White Noise

Charlottesville 2017: The Legacy of Race and Inequity edited by Claudrena N. Harold, Louis P. Nelson. University of Virginia Press. Paperback, 244 pages. $19.
Summer of Hate: Charlottesville, USA BY Hawes Spencer. University of Virginia Press. Hardcover, 272 pages. $24.

The cover of Charlottesville 2017: The Legacy of Race and Inequity The cover of Summer of Hate: Charlottesville, USA

LATE LAST SUMMER, a disparate band of white nationalists, internet trolls, and media personalities who loosely fall under the banner of the alt-right gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia. Emboldened by the 2016 election, the rally’s organizers, Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, saw their chance to transform a movement that had been confined to the dark corners of the internet into a real-world political force. The city’s leaders, pointing to the First Amendment, allowed hundreds of protesters, many of whom had openly called for deadly violence against black, trans, and Jewish people, to assemble on the University of Virginia campus and in downtown Charlottesville’s McIntire Park.

The action was titled Unite the Right. Its stated purpose was to protest the city’s proposed removal of an equestrian statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee. What actually took place was a brazen performance of white nationalist political theater. The night of August 11, hundreds of young white men marched to the University of Virginia’s Rotunda, tiki torches in hand, chanting, “Blood and soil,” “You will not replace us,” and “Jews will not replace us.” A small group of counter-protesters at the university rallied in opposition, but the night passed otherwise uneventfully. By the following afternoon, the organizers managed to provoke the violent reaction they’d wanted. The rally descended into a riot. White nationalists and antiracists bloodied one another in the streets. By the end of the day, a twenty-year-old neo-Nazi named James Alex Fields Jr. had driven his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring nineteen others.

White nationalist demonstration, Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.
White nationalist demonstration, Charlottesville, Virginia, August 12, 2017.

In the following days, local politicians leaped to assure their constituents that the white supremacist violence that had engulfed their city was fundamentally foreign. Unite the Right, they said, was a vestigial feature of American society that, despite the nation’s vigilance, had somehow managed to creep back in. Charlottesville’s then-mayor Michael Signer insisted that the rally represented a “tide of hatred . . . brought [to Charlottesville] by outsiders . . . who belong in the trash heap of history.” The governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, staged a press conference admonishing alt-right activists as interlopers, directing them to “go home.” “There is no place for you here, there is no place for you in America,” he proclaimed, as if saying so might make it true. The message was clear: Racist violence was the work of a right-wing fringe element clinging to an idea that the majority of America had successfully left in the past. White supremacy wasn’t American at all, but a disease carried by foreign invaders who inexplicably had made their way into our midst.

By overlooking the past and ignoring the continuing pressure that white supremacy exerts on American life, Signer and McAuliffe performed a sleight of hand. Both avoided any mention of Charlottesville’s history or the political struggles that had engulfed the city in 2016 over Confederate monuments. Perhaps most significantly, their rhetoric of racism as a foreign contaminant conveniently overlooked the fact that two of the Unite the Right rally’s main architects, Kessler and Spencer, graduated from the University of Virginia, and that Kessler, rather than being an interloper, had lived in Charlottesville for years.

CHARLOTTESVILLE 2017: The Legacy of Race and Inequity, a collection of scholarly essays collected by Louis P. Nelson and Claudrena N. Harold, compresses the entire history of American race relations into two combustible days. As if to counter the truncated version of events offered in the wake of the rally, the book begins with a chronology stretching back to 1607, when the British colony at Virginia was founded. Thomas Jefferson called Charlottesville home, and his Monticello plantation, where Jefferson raped Sally Hemmings and enslaved his own children, is only a few miles outside of the city. During the Civil War, the city was part of the Confederacy. In 1917, as the Ku Klux Klan reemerged in the wake of D. W. Griffith’s anti-Reconstruction propaganda film The Birth of a Nation, a mob attempted to lynch two black men accused of killing a police officer. Though thwarted that year, their disdain for black life and insistence on white rule was memorialized in 1921, when the city unveiled a statue of the Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on the former site of a black tenement community. Three years later, Charlottesville erected the statue of Lee, the patriarch of the Confederacy—symbolically uniting, as Nelson and Harold argue in their introduction, “the white supremacy of the KKK and the romanticized rebirth of the Old South.”

