The tragic events in Charlottesville have captivated the attention of the nation, plunging us, yet again, into another period of deep soul-searching over our anguished racial history. President Donald Trump drew criticism from both sides of the aisle for his reluctance to condemn white nationalism specifically in his initial remarks.
As a scholar of political rhetoric, I understand, yet strongly disagree with Trump’s strategy in refusing to condemn white nationalism specifically. A vocal part of his base aligns with this philosophy, leaving him little incentive to risk alienating them. When former Klansman David Duke endorsed Trump during the campaign, the candidate expressed similar hesitancy in distancing himself from white nationalism.
Trump deserves strong criticism for his failure to specifically and clearly condemn white nationalism. The lure of power and votes do not justify his silence. Yet, to criticize an unpopular president is easy. Perhaps the harder, more difficult task we face in the wake of Charlottesville is to consider how we as citizens and Christians engage in a similar type of silence on a regular basis. Many of us mobilize in defense of ideals of equality every time an incident like Charlottesville occurs but quickly retreat to our comfort zones when public attention dies down. Daily battles for equality in church, education, employment, and the criminal justice system are much harder to maintain.
Trump’s silence on white supremacy was not an aberration but a cultural norm. Our disgust with his statement threatens to blind us to the ways in which the American imagination has consistently made room for the ideas of white supremacy to exist alongside core values like freedom, justice, and equality. Accommodating racism is as American as apple pie.
This Is Who We Are
Racial tensions have skyrocketed to their highest levels in 25 years. The common narrative traces this recent period of unrest back to the murder of Trayvon Martin. But our attempts to grapple with events in Charlottesville and Charleston fail to identify the link between our communal history of accommodating racism and contemporary tensions. Neither the nation nor the church has demonstrated a sustained commitment to confronting white supremacy. At key moments, Christians have advocated for the abolition of slavery, death of Jim Crow, and the end of mass incarceration, but the commitment to equality has consistently languished over time. Our lack of sustained commitment to biblical justice keeps the soil of racism and white supremacy fertile for the James Fields Jr.s and Dylann Roofs of American culture to grow into domestic terrorists.
Deep down, I suspect many of us recognize the inadequacy of our past and present efforts to combat racism. Yet, as James Baldwin observed, “people find it very difficult to act on what they know.” We content ourselves with annual celebrations of our national independence without wrestling with the hypocrisy of a freedom declaration against the backdrop of slavery. We paint a picture of gradual progress on racial fronts since the Emancipation Proclamation but fail to acknowledge that the Compromise of 1877 injected new life in white supremacy, giving racists an unparalleled opportunity to execute violence against people of color for decades.
Events along these lines are not inconsistent with our national identity. In fact, they are a part of our DNA. They illustrate how our country has tolerated pervasive forms of racism—and even genocide—to gain power, wealth, and influence. The current fight to preserve positions of honor for Confederate monuments reflects an unwillingness to confront the vicious legacy of white supremacy. The goal of these removal efforts is not, as some argue, to whitewash the past, but to recontextualize it. Defense of an institution that legitimated forms of physical, psychological, and sexual trauma is not a cause to honor but lament.