Last week, much of Charlottesville was buzzing with the rumor that Joe Biden might announce his run for the Democratic presidential nomination here. A sizable contingent of community members, however, including anti-racist organizers, urgently hoped he would not. And indeed, two days before Biden’s announcement, Charlottesville City Council member Wes Bellamy affirmed that Biden was not visiting the city.
Thursday morning, however, told a different story. Without Biden setting foot in Charlottesville, his presidential launch video managed to transform our hashtagged city from a potential campaign backdrop into a campaign prop. For Biden, #Charlottesville was the event that set in motion “the battle for the soul of the nation.”
Biden’s video suggests that he is running for president to answer an SOS call from the city. But using footage of the white supremacist attack on Charlottesville is not a sign that Biden wants to dismantle white supremacy. It is a sign of political shorthand and expediency, one that erases the reality of Charlottesville beyond the hashtag and obscures the deeply embedded structures of white supremacy in this city and in this nation.
As the number of contenders for the Democratic nomination grows by the day, some candidates are looking to draw sharp contrasts with President Trump. This is necessary but not sufficient for a would-be Democratic nominee. To be sure, Trump has aligned himself with white supremacist values in a multitude of ways, doubling down on his comments that play down neo-Nazi violence and commending Robert E. Lee just a few days ago.
Calling out white supremacy and racism is therefore necessary, given the notable uptick in white supremacist violent extremism during the Trump era. But calling out racism and Trump’s morally reprehensible speech and actions is not in itself a platform. Mentioning Charlottesville cannot substitute for advancing a genuine racial justice platform.
Such a platform requires a meaningful understanding of the ways in which white supremacist ideology has been the foundation on which our society was built.
The white supremacist ideologies that were generated to justify American slavery and maintain a racial hierarchy are hidden in plain sight, coded into our public discourse. Consider, for instance, the continued reverence of Thomas Jefferson, whose legacy infuses the city of Charlottesville. Jefferson is celebrated as the author of the Declaration of Independence but rarely acknowledged for his role in advancing the white supremacist ideology that is baked into every aspect of our democracy. And Jefferson’s work as a progenitor of eugenics and an architect of white supremacist thought, though often overlooked, is key to understanding his political philosophy. In fact, it was this white supremacy that attracted the torch-lit mob to his University of Virginia statue, like a moth to a flame, that fateful night of Aug. 11, 2017.
It is the same white supremacy that drove fierce and violent efforts to oppress blacks in the years after Reconstruction, including President Andrew Johnson’s decision to confiscate the land of freed blacks to facilitate the resettlement of Confederate soldiers, the creation of Black Codes and the convict leasing system that instituted slavery by another name, and the legal and extralegal efforts implemented by Southern legislators to prevent blacks from moving north to escape the repressive working conditions they faced during the Great Migration.
In addition to these efforts, which actively sought to re-create the economic and social conditions of slavery, new laws emerged even in places where plantation slavery had not existed to exploit, exclude and disenfranchise black Americans. These laws included restrictions on where blacks could live and attend school. For example, in the 1930s, the federal government, banks and the real estate industry worked together to prevent blacks from becoming homeowners and to create racially segregated neighborhoods. This process, known as redlining, served to concentrate whites in middle-class suburbs and blacks in impoverished urban centers. Given that public school funding relies largely on local taxes, housing segregation affects the quality of schools students attend.
All of this means that even after the removal of discriminatory housing policies and school segregation laws in the 1950s and 1960s, the consequences of this intentional segregation in housing persist in the form of highly segregated and unequal schools.
Add to this a prison industrial complex that literally profits from a racist criminal justice system and voter suppression laws that have been found to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision,” and the extent to which a white supremacist agenda permeates every aspect of our society is undeniable.
The problem with Biden’s video is that it engages in a long-standing tradition of our country’s leaders remaining unwilling to honestly confront this profoundly racist history. They refuse to ask white Americans to confront the ways in which their African American countrymen and women have remained subjugated long after slavery ended. In fact, within the first six seconds of Biden’s campaign launch video, he invokes “Charlottesville” and “Thomas Jefferson” in warm, nostalgic tones: a quaint college town established by a revered Founding Father, invaded out of the blue by white supremacists.
But white supremacy is not new to Charlottesville; instead, it is a place that exemplifies how the active residue of white supremacy permeates most aspects of public life in many places around America. Charlottesville is a community with a black population of less than 20 percent, but black people were involved in more than 70 percent of traffic stops in 2017, and were 54 percent of those arrested in the past five years. Just over a month ago, our local schools were closed for two days after an anonymous violent threat against black and brown students as a part of an “ethnic cleansing.”
Just a few days ago, a Charlottesville judge — presiding over the case of city councilors being sued for voting to remove Jim Crow-era statues that once designated the parks as whites-only space — determined that the Confederate statues were protected “war memorials,” discounting the fact that these monuments were erected in the early 1920s at the height of Jim Crow for the purpose of advancing a “white supremacist future.” Charlottesville has an untenable public housing crisis facilitated by gentrification but rooted in racist policies like the 1960s-era destruction of Vinegar Hill, a thriving black community in the city.
It has been 400 years since the first African arrived in Virginia. Since that time, the state’s flourishing has unfurled alongside its subjugation of black people. Post reporter Michael E. Ruane describes Virginia as “the nursery and battleground of slavery, a land of segregation, lynchings and white supremacy, and home to unbending racial oppression and the myth of the Confederate ‘lost cause.'"
Charlottesville is fully implicated in Virginia’s racist history. Thus, standing in solidarity with Charlottesville requires deep learning on the part of all Democratic presidential candidates to disrupt the white supremacist thought and deed so entrenched in this nation. Candidates should commit to understanding how our nation’s classrooms continue to teach white supremacist pedagogy and tolerate racist imagery. Candidates should be racially literate, aware of white fragility and not easily derailed by discomfort of dealing with it. Candidates who want to engage in a true battle for the “soul of our nation” must first take full measure of the contours of its terrain.
If that candidate were to emerge from this rapidly growing field, it might ensure that our 46th president would be vastly better than the 45th while rejecting the same racist ideology propagated by the nation’s third.