One week ago, as I was leaving a morning coffee meeting in Arlington, Virginia, I ran into white supremacy on the Washington Metro. At first, I barely noticed these two average-looking strangers. But animated by a pro-Trump book that one man had been reading, they began to discuss right-wing politics, their contempt for the left, and their hatred of all things Hillary.
Their conversation quickly crescendoed into white nationalist meme-ery. As they castigated black people as lazy and unintelligent, women as entitled, and “Mexicans” as violent and opportunistic, one of the men punctuated his argument by nodding in my direction. “I’m talking about them,” he said, looking at me with wide, lucid eyes.
The tourists and late-morning commuters on the Metro doggedly fixated on their phones, willing themselves to reclassify this harassment as the free speech that all Americans have the right to practice. The men on the train gestured at me, mumbling words like “black bitch” and discussing blackness as a “subculture,” occasionally letting out guttural laughter at my futile attempts to retreat into myself and disappear.
They seemed to have overlooked another young black woman nearby, but as her stop approached and she hurried to the exit, the more aggressive of the men grabbed her arm and demanded she stay and “talk to them for a minute.” The train car was silent, save for a nervous giggle from a young white man across the aisle.
I was deeply disturbed—and fearful enough that, once I made it safely to my office, I broke down in tears. The boldness of their assault on the young woman transported me to the times when angry white men murdered, assaulted, or stalked people of color with impunity for the audacity of their existence. But oddly, that feeling was neither unfamiliar nor easily remedied. Seething underneath my visceral panic was a more sustained fear, not of two bigots on the Metro but of the hundreds of men and women who sanitize their bigotry and design national policies that mesh with these ideologies.
When the white supremacists arrived for their rally in Washington this weekend, one year after the tragedy of Charlottesville, their pitiful numbers and quick retreat in the face of counter-protesters signaled to some that their movement had lost much of its power. But the inconvenient truth is much more complicated. Their march and the coverage of its implications demonstrate that it’s once again time to reflect on the ways that Americans both define and respond to racism.
That the Unite the Right 2 rally failed in terms of turnout and force does not mean that its messages don’t still lurk, masked, within the body politic.
Prior to Charlottesville, our poor collective historical memories had not fully prepared us to contend with the many ways racism shows itself. Even though black and brown people warned America that Trump's dog whistle was really a bullhorn, perhaps white people thought that violent racist extremism was a thing of the past. The white sheets had been burned, the swastikas buried. After Charlottesville, many whites were surprised that the sheets have been replaced with Brooks Brothers suits and $100 haircuts. The white supremacists look like America because they are America.
August 11, 2017, could have been a national wake-up call. Charlottesville had all of the ingredients designed to knock “measured liberals” and “compassionate conservatives” out of their colorblind slumber. Twenty-something white misogynists prove that racism will certainly outlive your backwards uncle. Neo-Nazis with degrees from elite universities and fresh-pressed khakis and matching white polo shirts defy the easy classism that relegates bigotry to hillbillies. Angry men and women dressed in faux police and military garb showed that white nationalist politics are not just theoretical musings of the economically anxious, but are rather ideologies that require violence in order to realize their ends.
The vast majority of 21st-century Americans vehemently disavow the vitriolic language and tactics of Klansmen and white supremacy. Polling conducted in the weeks after Charlottesville found that 89 percent of respondents agreed that all races should be treated equally, and 70 percent strongly agreed with the statement “all races are created equal.”
But a startling number of Americans, when probed further, shared fundamental similarities with the white supremacist groups they condemn. Although only 8 percent of respondents expressed support for white nationalism, 31 percent of those polled agreed with the statement that “America must protect and preserve its white European heritage,” and 39 percent agreed that “white people are currently under attack in this country.”
Similarly troubling, about one-fifth of those polled said that they “neither agree nor disagree” with the alt-right and white nationalists, even though the poll offered a “don’t know” response option for those who might be unfamiliar with those groups. Like the bystander quietly chuckling on the Metro, most Americans might not be marching in white civil rights rallies, but many are content to actively ignore or diminish the ways that such movements undermine both democracy and the safety of people of color.
White people’s failure to see racism as something beyond blatant individual actions by the most transparent racists—Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and their ilk—means that institutional racism continues to thrive, hurt people, and destroy lives. As I wrote last year, the swift and bipartisan condemnation of the first Unite The Right rally largely was not because of deep outrage at the content and implications of its ideology, but was rather “disappointment in the lack of subtlety in our bigotry.”
Americans’ great fear lies in being called racist, rather than in actually being one. Enabling politicians declined to recognize ethno-state politics in the eyes of a child ripped from a parent at the border. The Supreme Court’s upholding of an Ohio effort to purge voter rolls ignored that a tenet of white nationalism requires mass disenfranchisement. Anti-Muslim animus peddled by the president’s favorite cable news network is reminiscent of the propaganda used to justify terrifying policies in fascist regimes. Business owners who call the police on little black girls with lemonade stands overlook how white supremacists also fantasize about using state force to claim physical space as their own.
None of the politicians, police officers, or citizens carrying out these abuses did so while holding a tiki torch in front of a confederate monument. As such, their tactics—all of which aim to silence, erase, expel, or minimize people of color—have been viewed as policies to be debated in our civil discourse, rather than ones designed to limit who can participate in it. Finger-wagging, no matter how vigorous, at Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler while simultaneously supporting behaviors and policies that continue to marginalize minorities isn’t just complicity; it’s hypocrisy.
Politeness will always be a flimsy response to racist violence. People of color who ardently resist these actions—whether through civil disobedience, kneeling on a football field, or shouting down white supremacists—are hushed, admonished for displaying a lack of civility, or called “sons of bitches” by the president of the United States. When black and brown people are told to practice decency towards those who question their ability to exist, they again become the victims of white supremacy cloaked in moderation, an insidious ideology that continues to equate the feelings, rights and safety with those of the people they hate.
Unfortunately, men like the ones I encountered on the Metro will always be with us. But despite their ugly antics, they are not the biggest threats to justice. Their actions and verbalizations of hate are not part of common discourse in the D.C. region, but many elements of their ideology are reflected in the way we accept segregated schools and neighborhoods, tolerate police shootings of unarmed black men, abuse of immigrant women and men in ICE facilities, and meticulously draw districts to limit the voting power of marginalized people.
Charlottesville presented America with an opportunity to closely examine our collective relationship with racial fear and hatred. The events of that single day reminded us that racism can be both base and elite, dirty or polished, or painfully obvious and eerily subtle. Yet when Charlottesville sounded the alarm, we as a nation pushed the snooze button. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take another tragedy for us to wake up.