Contexts Symposium: After Charlottesville, Part Two
And now, the Contexts’ editorial team presents the second set of essays in our symposium, “After Charlottesville.” For the first set of essays, please click here.
—Rashawn Ray, Fabio Rojas, Syed Ali, and Philip Cohen
- “Setting the Record Straight on Confederate Statues,” Wanda Rushing
- “Defining Disorder Down,” Chris Uggen
- “The ‘Many Sides’ Implicated in Charlottesville,” Dawn M. Dow
- “Charlottesville Yields Few Sociological Surprises,” David Brunsma
- “Charlottesville and Our Racial Fault Lines,” Rodney D. Coates
- “What Are Our Universities’ Obligations?” James M. (JT) Thomas
Setting the Record Straight on Confederate Statues
by Wanda RushingMonuments embody, impose, and transmit messages about political power and social hierarchies. Efforts to establish and protect these memorial landscapes in prominent public spaces serve powerful minority interests – past and present. Removing confederate monuments and symbols, and presenting counter-narratives about them, serves the public interest by challenging messages and practices of exclusion, discrimination, and racism. Protests and counter-protests about collective memories and their representation and misrepresentation in public spaces create long-overdue opportunities for understanding and contesting historically embedded institutional processes affecting all Americans.
Supporters of confederate monuments defend their historical significance. Yet, most scholars who describe them as “inventions of tradition” do not support these claims. Instead, they view claims of historical continuity as largely fictitious and self-serving. Most confederate monuments standing on pedestals in public spaces today appeared forty to fifty years AFTER the Civil War ended. They elide memories of the inhumanity, brutality, and devastation of slavery and the war fought to end it. Decades of fund-raising campaigns, conscious design, and lavish ceremonies produced public spaces for promoting an exclusively White, elite southern view of the Civil War and the Lost Cause long after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House in 1865. The Lost Cause is claimed to be the honorable loss of The Civil War in the pursuit to preserve Southern culture. Most memorials appeared between 1890 and 1920, a period described as the “nadir” of race relations in the United States. During this time period, African Americans lost many of the civil rights gained during the Civil War and Reconstruction, and White supremacists gained control of southern governments through disenfranchisement and racial violence.
Determined to disrupt Black and White political coalitions and legitimate their own tenuous authority, White elites commissioned and displayed monuments in public spaces to show continuity between their regimes and a mythical past. They created regional narratives about heroes and place by distorting historical facts; and in a war-weary nation, shaped national consciousness about abandoning post-war goals of social justice and justifying racial segregation. The United Daughters of the Confederacy raised scholarship funds, influenced textbook selection, and built memorials to teach generations of school children to “remember” the Confederacy and the Lost Cause, and socialized them to accept their position in the social hierarchy.
For roughly one hundred years, these spaces have mediated public memory and operated as centers of White identity politics. Functioning much like today’s online forums for White supremacist virtual communities, these memorial parks and statues established a symbolic and cultural web of belonging for economically discouraged and politically marginalized Whites. Often displaying confederate battle flags and symbols, they served as meeting places for Sons of Confederate Veterans, the KKK, and similar groups. Confederate memorials became prominent symbols of White resistance to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. And not surprisingly, during today’s political climate when the civil rights of immigrants, the poor, women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color are jeopardized, these memorial landscapes have become scenes of White supremacist rallies and confrontations between protestors and counter-protestors. Many defenders of confederate monuments claim they support “heritage, not hate.” Yet, studies show that the strongest supporters of monuments know less about Civil War history than their opponents who are more likely to know the names of specific battles and leaders.Because of America’s ongoing engagement with these physical and symbolic spaces, their presence defines what may or may not take place there, and establishes what is “prescribed or proscribed,” as well as “scene and obscene” in the social order. The statuary over-representation of generals, coupled with the paucity of ordinary foot soldiers, and the absence of women and people of color defines the class, gender, race, and power relations of the antebellum social hierarchy. In my book Memphis and the Paradox of Place, I discuss the physical likenesses of the monuments, including the equestrian monuments of General Nathan Bedford Forrest (leader of the Fort Pillow Massacre and founder of the KKK) in Memphis and General Robert E. Lee in Richmond, and how they symbolize the salience of patriarchy and idealized masculinity. Statues of men displaying Anglo-Saxon features, athleticism, and heroic bearing poised on a pedestal requires that everyone look up to them, both physically and symbolically. The equestrian format represents a classic allegory of power. Forrest’s horse, like Lee’s, stands with all four feet on the pedestal. Both Forrest and Lee hold the reins gently, making light contact with the horse’s mouth, suggesting that only a touch on the reins exercises power. Their poses provide a symbol of idealized master-slave, male-female relations of the past, as well as a model of elite hopes for future leaders – White, male, military authority figures.
