When I first saw the images from Charlottesville, Virginia, on the night of August 11, I couldn’t believe my eyes. In 2017, in a town not more than two hours from my home, white nationalists were assembling with torches and spewing racial epithets—words and images reminiscent of some of the darkest days of American history. Of course, most of us know better than to presume that our country has overcome the racial injustices of the past two centuries. There is evidence to the contrary all around us. However, it was still jarring that night to see such blatant displays of bigotry in a public space.
In the days and weeks following the Charlottesville riots, two key lessons have stood out to me. First, the current polarized political climate in the U.S. provides an insufficient paradigm for responding to violent acts of racism. And second, our country seems woefully unaware of our own history of injustice.
Much has already been written about President Trump’s dog-whistle statement that there were “good people on both sides” of the events in Charlottesville. His handling of the crisis, no doubt, created further divisions and provided more than a hint of vindication to the white supremacists.
The reaction from the public was almost formulaic. We saw many Americans retreat to familiar partisan encampments, debating issues such as political correctness, free speech, and states’ rights. Of course, these topics are interesting and important. But what we urgently needed in such a moment was moral clarity. Our experience as a nation includes systematic attempts to segregate, subjugate, and discriminate against people of color. When angry white men with torches take to the streets, we see echoes of our shameful and violent past. There should be no equivocation in our response.
We need leaders of all stripes—Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative—to declare emphatically that racist ideology has no place in American society. Instead, we kicked off another round of tired Left vs. Right cable news debates. We were left with more disunity in a moment when the country should have risen above to confront the evil scourge of racism.
One of my heroes is modern civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson, who has spent his career working to combat racial bias in the justice system. When reflecting on U.S. history, he frequently argues that “the North won the Civil War, but the South won the narrative war.”
In the wake of Charlottesville, Mr. Stevenson’s words seem ever more poignant. We’ve constructed a romantic view of our past where slavery and lynching are treated as sterile and distant historical facts rather than an ugly piece of our social fabric upon which this country was built. We are rarely forced to wrestle with hard truths about the present consequences stemming from centuries of injustice.
What’s past is prologue. What we choose to elevate from our history will assuredly determine our future. One of the lessons from Charlottesville is that more than 150 years after the Civil War, maybe we haven’t learned very many lessons at all.
— Rod is a former candidate for the West Virginia House of Delegates. He resides in Shenandoah Junction (WV).