The University of Virginia was instrumental in this rebirth. Founded by Jefferson in 1819 and built, like Monticello, by black slave labor, it was originally conceived as a bulwark of white racial power in a state with a sizable population of black slaves. In the twentieth century, UVA was a laboratory where white supremacists grafted old forms of white racial power to modern notions of the university as an engine of social progress. The university hosted its own chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and maintained an influential eugenics program whose alumni helped craft the Racial Integrity Act, which outlawed miscegenation in order to preserve white purity, and the Eugenical Sterilization Act, which allowed doctors to sterilize members of undesirable populations. Hugh Cumming, the initiator of the Tuskegee study of untreated syphilis in black men, was a UVA graduate.

Charlottesville 2017 makes clear that the chaos that overtook Charlottesville’s streets was only the latest episode in a long struggle between antiracists and white supremacists over the city’s and the university’s resources and symbolic weight. August 2017 was not the first time the UVA campus had become a battleground: In 1968, two student council members named Bud Ogle and James Roebuck called for the creation of an Afro-American studies program, the appointment of a black administrator in the Office of Admission, and the banning of Confederate symbols at all university events. Their demands triggered a furious response and ultimately led to the creation of the university’s African American Studies program and the Office of Afro-American Affairs. When UVA’s Black Student Alliance, after the Unite the Right rally, demanded the removal of plaques commemorating the Confederate dead and university-wide education on UVA’s white supremacist history, they were acting in accordance with this legacy of activism.

THE CITY’S HISTORY of political agitation wasn’t limited to the university’s grounds. In 2012, the Charlottesville city councilor Kristin Szakos shocked an audience at the Virginia Festival of the Book by suggesting that the statue of Lee, located in what was then Lee Park, was a symbol of white supremacy. Her call to remove it fell on deaf ears until June 2015, when the white supremacist Dylann Roof’s attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, incited renewed scrutiny of Confederate symbols. The following spring, a high school student named Zyahna Bryant petitioned the Charlottesville city council to remove the statue. A few months later, another city councillor, Wes Bellamy, announced that he’d like a public hearing on the statue, triggering a fierce response from pro-monument Virginians and drawing the attention of white nationalists such as Richard Spencer, who had been living nearby in Alexandria, Virginia. Seizing upon his alma mater as a site of white supremacist struggle against equality, Spencer organized several demonstrations defending the statue throughout the summer, culminating in Unite the Right.

Summer of Hate: Charlottesville, USA, by the journalist Hawes Spencer, traces this history, as well as the myriad political proxy battles around the statue that convulsed the city during the Obama years. Who could lay claim to public space, what was worth remembering, and whose comfort would be prioritized? The book’s subject is less the spectacle of alt-right protesters marching in defense of Lee than the less visible work of the organizers and local politicians who played an instrumental role in the events of August 11 and 12: not only in showing up to protest the alt-right but in provoking Richard Spencer and his compatriots to rally in the first place. When Spencer returned to Charlottesville, he arrived with an anxious sense that his political and social power had been irreversibly eroded. If he wanted to make Charlottesville “the center of the universe,” as he claimed, it was to return the city to its place as an uncontested capital of white male patriarchy, to regain an authority he felt slipping away. Meant as a show of strength, Unite the Right revealed its participants’ desperation and fear.

A year later, the rally seems to have unintentionally served as a call to arms for the anti-racist left. Since August 2017, leftist groups, from the nebulous Antifa to more coherent organizations such as Black Lives Matter and Showing Up for Racial Justice, have become increasingly active. Despite much hand-wringing in the media over incivility, physically confronting white supremacy in the streets suffocated a mass white-nationalist movement before it could gain further momentum. Nothing demonstrated the efficacy and power of antiracist resistance more than the one-year anniversary of Unite the Right on August 12, 2018. Led by Jason Kessler and escorted by a phalanx of police officers, a small group of white nationalists gathered in Washington, DC, only to find their rally dwarfed by thousands of counter-demonstrators. If Charlottesville 2017 and Summer of Hate have anything to teach us, though, it’s that the real struggle against white supremacy might not be in the streets, but in the halls of power—in the universities and the political institutions in which white supremacy is tenaciously rooted. As white supremacists find their way into electoral politics and unabashed nativist rhetoric becomes increasingly prominent in our public discourse, we must understand that America’s history of white racist terror does not lie primarily in spectacles of violence, but in the institutions that perpetuate, enable, and obscure that terror.

Ismail Muhammad’s writing has appeared in the Paris Review, The Nation, and other publications.