The contestation and protestation of White supremacist rallies in public parks that memorialize a mythical and divisive confederacy resonates with many Americans, including this White southern woman sociologist. Many Americans lack the knowledge and resources to participate in meaningful conversations with friends, families, and neighbors who may disagree with each other. Many reluctantly question the biases inculcated by more than one hundred years of statue-building and hero-worshipping produced by a backlash following the Civil War and Reconstruction. Now, many Americans view the sight of White supremacists waving torches and neo-Nazi symbols in public spaces defending Confederate monuments as obscene and unacceptable. These scenes of actual and threatened violence may frighten us, but they also should remind us that our silence will not protect us. In the words of Audre Lorde: “It is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are many silences to be broken.”
Defining Disorder Down
by Christopher Uggen
When all hell was breaking loose in Charlottesville, over 5,000 dues-paying members of the American Sociological Association were holed up in a Montreal convention center. It wasn’t as though we couldn’t see it coming, after eight months of chaos, coarseness, and cruelty in the new administration and a much longer campaign of racial demagoguery. But viewing the bloody confrontations from across the border no doubt heightened our sense of alienation. Then, when President Trump apportioned blame to “both sides,” we understood his equivocation as minimizing and normalizing hateful White supremacist rhetoric and its lethal consequences.Pat Moynihan, the late sociologist and U.S. Senator, coined the phrase “defining deviancy down” to describe how societies lower their normative standards when they grow accustomed to crime and chaos. The pundits have put Moynihan’s alliteration to good use in recent months, as the Trump administration tests the boundaries of presidential power and the durability of longstanding democratic institutions. Fortunately, rates of crime and chaos declined dramatically from 1993 (when Moynihan offered his Durkheimian analysis) to 2016. Nevertheless, despite strong social scientific evidence that crime is near its lowest rate in a generation, both the President and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have continued to beat the drums of fear, disorder, and racial resentment. And Charlottesville shows there is a real danger that their strategy—harsh punishment, White identity politics, and militarized law enforcement—to end a fictitious “American carnage” could create self-fulfilling prophecies that result in real disorder.
There are few silver linings in Charlottesville, but it is a small comfort to know that the social reaction to both White nationalist violence and attempts to normalize it are viewed as deviant in September 2017. They are deviant in the statistical sense, as it remains rare to see neo-Nazis marching with torches in the public square—and rarer still for a modern-day U.S. President to equate the violence of these men with the actions of counter-protesters. The bloodshed and response are also deviant in the reactivist sense, as much of the public and the media reacted with shock and dismay. Many would also argue that public expressions of hatred, virulent racism, and anti-Semitism are additionally deviant in absolutist terms, as violating universal cultural standards. Most importantly for sociologists, however, such acts are deviant in a normative sense – as violations of social norms, the behavioral codes and expectations of conduct in given situations.
As sociologists and citizens, we are well positioned to monitor the norms prohibiting violent racism, as well as the more pervasive sense of lawlessness and normlessness that Durkheim called anomie. We can and will gather statistics, gauge public reactions, probe cultural standards, and trace the shifting normative expectations that define deviance and conformity in social life. And we will debate the extent to which the violence of Charlottesville issued from a newly emboldened fringe or the same old rotten core of White nationalism. As sociologists and citizens, we are also well positioned to learn whether and how powerful actors are amping racism up by defining disorder down.
