It’s been a hard couple of days.
My Twitter feed is filled with emboldened racist trolls, my phone has been buzzing with messages from angry, frustrated, and/or grieving friends, and my blood pressure has likely shot up by at least 20 points. I find myself asking, “Why does it feel so bad this time?”
My search for answers begins with a scan for data points: When in history have I felt this way before? Much of my career has been centered on looking for clues to what causes racial differences in police encounters. But even as a quantitative researcher, I always start with history — the data that help explain the world around us.
It felt like something fundamental was under assault, like a cornerstone of our national identity was at risk. I was sick with how flagrantly our nation’s history was being perverted. But I still couldn’t figure out what was different about this time.
Let’s Rule Out the Obvious
If this were a research study, I’d start by ruling out the obvious.
It’s not the Nazis who marched righteously with their self-proclaimed “valor.” I’ve seen that before.
It’s not that the President of the United States did not try to bring the nation together, instead, dog whistling his implied approval of White supremacists by blaming “many sides” for the conflict on Saturday. Nor was it his doubling down that “both sides” were violent and also had “very good people.”
Defensive false equivalencies between neo-Nazi murderers and those who opposed them is not the story. We are 210 plus days into his administration. Deflection dressing up as the truth is routine.
After ruling out the obvious, I looked at my history and saw the problem: The difference is that Black people, the disabled, women, or decency alone were not the target this time. The target was history itself. It’s the truth of our history that’s at stake. It’s the very essence of what makes us who we are and keeps us safe from those who would lie about it. Lie about us.
Finding Truth in Our American Story
The past weekend’s ugly episode began as a protest against the removal of Confederate landmarks. In other words, history.
Charlottesville intended to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee, an inspiring symbol of White supremacy and the Confederacy. Protesters were angered by what they felt was the erasure of an important figure in their history. To them, the glory of White superiority was tied up in the mythology of General Lee. The stories they tell themselves about the righteousness of slave owners, the rightness of slavery, and the “war of Northern aggression”—a war White supremacists claim was all about economic anxiety, interestingly—all of this is important for who they are.
They want their twisted history to be a shield against the fear that they have lost their imagined birthright: a seat at the head of the table of races. The mythologized Confederacy represents a time when White racists were mighty, to be feared, and the world made sense to them.
Of course, they were wrong. Then and now.
The confederacy was never righteous. It was always treasonous. It was always predicated on stolen labor on stolen land. It always required a right to treat fellow humans as subhuman. Their moral deficiencies were ultimately why they lost.
But, the point is that history was worth fighting for to the White supremacist because it kept them safe. It protected them from what they fear the most. Even though we know what they fear the most is true. The truth of our history is that slavery is wrong. Organizing the world to disadvantage the most vulnerable is wrong.
Doomed to Repeat It
This week, President Trump took to a podium to debate the truth of our history. He obviously had not learned it. Or did not care to.
He called members of the KKK “very good people.” He likened the targets of Saturday’s attempted murder to those who cheered the murderer.
This could be understood as an isolated act of historical ignorance.
Except that history tells us otherwise.
His campaign rhetoric began by calling Mexicans rapists. His real estate businesses preyed on the misfortune of the poor and he was found criminally liable for racial discrimination against Black and Brown people. Before that he called for the execution of the (now exonerated) so-called “Central Park Five,” all young Black boys and men. Lest we forget, he was also the chief proponent of the racist notion that our first Black president was secretly “foreign.” And, of course, his Twitter feed is filled with insults toward the disabled, women, Gold Star Families, and many proud Americans he attempts to whittle down to 140 characters.
He’s created a pattern of abuse that makes it impossible to view his remarks on Saturday (or again this week) as a one off. They are the context that allows us to interpret his character. They are a history of bigotry.
And instead of apologizing, recognizing personal fault, or acting like a grown man who learns from his cruel mistakes—much less a leader—the President doubled down. Making many cringe as he intentionally tries to erase our history of moral progress.
They say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. That queasy feeling so many had at the spectacle of White supremacy in Charlottesville? The nausea as the President offered words of defense for a violent neo-Nazi mob? That’s what doom feels like.
Moral Consensus was the Progress Made
As many of us predicted throughout the 2016 elections, the President and his administration is intent on gaslighting the country. He encourages bigoted, dangerous ideologies as if we have not already decided they were too ugly to repeat.
That moral consensus on racism was the progress we had made. We have not yet defeated racism. But at the very least we agreed that, in the public square, no one group should be considered more than or less than another group on the basis of their race.
If this administration and its supporters are determined to be the enemies of this consensus, then the work that my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and their ancestors did is at stake. My parents marched. They organized. They dodged bullets and stood up for what they believed in. My grandparents and great grandparents organized as well, and galvanized support for the movement as educators. And my great great grandmother did the work of the saints: teaching herself to read and write when the laws forbade her “master’s property” from doing so. Saving every penny to send all of her newly emancipated children to school—to college—before she died. I dedicate nearly every day to making sure their work was not in vain—the work to create a shield of sanity and safety against systems of oppression.
History matters. Especially in the aftermath of slavery, Jim Crow, and the horrors of the Nazi regime, many devoted their lives almost wholly to the project of making our history honest, allowing it to reveal the truth of the human condition. Families, communities, generations fought for this. They also worked hard so that later generations could continue to say that theirs was the right side of history. It was. It is.
The reason we say “in 2017?!” when we see neo-Nazis in the streets of America is because history is clear that we are not supposed to move backwards. Our nation agreed some time ago that Nazism was bad and America should do better, forcing certain racist ideologies to the shadows.
Their movement to the light should cause reproach, swift action, and disdain. Any other reaction is an assault on who we are and on what we agreed upon.
We are Made by History
So, as ever, it is vitally important that the truth and history come together now.
As America engages its outrage at the absurdities coming from the White House, it is crucial that we also remember the importance of the truth of our history. Our history is the data that make sense of the world—the science of our existence. And with it, we prevent Nazis from marching in the streets in celebration. With it, we remember that the Confederates and Nazis lost—and they are still losing.
What they seek to do is more than just spread hate. They seek to unmake history, to lie about what happened. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “We are not makers of history; we are made by history.” And White supremacy only wins if we allow the lies they tell about us—then and now—to become true.