Joe Shaffner, a Peace Corps alum, is senior communications specialist at a D.C. nonprofit that works to advance gender equity and inclusion.
On Sunday, marchers in the Unite the Right 2 rally will be taking their first steps from Foggy Bottom Metro Station to Lafayette Square. Jason Kessler, one of the lead organizers and the rally permit applicant, says the rally this year — on the one-year anniversary of the rally in Charlottesville — will “focus on ‘white civil rights’” because, he claims, white people are being denied their rights, particularly freedom of speech.
The chant in Charlottesville last year was “You will not replace us,” a fear that likely remains with the marchers this year. Meanwhile, Metro’s Amalgamated Transit Union decided that it will not “accommodate the hate groups” with private Metro rail cars to transport them to Foggy Bottom for an event that could feature the likes of David Duke, former Louisiana state Representative and Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
But despite the transit union’s refusal to accommodate the marchers and the promise of far more counterprotesters showing up, why shouldn’t the rally cries resound with emboldened intensity? Only feet away from Lafayette Square lie the boundaries of the White House, whose inhabitant has done little to curb this anti-Semitic, white-supremacist groundswell. Rather, he’s chosen to fan the flames.
This is the same White House that was built on racism, the sandstone foundations laid with the sweat and blood of slaves. Just up the Hill sits the Capitol, whose very dome is adorned with the Statue of Freedom, a statue that was cast by a slave named Philip Reid. In fact, many of the famous landmarks on the Mall were constructed using stones extracted by slaves from local quarries.
And there have been a number of presidents who have sat in the same White House and themselves fanned the flames of racism. Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. It wasn’t until our 16th president came along that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. And arguably one of the most beloved presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt, ordered the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Brick by brick, this country has been built on and “defended” with racism. And in Washington, the city where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, we have a lot of challenges — as do cities all across the United States of America — and are grappling with systemic inequities. Gentrification is flourishing. We continue to struggle with how to bridge strained relations between people of color and the police. And the less-affluent areas of the city face food deserts, neglected schools and a longer walk to public transportation.
But here’s the thing: This country is becoming more diverse day by day. And no matter how many walls you try to raise or how many torches you try to light, this diversity will continue to thrive. So, you can continue shouting “you will not replace us,” or you can strike up a new conversation and embrace your fears.
To all those proudly marching this weekend, may you find the presence of mind to face your fears and seek that uncomfortable truth. As white people, we need to take a step forward and work toward righting those systemic inequities we’ve benefited from for centuries. As for those civil rights you feel you’re losing, Kessler, that’s history righting a long-sustained wrong. Your rights have never been infringed upon; you’re just feeling the breath of overdue justice on the back of your neck.