The Many Sides Implicated in Charlottesville
by Dawn Dow
Trump was right! There are many sides that we must consider in relation to the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and alt-right terrorists took to the streets armed with guns, homemade weapons, pepper spray, bottles of urine, and torches to express their desire for the murder and subjugation of Blacks, Jews and other minority groups. But the many sides I am referring to are different from those Trump likely had in mind. While Trump’s comments equated various White supremacist groups with those standing in opposition to them, a different set of sides should be considered in understanding the dynamics and practices at play in American society that bubbled over into the protest in Charlottesville.
These dynamics and practices are silence, reframing, and focusing on individual actors, and they illustrate the many sides that – when conditions are right – facilitate the actions we witnessed in Charlottesville.THE PRACTICE OF SILENCE: Silence may seem passive, but it conveys as powerful a message as concerted action. Concerted silence from Whites communicates a message that fighting racism and prejudice is someone else’s job – “not my problem.” Silence teaches our children that they should accept and not confront racism. It teaches our children that racism is a legitimate ingredient of society worthy of toleration. Those who choose to remain silent and join others in silence, which includes avoidance of topics related to race, share in the culpability. There are a range of ways to break silence. Whether making a statement to friends and families in person or on social media that you are alarmed by, disturbed by and oppose the hatred and violence at the protests in Charlottesville and other forms of racism and bigotry. Or displaying a lawn sign that welcomes diversity, rejects hatred, or affirms that Black Lives Matter. These gestures may seem small, even frivolous, but they are not. Ideally, they are a step toward emboldening yourself and others to further action having escaped from the comfortable anonymity of silence. These steps will hold significance to those who appreciate your visible support. Unfortunately, we live in a society where it is generally not polite to call out racism in conversations with others. Perhaps it is a co-worker, a family member or a casual acquaintance but in the moment, it feels too difficult or too complicated to raise the issue. It feels like it might be a losing battle and it may very well be. The fallacy of this excuse is that the aim of speaking up is not solely to change another’s mind, but in fact it also is to de-normalize offensive, racist statements and actions. Speaking up also lets others know where you stand, and this gesture is not frivolous. THE PRACTICE OF REFRAMING: Reframing, downplaying, or not directly addressing racial bias, intolerance, or hatred in everyday social interactions is another dynamic or practice that is implicated in these events. Some avoid calling something racist because it may hurt someone’s feelings or believe calling out racism is too divisive and/or too extreme. A common defense to racism is that no one can know what is in someone else’s heart. But, we don’t need to know what is in someone’s heart to judge whether their words were racist or whether something they did was racist and produced a racist outcome. It is potentially worse to deprive someone of the opportunity to explain themselves in order to understand how their statements are perceived and why they are perceived that way. If I say something offensive, I want to know, like spinach caught in my teeth or an unzipped zipper. But unlike those things, which may produce some mild embarrassment, racism — whether deliberate or inadvertent — can produce lasting negative impacts in the lives of others. In addition, we don’t get to change the terminology because we don’t like what it means or how it makes us feel. THE PRACTICE OF FOCUSING ON INDIVIDUAL ACTORS: Focusing on individuals or groups of bad actors while ignoring the systemic and structural processes that produce or incubate racism is also implicated in these events. A statement that has been made across the political spectrum is that these White supremacists and neo-Nazis are “not who America is”—they are not us. They may not stand for you, but unless we all take a hard look in the mirror and recognize in our reflection how their activities are enabled, they may as well. Politicians have called for these fringe elements to go away so they can be forgotten about, as if a scalpel can cure an invasive disease. But they are us. They are a part of American society and we have to look at how they have been produced through systemic and structural racism in the U.S, have been educated, or mis-educated, in American institutions and found safety in segregated neighborhoods. These social dynamics have been produced by historical and contemporary policies that make it unlikely for these individuals to have meaningful relationships across differences, and that have allowed them the illusion that different outcomes across racial groups are not a product of historical policies. This desire to view racial bias and intolerance as the products of bad apples who if removed will not ruin the bunch neglects these underlying social processes that produced them.
