In the aftermath of national tragedy, you sometimes feel you have to do something, even if it’s only something symbolic. Many people around the Hornell area felt that way after the tragedy in Charlottesville last weekend, and some 40 of us showed up in downtown Hornell on Monday to express our dismay. We held signs we had quickly penned on the way, or even on the hood of a car right there in the parking lot. We made speeches out of our life stories and from the thoughts we had while driving over about the frightening and terrible images we had seen on TV, images of people in Charlottesville with whom we so easily identify. The victims there had been protesting against a hate group who wanted to “take back their country.” What country was that? The white one.
The country that murdered millions of native people, whole tribes of them, to take their land, and has never atoned for those crimes against humanity. The country that hunted down native people in Africa, tore them from their families and their homeland, sold them as commodities, built an economy dependent on their forced, unpaid labor, and tried in every possible way to dehumanize them. Failed in that, but never atoned. That’s the “country” the Neo-Nazis and Alt-Right want back. They have come out of hiding with torches and weapons and parades because they have permission. They finally have a president who’s on their side, or so it seems. They see themselves on the rise.
They’re cowards. Like schoolyard bullies, they have only violence on their side. They can’t compete in the marketplace of ideas, because their only idea is that white might is right, and they know that’s stupid.
Why did they choose Charlottesville for their display of ignorance and cowardice? Because the people of Charlottesville were doing something smart. They were beginning to atone, in a tiny, symbolic way. Charlottesville decided, through democratic process, to remove from public places the statuary that celebrates white supremacy and depicts Civil War leaders as heroes. Mayor Michael Signer said his city has opted for a truer version of their history. Confederate leaders were men who committed treason against the United States of America, and they lost the war. Since when do patriots celebrate their enemies’ leaders?
There will be more Neo-Nazi and white supremacist actions in our country, their leaders full of praise for Donald Trump. We live in difficult times. I want to suggest two things that might help, and I’m speaking now to white people. 1) Let’s go after the roots of white supremacy by learning about its more elusive cousin, white privilege. It’s time. And 2) Let’s turn with open hearts to the leadership of Native American and African American people. They have, by necessity, paid attention all their lives to the currents and undercurrents of hatred in our culture. I think they’re waiting for us to catch up.