I had a quick reaction when I first saw the photos of white nationalists gathering by torchlight in Charlottesville on Friday night: Please everyone, can we just ignore them? Any attention, I thought, would benefit the idiotic agenda of these racist young men. Look away, was my instinct; let them revel in their lunacy and absurdist version of reality. If a couple hundred nazis hold a white pride rally and no one else cares doesn’t that reveal how little they matter?
But my quick reaction was wrong. And though the events following the Friday night march might have been less violent had my reaction been widely shared, it still would have been wrong.
To begin with, thinking that the best response would have been a non-response to a perspective which demands one’s persecution or annihilation can only seem reasonable to those who aren’t threatened by that hateful perspective. More to the point: Only a white person – me! – would think it rationale to be quiet in the face of such blatant white supremacy. I saw those torch-wielding men and thought, What a bunch of cowards! Their insecurities seemed palpable; their willingness to be manipulated obvious to the point of easy ridicule. Any attention seemed like adding kindling to their pitiful, dim flame.
I was thinking about these young men as bullies. The bully wants you to react because he’s itching for a fight. The bully only knows confrontation and any other form of communication is wasted on his narrow vision of reality. Your mother’s advice about bullies, though not always practical, contained some wisdom: ignore a bully and he’ll often go away to find someone else who’ll agree to his rules of engagement.
But the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville are not like bullies at all, which leads to the second reason my reaction to them was wrong. According to news reports, many of the marchers wore those red Make America Great Again hats while carrying their signs and chanting their bigotry. The man who owns that slogan and that red hat, the president, still hasn’t directly confronted the marchers or their agenda, choosing instead to blandly condemn “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides. On many sides.”
Many sides. This is what my gut reaction missed. The white supremacists appear so fanatical in those photos that it’s tempting to laugh and then turn away. As Vann R. Newrick II wrote in The Atlantic, “It’s easier to joke about losers camping out in a park than to consider them capable of the kinds of paradigm-shifting horror that destroyed countless black families.” But this is a fatal mistake because, regardless of their appearance or the outrage of so many, these men understand that their assumptions are not those of an easily marginalized or ignored bully, but of much of the nation, including, it’s not a stretch to assume, the president. So when he, the most powerful man in the world, talks about the events in Charlottesville, he’s not talking about the overwhelming forces of good standing against the small vanguard of hate; he’s conjuring a strange sort of predetermined battle in which everyone is equally to blame. The problem, for the president and much of the nation, isn’t with the white nationalists’ premise but in how they advanced it this weekend.
We heard a lot about the silent majority this past election cycle, people who related profoundly to candidate Trump’s vision of a country returned to a mythical past. It’s that word silent that seems important now. The silence of the powerful is deadly. It’s what allows the president to recast the day’s events as an ideologically-neutral fight which should have been fought with more dignity. It’s what will allow so many of the president’s supporters to role their eyes at the news, claiming that the events have been blown out of proportion while admiring the marchers’ goal of defending the statue of Robert E. Lee. That silence creeps into the chests of even those who are disgusted by the hate on display in Charlottesville but who’d rather avoid the complicated conversation, the awkward moment.
But this silence only cuts one way and many of those who showed up to oppose the white supremacists must understand this innately. For while the silent majority has the luxury to watch its agenda advanced from the sidelines, those who’ve long suffered under that agenda have no such privilege. Ignoring the foul propaganda doesn’t delegitimize it because it’s already legitimate. Newrick again: “[E]ven the most feared white supremacists in the lore of Jim Crow were just regular white men, transformed from lives as politicians, mechanics, farmers, and layabouts by the sheer power of ideology. And often, their movements were considered “fringe” and marginal—until they weren’t.”
The events in Charlottesville today exist not as an anomaly that can safely be ignored but as a veil pulled back revealing the ends of silence. So silence, no matter the cost, cannot be an option.