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Racism Visits Charlottesville

Charlottesville, Virginia was my home for more than eight years. It remains one of my favorite places on earth, and is the home of some of my most cherished memories. For this, and for many other reasons, I am greatly disturbed by the goings-on there over the last few days. Violence, murder, and the uglliest expression of hatred I've seen in this country since the segregationist protests in the 1960. All over a statue of Robert E. Lee. Not about schools, or where people are going to live, or who is going to vote. No. A statue.

Charlottesville is a college town, slightly left-of-center, as much Southern as it is the Liberal Northeast. It is so well balanced, North and South, left and right, rural and urban, that it is the very last place in America that I would expect to see a race confrontation. In all there years I was there, there was never anything like this. There was never the vaguest indication that something like this could happen. For me, this is as unexpected as if a gay pride demonstration broke out on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

I know Charlotteville extremely well. It is a sleepy, semi-rural, small town whose biggest worry is usually how to handle the weekend traffic during the Clemson game. It is a shock to me that a race riot could occur there.

But it did happen. It happened because our leaders have given us permission to hate other people. To insult and demean others based theoretically on our politics. But as we all know, politics is usually a stand-in for something more sinister.

On Friday, August 11, a group of white supremacist marchers appeared in front of the Rotunda at U.Va., the central structure of the Univeristy of Virginia. The Rotunda is an architectural landmark designed by Thomas Jefferson and completed in 1826, a UNESCO World Heritage site and symbol of free speech at the University of Virginia. The marchers claimed they were only there to prevent a statue of Robert E. Lee statue being removed from a local park, but their chant was "Blood and Soil," the English translation of "Blut und Boden," which was the motto of the Agriculture Department in Nazi Germany. They then switched to "You will not replace us," alternating with "Jews will not replace us."

I am not naive. Hatred will always be with us. But this kind of hatred used to be reserved for cranks, for people on the fringe of society. People who could be safely ridiculed and ignored. (Watch the movie The Blues Brothers from the 1970s if you want to see evidence of a time when Nazi sympathizers were an object of ridcule.) But you can't ignore people who show up on your front yard and parrot Nazi slogans under the protection of the First Amendment. 

The First Amendment, by the way, is one of the things thousands of American soldiers went to Europe in 1941-45 and died to defend. And the thanks these dead soldiers get is a violent Nazi protest in front of the Rotunda at an important center of higher learning.


I don't know what the answer is, but acceptance isn't one of them. Denunciation helps, and that's what I am doing here, but our dear President has declined to do. But until he and everyone else decides we want absolutely no part of this, nowhere, ever, it will continue to happen. I favor tolerance. Of speech. What happened in Charlottesville this past week was not speech.

I wish I could write more. But non-four-letter words fail me.

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