by | Aug 21, 2017 | Blog

In February 2017, the City Council of Charlottesville, VA voted to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, and rename the park where it stood. This was the impetus for Jason Kessler to invite a network of white supremacists and neo-Nazis to march in Charlottesville, on the evening of Friday, August 11 with torches, and during the day on Saturday, August 12 with more semiautomatic weapons than the local police forces.

The crowd chanted slogans like “Blood and Soil” (reminiscent of the Nazi chant “Blut und Boden”) and “Jews will not replace us.” Before day’s end, a member of the white supremacist group Vanguard America drove a speeding car into a crowd of counter-protestors, injuring 19 and killing a 32-year old woman named Heather Heyer.

To say that I have a lot of feelings about the tragic events of Charlottesville is an obvious understatement. I have been working in the field of Diversity & Inclusion for almost two decades, and for me, Charlottesville was a reminder that the work is far from over and never easy, and simultaneously a validation that my path is an important one.

Of course, it’s very easy to suggest that the hatred at the core of the weekend’s events is nothing new, and therefore not in any way shocking. At the same time, a woman is dead. 19 others were critically injured. A small college town was terrorized. Hateful views that at one point needed to be hidden underneath white hoods were shouted in the streets, loudly and proudly. I’ll admit that I was shocked, and partly glued to the television set by the drama and spectacle.

Generations from now, Charlottesville may well be remembered the way we now recall Kristallnacht, the pogrom that took place on November 9 and 10, 1938 throughout Nazi Germany. While the fatalities of those two days were much higher (the low estimate is 91), it is most notable for creating a psychological turning point, when Germans (and truly, the entire world) began to take the Nazi threat much more seriously; the event is often referred to as the beginning of the Holocaust.

I am aware that comparing anything to the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 40s is a dramatic choice, and I am not suggesting that an American Holocaust is in our future. But it does feel as if we’ve turned a corner somehow, that what was a week ago considered the “fringe” of American society is now being looked at differently — a small group, to be sure, but clearly a dangerous one.

Perhaps the analogy works in my mind because of what happened shortly after Heather Heyer was killed by a white supremacist. On Saturday afternoon, the President of the United States stood behind a podium and declared: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.” Later, he said that Americans must “love each other, respect each other, and cherish our history.” After his statement, a reporter asked him if he would specifically denounce “white nationalism.” The President of the United States silently declined that offer, and walked away.

This was not only shocking, but frightening. That hatred endures in America is known. That our President cannot bring himself to overtly renounce it is disturbing. If my comparison to Kristallnacht holds, it’s not because white supremacy exists, but because it is now being normalized. This is no longer about Republican vs. Democrat, or conservative vs. liberal; this is entirely about human decency.

And it doesn’t really matter how I personally interpreted the President’s remarks. When I heard him say, “on many sides,” I heard him pronounce those who were standing for peace and inclusion equally guilty to those wearing and carrying swastikas in our streets, but that really doesn’t matter. When I heard him say we should “cherish our history,” I heard a distinct note of support for those so moved by the removal of a statue depicting a Confederate general that one could commit an act of murder, but that really doesn’t matter. What matters is that the racists, Nazis, and Klansmen who marched on Charlottesville on Saturday heard those same messages.

After the statement, a Nazi website noted online that “[the President] didn’t attack us … [he] implied that there was hate … on both sides. So he implied the Antifa are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all.”

And no, it doesn’t much matter that the President returned to his podium on Monday, and referred to racism as “evil,” and specifically called out the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis, and white supremacists. To finally say the correct and Presidential things, after a barrage of criticism, a full two days after a domestic terrorist killed an American citizen, this is failed leadership. Moreover, it’s completely undone when he explicitly blamed “both sides” for the conflict the very next day.

We should remember that this is a man who seeks to ban entrance to the country based on religion. This is a man who categorized Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers. This is a man who attacked the Muslim parents of an American soldier. This is a man who led a national campaign to question an African-American President’s citizenship based on wild conspiracy theories. This man is the elected President of the United States, and the idea that he is openly and unapologetically racist is not an opinion, but a confirmed fact.

If comparing Charlottesville to Kristallnacht seems a little over the top, it’s only because like the Germany of 1938, these actions are no longer weird aberrations, but are endorsed by the leader of our nation. If we are to learn the lessons of history well, we must reject not only the hatred in the streets, but also the complicity that now comes from the highest levels of our government.

If our culture no longer condemns open displays of racism and hatred, those who live on the fringes will soon occupy the margins, and all too soon will take up residence in the center. This has happened before. It can happen again. The actions of the racist who killed Heather Heyer and the President who would not speak her name, if not checked, will ensure that it doeshappen again.

Speak out. Vote. Challenge those who repeat the implicit endorsement of hatred and violence with coded language. Lead with kindness. If we can no longer depend on those who lead us to protect us from harm, we must learn to depend on ourselves.