As I write this, it’s not yet 24 hours since Charlottesville, Virginia erupted in violence at the hands of white supremacists. What happened there, how we respond to it, and what must happen next is an essential conversation for all Americans, but especially educators. Those white Americans whose reaction was to claim “this isn’t America!” miss the entire reality of how most of this country lives. The reality is that this is America, and since November 8, 2016, the hate, racism, and white supremacy has only become more bold. We have the responsibility as educators to teach the real history of America, and the true reality of our modern society. We must also take on the responsibility of moving away from that history. If we are not honest about it then not only do we repeat it endlessly, but we do a disservice to our students – many of whom feel the brunt of the racial brutality that was so casually flaunted this weekend. It is time we take action and make sure that the symbols of the worst of America be removed from glorified spaces and we work together to reclaim a present and a future that truly does arc towards justice.
[bctt tweet=”We have the responsibility as educators to teach the real history of America” username=”EducatorsRoom”]
They came from other states to join what was billed as a “Unite the Right” rally on the campus of the University of Virginia. Specifically, they wanted to gather in what is now called Emancipation Park, where a statue of Robert E. Lee is scheduled to be removed. On Friday evening, August 11, the white supremacists, carrying swastika and Confederate flags, knew exactly what that statue stands for and they gathered around it as if to ward off its demise. They brought torches and they chanted “blood and soil!” – a Nazi chant about racial purity. They didn’t wear hoods though. They wore white polo shirts and khaki pants, imitating the frequently worn outfit Donald Trump wears when he golfs. Many of them sported the now well-recognized Trump “Make America Great Again” hats. They felt safe enough to show their faces and to demonstrate that in all their middle class white privilege, their superiority would be protected.
Non-violent protestors, including clergy from churches all around Charlottesville and students not yet attending classes, gathered to repudiate the Nazis. The images of that evening were disconcerting at best, horrifying at worst, and portended even more terrible action the next day. On Saturday, the white supremacists’ main march was scheduled for noon. Hundreds of them showed up wearing armor, carrying weapons, with nazi slogans on their shirts and signs, and hatred in their faces. The people of Charlottesville refused to allow them safe space to spew their toxic ideology. The white supremacists responded by spraying the counter-protestors with mace and pepper spray, and brutally attacking them. Several young black men were beaten by the white supremacists. But the worst was yet to come.
As peaceful anti-racism protestors walked together down a Charlottesville street, one of the white supremacists got in his car and purposely sped it into the crowd, crashing into people, murdering one young woman and injuring 20 more. Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, lived her life to fight for justice. She put her words to actions and showed up to protest against the Nazis who’d come to her town. She died standing for and speaking for a just America. She died because of what she stood for.
History Meets Real America
And Trayvon Martin.
That reason: our society is corrupted at its core by institutionalized racism. That means that racism isn’t about just what is in individual people’s hearts. It’s about our entire system of institutions being built upon and flourishing because of white supremacy. Because the white Europeans who colonized this nation were able to dominate (and later virtually extinguish) the indigenous tribes who lived here, and were then able to perpetuate the slavery of an entire race of people just to prop up an unjust economy, a powerful nation was built. Seventy years into the nation’s existence, half the country realized that it could not perpetuate democracy on the foundation of expanded slavery. Slave states, however, refused to relent and give up the advantage of free labor and inhumane culture. Any myth you may have heard that the Civil War was not actually fought over slavery is just that: a myth. If you need any convincing, check out the second sentence of Mississippi’s Secession Declaration:
“Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world.”
In fact, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the multiple monuments to those who fought to defend slavery of human beings began to rise up. In the 1920’s a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, a Reconstruction-era terrorist organization, began throughout the country. Its largest groups were in states like Indiana and Oregon. White Supremacy spread its institutional power as well. Southern states adopted the Confederate Battle Flag as part of their state flags, and homage to Confederate battles, generals, and other symbols and statues flourished. In 1919 and 1920 massive race riots in Chicago and Tulsa saw thousands of white men attacking and killing hundreds of African Americans. Back then, KKK Members wore hoods over their heads because they thought the anonymity would protect their day jobs in banking, corporate leadership, and government. Trump’s America has allowed those hoods to be removed.
Imagine being a black child and having to go to school at Robert E. Lee Elementary or a Jewish woman having business at a courthouse that flies the confederate flag or displays a Jefferson Davis statue on its property – you are being told to your face that your oppressors still control your entire world and are proud to flaunt it.
The legacy of lynching, murder, and the repetitive trauma of discrimination and segregation continued through the 20th century. Police brutality, mass incarceration of people of color, and institutional rejection of young students of color from universities was the regular practice of this country. It still is. Slowly we began to progress and push for change. It has only been 50 years since the law of the land was equality and full voting suffrage. In those 50 years, many states have continued to do everything possible to resist that equality and access to voting. So no, what happened this weekend in Charlottesville isn’t shocking. It’s America.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Remove the Statues of Betrayal
An important step away from the toxic corruption of white supremacy is to remove the statues to its perpetuation. Every Confederate statue that has been erected around this country is an homage to people who rejected and betrayed America. They didn’t even want to be American citizens. They disdained the end of oppression and they fought to continue the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of human beings. They rebelled against the United States and they rejected the union that supported and protected them. So why do we glorify them? Why do we erect statues that sing their virtues? Why do we fly a flag that symbolizes the most abhorrent practice of humanity?
Even the neo-nazis and white supremacists know what these statues mean: they embody the horrors that they want to return to: a racially “cleansed” population of people that oppresses, kills, and disappears people of color or of ethnic origins other than their version of racial superiority. That’s why they choose to stage their marches around the statues.
That’s why the statues, like the Confederate flags, must go. Yes, we should teach about the Confederacy. Yes, our difficult and shameful history is important to face honestly. But no, we do not need to glorify it or erect statues to it. It is time to move on. We’ve had 400 years of genocide, slavery, segregation, and institutionalized racism at the hand of privileged white America. We will never be a different America if we cling to the symbols of that worst part of us. Let’s move forward as a nation. Let’s make Charlottesville the turning point. Let’s not let Heather’s death, or Trayvon’s death, or Sandra’s death or any other deaths be in vain. When the Robert E. Lee statue comes down at the University of Virginia, let’s take all the other ones down around the country too.
Thanks to the mayor of Lexington, Kentucky, that is is starting to happen. But more must be done. It’s up to us to make sure American history is history.