I’m not quite sure what to say about the events that occurred in Charlottesville, Va., when a white supremacist rally ended with the death of a counterprotester and two state police officers patrolling the area in a helicopter. I’m a little stunned by the enormity of what we Americans need to reflect on with regard to this horrific set of circumstances, and, at the same time, I am (sadly) not that surprised that it occurred in the first place.
Among the many threads of the story, three stand out to me: when white supremacists came out to claim their “rightful place” brazenly, proudly and confidently; when President Donald Trump neglected to stand firmly against neo-Nazis and other hate groups; and when a president of the United States required coercion to issue a stronger statement so that he might avoid looking like a bigot.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson called the tragedy “a karmic moment” for the United States, an opportunity to come to grips with the most violent and brutal pieces of our historical legacy and view ourselves in a full-length mirror under glaring klieg lights. Naturally, it isn’t a pretty picture. But Charlottesville requires us all to take a long, hard look.
If, however, we summon up enough faith and courage, we can also use this moment to reclaim a national identity that we lost while standing on either the right or wrong side of the abortion debate, the just or unjust side of gun control, the reasonable or unreasonable side of the congressional aisle. It sounds a bit pathetic, but even if we can’t behave as one people, one nation in a general sense anymore, I think we can at least all agree that what happened in Charlottesville was audacious racism on full display, and that citizens of the United States of America are absolutely opposed to that ideology and any agenda that arises from it. In other words, Americans oppose racism and bigotry. Period.
If we’re all on board with that, we also can welcome political leaders and people with a megaphone of any kind to speak with moral clarity on the subject. For the most part, Congress seems to be doing its part, but it’s unfortunate, if not downright frightening, that the current occupant of the Oval Office looked like he was making a hostage video while denouncing neo-Nazis and the alt-right. That’s not a matter of personal opinion, by the way. The satisfaction expressed by white nationalists who don’t feel in any way censured by Trump speaks volumes about the reluctance and ambivalence he projects from the bully pulpit whenever he speaks about bigotry and violence.
But Trump is just one man. An important, influential man, to be sure, but still, only one. The rest of us comprise the nation: We the People. We need to remind ourselves of our shared, sometimes awful history, and recommit to those values that have inspired Americans across generations to strive for justice in the face of injustice and equality in the face of obscene, immoral inequality. That’s a tall order, but that’s OK. We are Americans, and we will stand up for who we truly are. And in this particular case, at this particular moment, we really can’t have our president be the last man standing.