To be sure, the White supremacist organizers and participants assembled to protest the removal of statues of Confederate heroes—symbols of American Chattel slavery and racism—played the principal role in the violent turn of events that lead to the deaths of one civilian and the injury of countless others. But as terrible as those events are and were, to begin to address the virus of racism and hatred that exist within American society we must also understand what dynamics and practices produced the fertile grounds from which these horrific events emerged.
Charlottesville Yields Few Sociological Surprises
by David BrunsmaSociologists are like fish. They spend their lives systematically studying the waters swirling around them, yet are rarely in positions to alter what is put in the water. As a sociologist who has spent a couple decades researching and teaching, speaking and editing, and following the intersections of race/racism, identity, culture, and human rights, I was surprised at the lack of critical social science coming to the fore to contextualize Charlottesville. But, I was also not surprised at this because sociology that works to understand these forces and attempt to figure out how to make social structures and cultures that work for all is still facing its own structures, cultures, and epistemologies of White supremacy. And all this happening at a time of increased surveillance of the very scholars who speak out against these structures.
Indeed, the images of White men carrying torches through the campus of the University of Virginia chanting words of hate, deeply held racist and anti-Semitic sentiments—that ultimately led to a violent confrontation with peaceful counter protesters—left me momentarily speechless. However, I was also not surprised at this violent spectacle of terror because such approaches have been used by White supremacists since the founding of the nation. Besides the man who was on video ramming a speeding car into people killing one and injuring many more, no one has yet been charged for the other violent acts against counter-protesters; for example, the brutal beating of Deandre Harris by shield-, stick-, pipe-, and gun-wielding White men, caught on bystander video cameras, in a parking garage right next to the Charlottesville police station while local police (and bystanders) stood by and did absolutely nothing. It took more than two weeks for a single assailant to be arrested. Nevertheless, I was not surprised at this horrific scene since black and brown bodies (communal and individual) have faced domestic terroristic violence since the beginning of the White settler nation, and, the police have been built on the control and surveillance of such communities ever since. Imagine the reverse scenario though and imagine how vigilant police presence would have been and potentially how many people would have been pepper-sprayed and arrested.At the same time, I am continuously baffled by the “outsider” narrative. It is interesting that when Black people protest, they are alleged to be from the local area, but when White supremacists do it, they aren’t. Yet, I was not surprised at this rhetoric, for many reasons, not least of which are the endemic White denial that such hatred is born in their own communities (Charlottesville, like virtually every town and city in the United States is both fuel and fire for producing, maintaining, and turning a collective blind eye to White supremacy). Further, such discursive spin has historically been utilized by those whose identities are imbued with White supremacy logics, especially since colorblindness has been the gripping ideological veneer of White logic and White power.
It is perplexing to listen to the insular explanations of those on the “right” and the “left” attempt to explain their understandings of the how’s, who’s, and why’s of White supremacist structures, ideologies, and violence. However, I was also not surprised because of the long extant use of corporate media, fear-based propaganda, and capitalist-fueled inequalities to support and foment White supremacist structures and ideologies. The increasing social and cultural fact is that social media has created fairly isolated bubbles and echo chambers in which both White supremacists and anti-racist Whites (among many other epistemological communities) exist in increasingly isolated ways. Additionally, I was not surprised that those same bubbles have been encouraged by the racist campaign and presidency of Donald Trump—who has forsaken the moral authority of the presidency for a White supremacist agenda in all but name. I was delighted at the White outrage around Charlottesville and Boston. However, I will not be surprised when these same White people and their White communities do nothing to alter the structures that perpetuate the problems.
Charlottesville and Our Racial Fault Lines
by Rodney D. CoatesRecent events in Charlottesville once again remind us of our torturous racial history. Therefore, it is rather strange that many were shocked with the level of hostility associated with the removal of this symbol. Perhaps if we utilized a sociological imagination we might better evaluate this current moment. Utilizing this imagination, I would argue that removal of these symbols, while important, is not sufficient to significantly alter the racial narrative and racial outcomes. If we look at recent events, symbolic victories do little to change the racial realities so many face in our country. So let us first look at some of these symbolic victories.
When Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, many believed that the United States was now a post-racial society. On the contrary, however, not long after Obama’s election and inauguration, campuses saw an uptick in visible racism. The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign and election exposed an extremely fragmented and polarized American electorate, characterized by deep racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, educational, and residential divides. The recent levels of increased racial violence, harassment, and discrimination coupled with rising levels of stress and anxiety provide further evidence of these significant divisions. In 2015, the last year data were reported, there were 5,818 hate crimes, an increase of 6.5% from the previous year. In the first month after the most recent presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) documented a record 1,094 hate and bias incidents. And the number of hate groups has increased for the last two years (Bates, 2017). According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) the number of anti-Semitic incidents rose 86% in the first three months of 2017. From 2004 to 2015, roughly 250,000 American citizens experienced hate crime victimization annually. Although these data are troubling, racism in America has deeper roots than these events or either presidential tenure. It is longstanding, systemic, and institutionalized, with far-reaching effects on all members of the nation.
One would have to be blind not to acknowledge that racism is a reality that effects individuals regardless of their racial background. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie warns of what happens when all we hear is a single story, about a single people, country, or group. When this is the case, we make critical mistakes as we stereotype, marginalize, and delegitimize others. Much of the single story that has occupied public discourse regarding race has focused on people of color; absent from this narrative has been Whites, particularly the White poor. Frequently these groups have been targeted by not only political but also alt-right movements. Such organizing, currently can be traced to White responses to the civil rights movements, has been the focus of much sociological attention and analysis.
The ’60s, with so much promise, were soon dwarfed as the racial state reemerged with a vengeance. The retreat from civility associated with extreme right wing politics pushed the nation sharply to the right. Ultra-conservative candidates such as Barry Goldwater articulated the need to return to the racial state and helped articulate a modern version of the White identity politics. Driving both processes is what sociologist Michael Kimmel termed Angry White Male Syndrome (AWMS).
Politically, AWMS has given rise to a number of quite effective campaigns where candidates have been able to manipulate and capitalize upon the pent up frustrations. For example, George Wallace, during the early ‘60s articulated their views when he declared, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan identified this group as a “silent majority” which was neither silent nor a majority. This “silent majority” represented the disenfranchised core of Americans who rejected civil rights and women’s rights, and were staunchly pro-American defenders of militarism, capitalism, and imperialism. In 1992, Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan tried to ride this wave of White male paranoia into the White House. Newt Gingrich and then George Bush would also tap into this fear, or what Jude Davies calls a “crisis of representation” where at the core one finds discontent by perceptions of being displaced by “others.” The current manifestation of AWMS is being played out in the GOP campaigns with the most obvious example being Donald Trump.Donald Trump effectively marshaled various White identity groups and capitalized on White angst, anger, and fears with his slogan “Make America Great Again.” As noted by Kimmel, these angry White males in the U.S. often coalesce into political, far-right extremist movements. Kimmel also pointed to a 2008 report by Homeland Security that demonstrated the significant and unexpected rise of right-wing extremist movements. Fueling these movements are notions of humiliation, which can also lead to violence. And we saw this violence erupt as anti-racist and alt-right forces collided in Charlottesville.
The real question before us, as sociologists, is where we go from here? The marches and counter marches shine the spotlight on our racial fault lines, but they are ill-equipped to do more. Critical sociologists can provide the analytical tools to not only reveal, but also point to ways by which these racial fault lines may be deconstructed. Simply put, the problems at the core of White anger and the victimization of people of color are structural. Removing the symbols of this anger and victimization may provide some measure of psychic relief for people of color, but only serves to aggravate the angst of poor Whites. We can continue to fight these symbolic battles and relish the symbolic victories or we can choose to dismantle the racial structures that manipulate White anxieties—often at the expense of people of color and other marginalized groups. We might discover that “hurting people hurt others” and that many of our policies and many of our actions have only aggravated the fault lines. We could also suggest that universities and public sites become more open and inclusive by providing scholarships, training, and access to marginalized people. Perhaps a start would be to recognize that not only people of color and gendered/sexual minorities are marginalized, but also poor, Whites. Through such a process, maybe, just maybe we can provide some healing of our various racial wounds.
