Much has transpired over the past several weeks that makes transparent the extent to which white supremacy and hatred-based violence have no borders or boundaries. Initially, I was set to write about the historic removal of four monuments in New Orleans to illuminate the intersections of white supremacy and white terrorism in public spaces, as well as how national mythologies and other types of historical narratives circulate to “rationalize” the significance of such monumental displays. To be clear, there is something to be said about public art and artifacts, freedom of expression, and erecting statues of monumental relevance to honor particular moments. While the monuments erected possibly represent the aforementioned, as some might argue, what makes those public monumental displays dishonorable is the particular context in which they were erected: to instill terror, to carry out hatred-based violence, and as unpatriotic acts of treason. They contradict rather than embody America’s founding creed that makes it “self-evident that all men are created equal.” As New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu so eloquently stated in a speech, “They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, ignoring the terror that they actually stood for”; for, “[t]hey may have been warriors, but in this cause they were not patriots.”
Each statue represented a deliberate attempt—no different from the distortion of history and the creation of southern literature and studies—to put a spin on loss, to create a narrative about southern culture that would impute it with tradition, valor, and a particular way of life. Its resistance to equality and, indeed, modernity would be written not as backwards; rather, it would resonate as a convoluted narrative—replete with the imagery of magnolia trees and southern belles, mint juleps and an antebellum mystique and southern hospitality—that would camouflage loss as sublime and white dominance as divine.
What the removal of the monuments and especially the backlash and protest from white nationalists and supporters represent is certainly not limited to New Orleans or, in turn, to how white terrorism and white supremacy have historically victimized and killed blacks. After all, much of the rhetoric and discourse has rightfully been about how these monuments served as signs of the oppression of African Americans, who have undeniably been the victims of white supremacist hate and violence historically and contemporarily. What garners less attention yet speaks volumes—and goes unnoticed—is the extent to which white supremacist terror and extremism have, as a consequence, impacted and killed white people. We see the manifestations of the cost of white supremacy and extremism on public display in the recent unfolding in Portland, where two white men were killed and another seriously wounded while bravely challenging the hatred being spewed against two young women, Muslim and African American, on a train.
Like the monuments in New Orleans and other parts of the South that tell the story of white supremacy, loss, race, and the inability to be shackled to an inglorious past, what occurred in Portland is a contemporary manifestation, a reflection made eerily palpable, of those same ideologies and dynamics. But, equally important, it is how acts of white supremacy and terrorism harm, oppress, and kill people. Of course, we know from history and current times the deadly and deleterious effects hatred-based violence, racism, white supremacy and terrorism have on black people and, by extension, marginalized people. It is a bloody past and a present forever indelible. Reflect on it.
Emmett Till. Medgar Evers. Addie Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—also known as the four little girls bombed in Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The Emanuel AME nine murdered during prayer service in Charleston, South Carolina: Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Reverend Depayne Middleton Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Reverend Daniel Simmons Sr., and Myra Thompson. These are just a mere fraction of the litany, and sadly the compendium, of black people who have fallen victim to terrorists indoctrinated by white extremist ideologies and practices. Add to this the recent slayings of Timothy Caughman and Richard Collins III by those whose premeditated intentions were to kill African Americans in Manhattan and Maryland, respectively. New York. Maryland. Portland, Oregon. None of these is the mythical or Deep South, nor did these murders occur in the 1890s, the 1950s, or the 1960s, but rather in 2017, which makes them all the more deplorable but, unfortunately, not surprising during the hatred-based platform of the Trump era.
We know these black individuals murdered by white supremacists. We evoke their names, we honor their memories, and we recognize the extent to which they were targeted simply by virtue of the color of their skin, for working toward equality, or for merely existing—being.
There is another story, a history and unfolding, that has occurred simultaneously that is inextricably linked. Consider William Lewis Moore. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Reverend James Reeb. Viola Gregg Liuzzo. Jonathan Myrick Daniels. They were some of the casualties and carnage of white supremacist rage and violence during the civil rights era. They were white. Like black folks and other marginalized individuals, they were murdered by white supremacists or the Ku Klux Klan while advancing civil and human rights—whether during Freedom Rides, the Montgomery Bus Boycott or in Selma, Alabama—to ensure that America lived up to its principles that all people are equal and endowed with inalienable rights. This is a less popular narrative of white-on-white crime and the longstanding tradition of white terrorists and supremacists who kill white people as “indiscriminately” (though not nearly as voluminously) as they have murdered black people: folks who have embraced the right for all to be free, who did not acquiesce to the treatment of some as second-class citizens, and who did not flinch in the face of white dominance or terrorism. “Our nation’s inability to deal with the past,” as historian John Bracey asserts masterfully in the “Cost of Racism to White People”, has “consequences” for white people and—by extension—for us all.
If we thought this was limited to the past, if we assumed the privileges of whiteness might safeguard one from the casualties of white supremacy, Rick Best, Taliesin Meche, and Micah Fletcher of Portland remind us otherwise. They also remind us why it behooves us to combat hatred, white supremacy, and domestic terrorism just as we fight it abroad.
Why does this matter? It matters because part of the caustic and deleterious effects of racism and white supremacy is that it creates a false narrative. It convolutes history. It sanitizes and elevates white dominance and superiority to no end. As such, it has no qualms destroying whomever—regardless of race, color, or identity—stands in its way or along the path of progress. “There is such a thing as integrity […]. There is such a thing as courage. The terrible thing is that the reality behind these words depends ultimately on what the human being (meaning every single one of us) believes to be real. The terrible thing is that the reality behind all these words depends,” as writer-activist James Baldwin reminds us, “on choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.”
The cost of racism, white supremacy, and hatred-based violence is incredibly high. There is no time or room for national mythologies or other types of historical narratives that obfuscate, distort, or deem as innocuous any displays—monumental or not—that suggest otherwise. It behooves each and every one of us to fight inequality, hatred-based violence, and any type of supremacy or oppression that would negate others’ humanity, equality, liberty, or life.
*A version of this essay appears in the Huffington PostCopyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.