s the “radical left” who want to act as the thought-police and bring down American democracy.

As Jamelle Bouie wrote in 2014:

For these anti-anti-racists, accusations of racism are a greater concern than actual discrimination and prejudice against blacks and other minorities. It’s not that they support racism, but that they see it as largely irrelevant to contemporary life. Any problems with minority communities, in their eyes, have more to do with cultural dysfunction, not racial inequality. Moreover, if there’s a racial problem in America, it’s not against minorities, it’s against whites….

In 2015, according to polling done by Pew Research, nearly half of all white people surveyed said they saw “no unfair treatment” for black Americans in any aspect of society. Breaking down those results by age, location, and party affiliation found that majorities of white people aged 40–64, conservatives, Republicans, Southerners, and those who lived in mid-to-small population areas felt this way.

In part, this is because of the balkanization of media and politics in recent years. After the election of the nation’s first black president saw nearly 100% of black voters supporting Democrats, race became more of a political football than it was during the racialized political arguments around “welfare reform” in the 1980s and 1990s.

Barack Obama’s election also to led to the REDMAP effort of the 2010 midterms in which gerrymandered Congressional districts and targeted voter suppression through the use of strict voter identification laws meant to disproportionately affect minority voters to win near total-control of the government for the GOP.

It continued into the 2016 election, with Trump-supporting Republicans saying that what racism does exist in America today is the fault of that first black president “dividing” the nation on racial issues.

Even if this was just the most-cynical of political strategies — as opposed to bald racism — it has had a devastatingly negative affect on the country and racial attitudes among those these conservatives were trying to convince.

Their irresponsible denials have led to a gross distortion of the realities of racial issues in America, with one side dismissing it all as an illegitimate argument made by their political rivals. It became just another battleground in the politics-as-team-sports media industry, and few seemed willing to even try to address the root causes.

In many states GOP state legislators are pushing anti-protest laws that label protesters as “terrorists” and reduce the legal liability for motorists who do exactly what Fields is accused of doing.

But now, it’s impossible for even the most partisan conservatives to ignore. There can be no more denial that racism exists in the United States, and it precipitates dangerous violence that threatens the very core of what we believe to be civil society. That’s one of the lessons that white Americans in doubt of that fact need to learn from this tragedy, or there will be plenty more like it in the future.

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Joshua M. Patton

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