Thoughts on Charlottesville

by A’Jamal Rashad Byndon

Since the skin-head and white supremacy incident in Charlottesville, Virginia, there has been a heightened awareness—particularly on social media—of the pain and suffering people of color have experienced from racism. And yet these Facebook and thoughtful blog comments demonstrate that many Americans lack the skills to have healthy conversations and dialogues about racial issues. In talking with colleagues, I’m continually amazed at how many are unable to articulate coherent ideas and concepts about the level of racism, prejudice, bias and white supremacy still present in this country. Some suffer from a level of white fragility where they really don’t know where to start. Others want to make those concepts of racism, prejudice and bias synonymous when in fact each term can carry different meanings based on the situation. For still others, watching this hideous behavior being so blatantly and shamelessly played out in the national media makes them want to fold their hands and disengage from reality. None of these reactions are surprising to people of color—we’ve witnessed this behavior all of our lives. But those who have buried their heads in the color-blind sand must either begin facing the reality of racism now—or expect to continue being confronted with it over and over again in the future… because, after Charlottesville, there’s no schmoozing over what’s going on.

These thoughts are being juxtaposed with the images of Klansmen, Nazis and white supremacists marching in the streets of the Charlottesville. It is ironic to see these white supremacists with “Tiki”-brand mosquito repellant torches—bamboo torches that are identified with the peaceful Hawaiian culture. But for anyone laboring under the illusion that the overt display of racism had been relegated to the distant past, we now know that the kind of hate we saw exhibited in Charlottesville can be found in any town, village or city in the United States. Even in the White House.

I am reminded of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He wrote that letter about the indifference of the clergy and silence of so-called friends well over 60 years ago during times of great importance and pain. Then as now, what this country and society needs is a real dialogue and change agents. We’ve had many half-attempts at healing dialogues as the result of racist terrorist actions in the past that came to no avail. Yet, changing both our institutions and individuals is essential if events like Charlottesville are to longer be part of our nation’s culture.

Some African Americans have noted that, in a racialized society, when a member of the affected group is murdered or dies at the hands of others unknown, it becomes ‘normalized.’ No one outside the group itself notices. Contrast that with the death of Heather Heyer—the white female killed when she was protesting the white nationalists march in Charlottesville. That tragedy brought out the media and the many who have been indifferent to other senseless murders and killings of people of color. There’s a racial double standard with regards to worth and significance at play here, when in fact murder and death is the same for all of us.

Many of those who embrace the supremacist or terrorist mentality are bent on destruction, and they really don’t care who is killed when their weapons are aimed at crowds exercising their constitutional right of protest. Sadly, our very own Commander-in-Chief has rallied to the defense of these supremacists, validating their noxious beliefs and tactics. If we are so see change, though, each and every one of us has to work on the elimination of racism and the hate that is bantered within our communities.

If we fail to acknowledge the conditions of today and deconstruct the current realities, then we will be forced to accept the Confederate culture of good old American storytelling—a fable that is mostly devoid of the role that people of color played in the creation of this country. To correct the record, we must engage. Conversations and dialogues must take place in the town square and not merely behind closed doors. It is only when the entire community joins the discussion that we can begin to remove the conditions of oppression. And the participation of white people in particular is essential, as they are the gatekeepers of the norms and institutions of the status quo. On them most of all falls the duty to implement change.

At one time or the other, we’ve all heard the fatalistic pronouncements of arm-chair pundits on race issues. Their comments frequently echo the sentiment that we can never rid ourselves of the level of racism, discrimination and hate that has always been part of the fiber of this country. What this says to me though is that these folks don’t perceive themselves as having any skin in the game, that they have the luxury of being a bystander and can somehow detach themselves from the problem.

But if we are serious about social transformation, then we must ensure that all hands are on deck to change this country. Anything less is to support the current dismal conditions of despair and to repeat the terrible lessons of history. So, when someone asks the question of what can they do, then an answer that will help is to urge them to work to make the odds even—by pushing back on those segregated environments that have historically kept the oppressed locked down and from having a seat at the table. That’s the very advice that over 60 years ago Dr. King offered from the Birmingham jail. And it’s still valid today in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

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