Racism and hate in Charlottesville are homegrown: Julian Brave NoiseCat

Through the exasperated exchange and days of hesitation, an uncomfortable and unspoken truth lingered in the air, tacitly acknowledged by the president himself: racism and bigotry are not foreign to the halls of American power—in fact, in 2017, the most powerful man in the world still has white nationalists' backs.

There’s blood on the leaves because there’s blood at the root

Multiple white nationalist groups march with torches through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 11, 2017. (Mykal McEldowne/The Indianapolis Star/Associated Press)

What started Friday with several hundred torch-brandishing white nationalists marching on the University of Virginia's main quadrangle with full-throated shouts of "You will not replace us" and "Jews will not replace us," culminated Saturday in a young man in a Dodge Challenger mowing down a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19.

"When I think of torches, I want to think of the Statue of Liberty." Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer wrote on Facebook. "Today, in 2017, we are instead seeing a cowardly parade of hatred, bigotry, racism, and intolerance march down the lawns of the architect of our Bill of Rights."

Signer's core message, hammered home with patriotic metaphor, was clear: this white nationalist rally is an affront to the values at the foundation of American society; these racists and bigots do not belong; they are not American; they are not us.

Meanwhile, in their own minds, these right-wingers were the Most American actors in Charlottesville—not the least. They were defending white heritage and rights that, in their view, are under siege from liberal multiculturalism. They look in the mirror and they see righteous patriots.

Confronted with mass bigotry, the immediate instinct of the body politic was to repress and then expunge the heretics as categorically foreign and historically degenerate—the unwanted offspring of a freak campaign and election season gone awry. 

"America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms," Former Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush said in a joint statement. "As we pray for Charlottesville, we are reminded of the fundamental truths recorded by that city's most prominent citizen in the Declaration of Independence: we are all created equal and endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. We know these truths to be everlasting because we have seen the decency and greatness of our country."

"We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive" House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted. "This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity."

The implication of this nation-wide assumption is that racism and bigotry come from bastardized Nazism, faux fascism, Russian meddling and the corrupt corners of the internet. Our impulse is to assert, immediately, that the white nationalists—though they claim to be the "most" American among us—are alien. They are imagined as anything but homegrown.

The truth of clenched teeth

As journalists performed the examination, politicians and pundits of all stripes partook in the excommunication—except the President.

It took a full two days for Trump to stand before the teleprompter and half-heartedly recite the incantation the nation demanded:

"Racism is evil," said Trump, in a hastily arranged White House appearance. "And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the K.K.K., neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans."

The president was resoundingly and rightfully criticized for hesitating to condemn racist violence in Charlottesville.

"Donald Trump's refusal to condemn the murderous white supremacists in Charlottesville finally confirms what has become increasingly obvious: The current president of the United States isn't a real American," wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. "These days we have a president who is really, truly, deeply un-American, someone who doesn't share the values and ideals that made this country special."

At a tense press conference just a day later, Trump defended his response, describing the so-called "alt-left" counter-protesters as "very, very violent" and insisting there was "blame on both sides."

At one point, he even sympathized with white nationalist opposition to the removal of Confederate monuments.

"Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee," Trump said. "This week, it is Robert E. Lee and this week, Stonewall Jackson. Is it George Washington next? You have to ask yourself, where does it stop?"

Through the exasperated exchange and days of hesitation, an uncomfortable and unspoken truth lingered in the air, tacitly acknowledged by the president himself: racism and bigotry are not foreign to the halls of American power—in fact, in 2017, the most powerful man in the world still has white nationalists' backs.

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Herein lies the danger of the myth that drives politicians, pundits and the public to repudiate hate in Charlottesville: it denies the truth. White nationalists, racists and bigots have deep, broad and influential roots in the United States.

Politicians, pundits and the president himself can condemn overt racism on Monday and return to the dog-whistle politics of heritage and know-nothingism on Tuesday. Racism—hateful, coded, structural—is no exception in these United States. It is status quo.

Trump insisted Tuesday that he needed to know the facts before he could speak. These are the facts: the United States is a nation founded upon the continent-sized theft of land, labour and life from Indigenous people and the Atlantic-wide enslavement, colonization and segregation of Africans. These original sins were followed by decades of xenophobia, tinged with the irony that, even according to its own myths, this is a country founded by immigrants and refugees.

There is blood on the leaves because there is blood at the root.

These centuries-long, continent-wide historical realities were not accidental. They were purposeful. Their legacies and aftermaths are real and still with us. A quick visit to the inner city or an Indian reservation will confirm what should be obvious: we are a long way from equality.

It is absurd to claim the legacy of the Bill of Rights, without acknowledging that, until 1964—and in some instances still today—these rights were not available to African Americans. It is disingenuous to evoke the Statue of Liberty—a symbol of freedom from foreign domination—without recognizing that the same spirit of independence has been denied to the Indigenous nations of these lands.

When politicians invoke these founding myths, they are not speaking to the First People of this land or the people of colour who have suffered upon it—these are not our narratives. They were never our narratives. These are bedtime stories told to console those who cannot bear the truth.

About the Author

Julian Brave NoiseCat (Secwepemc/St’at’imc) is a writer currently reporting from across Turtle Island with financial support from the CBC’s Indigenous Fellowship and High Country News’ Diverse Western Voices Award. He is a graduate of Columbia University and received a Clarendon Scholarship to study global and imperial history at the University of Oxford.