As a Minnesota transplant who received his undergraduate education at the University of Virginia and his medical degree from Virginia Commonwealth University, I wish to weigh in on the recent events in Charlottesville, Va. I want to say how completely inadequate it was of President Donald Trump to respond to this overt act of race-driven terrorism by merely condemning “violence” and hatred “from all sides.”
Such platitudes are flaccid at best and dangerous at worst — dangerous because they in no way revoke the “permission” white nationalists seek to act out in ever-more-brazen ways in our country.
A couple of words must be said regarding the culture of the South. The idea of white racial superiority is by no means rare. While only about 50 individuals gathered to march in the “Unite the Right” rally, and only one of those was willing to risk his life and freedom to allegedly commit vehicular homicide, the notion that whites are more “authentic” Americans than people of color or other backgrounds is widespread.
In many parts of the South, the Civil War is still referred to as the “War of Northern Aggression.” And they do not celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, per se. Rather, it is “Lee-Jackson-King” day — as in Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Martin Luther King Jr. Day — in that order.
Finally, there was substantial controversy when a statue of black tennis great Arthur Ashe was added to Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., in 1996. It was asserted by many that Ashe, though a great athlete, did not belong alongside such venerated Confederate heroes as Lee, Jackson and Jefferson Davis.
So even if violence is isolated and rare, the culture from which it springs is not.
Let us talk for a moment about simply “condemning violence” — as if violence itself constitutes a universally recognized moral evil. It does not. We accept that violence is actually an appropriate response to injustice and persecution when all efforts at nonviolent remedy have failed. We do not grow up learning that the American Revolution was “regrettable” and that both sides were equally responsible for the “violence.” We are taught that systematic imposition of hostile and unfair rules on the colonists — “taxation without representation” — was addressable in no other way.
What is condemnable, or not, about violence are the factors and ideology that caused it. We have complete sympathy for the food riots in this country during the Great Depression. And the many slave rebellions. We do not have sympathy for the homophobia that compelled Omar Mateen to kill 49 people in an Orlando nightclub in 2016.
It is completely inappropriate to call out hatred on “many sides” after such a disgraceful display as we just witnessed. Hatred does indeed spring from multiple sources. Ideologies that historically have been particularly efficient at generating animosity include religion and nationalism.
But there was only one such divisive ideology on display on Saturday — racism, and it was advocated by just one group, white nationalists. The violence was instigated by those who think that because they are Caucasian they should be recognized as more authentically American and deserving of preferred status.
Such an ideology is inherently violent, because someone who thinks that way is not going to tolerate “just getting along” with those he views as inferior if they are granted equal treatment under the law. Supremacists view that as a source of grave injustice. And a sense of injustice has always been a motivator for violent acts.
While it may not be possible to persuade such individuals of the wrongness of those ideas, it is possible to at least marginalize and disempower them by making clear that their ideology is not welcome in America. But such condemnation was noticeably absent.
On Monday, Trump came out with a statement calling “racism evil” and white nationalists “repugnant.” But he missed the opportunity to respond effectively. Uttering such sentiments now will be viewed by his white nationalist supporters as Trump simply being politically expedient after days of backlash. They will not see this as Trump truly disagreeing with them. They can also point to actual policies of his, such as travel bans on Muslim majority countries and walls to keep out Mexicans, as evidence that he is still sympathetic to their cause.
Saturday was a dark day in Charlottesville and the nation. Unless there is a reversal, and our leadership creates a culture of true inclusiveness, I fear that more are ahead.
Chris Johnson is a physician working in the Allina Health Care System and serves on the Department of Human Services Opioid Prescribing Work Group and the Minnesota Medical Association’s Board of Trustees. The opinions expressed here are solely his own.