What are Our Universities’ Obligations?
By James M. (JT) Thomas
Like many, I watched in horror as neo-Nazis and other White supremacists marched across the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on a Friday evening. Like many, I felt heartache, anger, and sadness on Saturday when one of the White supremacists drove his vehicle into a crowd of peaceful protesters, injuring dozens and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.That Sunday, I drove to Montreal for the annual American Sociological Association’s meeting. During that drive, I thought a lot about Oxford, Mississippi and the University of Mississippi, where I live and where I work. Neither are strangers to White supremacy. In front of our court house in Oxford stands a thirty-five foot tall marble statue of a Confederate soldier holding a rifle. The monument’s text, etched into its base, honors the local Confederate soldiers who “gave their lives in a just and holy cause.” A half-mile west, at the entrance to the University, stands another thirty-five foot tall statue of a Confederate soldier. On one side of its marble base is an elegiac couplet by the Greek poet Simonides: “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.” A short walk from the statue on campus is Lamar Hall, the building in which my office is housed and where I teach most of my classes. My building is named for L.Q.C. Lamar, an enslaver who later became a chief dismantler of Reconstruction in Mississippi. My building is one of many on my campus that honors enslavers and architects of Jim Crow.
That Monday, my university joined several dozen others around the country in issuing its own condemnation of the “racism, bigotry, and acts of violence committed by hate groups in Charlottesville.” When classes resumed the following week, our campus received a more detailed communiqué that checked all the right boxes: identify and condemn the perpetrators of racial violence (check!); remind everyone of the positive benefits of diversity (check!); declare that our own campus is no place for the racial violence that occurred elsewhere (check!); and remind everyone of all of the positive work we are doing on our own campus to promote dialogue on matters of national importance (check!). The response was both expected and woefully inadequate.
My colleagues and I have documented this response in other contexts. For now, let’s call universities’ responses the “university pivot.” The university pivot is a standard practice in which universities treat White supremacy as a matter of public relations rather than a public crisis. The pivot demonstrates a commitment to progressive values, like antiracism, without actually engaging in any real transformative work to the university or its existing power structure. In doing so, the university pivots away from its own complicity in the very thing it condemns. In my own work, these pivots represent part of what I term a diversity regime: a set of practices that institutionalizes a benign commitment to diversity, but in doing so obscures, entrenches, and even intensifies existing racial inequality.
By distancing themselves from Charlottesville, universities can claim a special status without having to consider their responsibility producing Charlottesville. Charlottesville could have been Anywhere, USA. Campuses like the University of Virginia, the University of Mississippi, and others where White supremacist symbolism runs rampant are especially vulnerable. These campus landscapes function as nature preserves for White supremacy. We should expect campuses like mine to serve as rallying points. These realities require more than a PR strategy from university administrators. When our nation’s values and institutions, including higher education, are under assault by an organized and emboldened White supremacist front, what are our obligations as colleges and universities that profess to cultivate our nation’s highest ideals?
If White supremacy has no place on an American college campus, then we cannot continue to provide safe harbor to its symbolism. If universities are going to be agents of change, then we must think about our role beyond promoting dialogue. Promoting dialogue is important. But if our primary response is to provide a space to have difficult conversations on sensitive topics, we are little more than pay-to-play community centers. In this moment, in this context, we need our universities to show ethical leadership, to promote the highest of human values through direct, affirming action. Ethical leadership means that Nazis and other White supremacists are not welcome on our college campuses because our universities recognize our right to dignity and personhood as more important than any poorly argued right to free speech.
When Nazis are marching in America’s streets, it sends a clear signal that our nation’s soul is on fire. When Confederate iconography still adorns our landscapes more than four generations removed from our Civil War, we must recognize this as the kindling. And if America’s universities still believe that they are the purveyors of our nation’s highest ideals, then their duty is to grab a bucket of water and run toward, not away from, those flames.