Charlottesville and the effort to downplay racism in America

Jia Tolentino writes: In 2005, I moved to Charlottesville for college, and felt that I’d landed in paradise. Back in Texas, where I grew up, the captain of my cheerleading squad had a Confederate flag hanging in her bedroom; Virginia at first seemed very liberal to me. I had such low standards for moral decency that frat boys drawling about the “War of Northern Aggression” seemed innocuous, almost quaint. The University of Virginia fetishizes its past—people refer to Thomas Jefferson, the school’s founder, as “T.J.,” and a popular dress code for football games was “guys in ties, girls in pearls.” The official culture of the school positions American history and institutional convention as deeply and exclusively charming, and it relies on a mask of gentility to keep this story up. There were blatantly racist incidents at U.V.A. shortly before I arrived and while I was there: two of the richest frats had “blackface incidents” in 2002; the next year, a black woman running for student office was attacked near the Rotunda by a white man who reportedly said, “No one wants a nigger to be president.” In 2006, a local establishment instituted a dress code with the intended effect of keeping black people out of the bar. But these things were played down as impolite and anomalous, with the same sort of “This is not us” language that’s circulating today. Charlottesville was a beautiful town full of good white people who believed in political progress, and if people of color could just hold tight and respect that, we wouldn’t have to make anyone uncomfortable. Everything would be just fine.

We are seeing now what emerges from the American fetish for tradition, which is, in part, a fetish for the authority of the rich white male. While I was at U.V.A., the fact that slaves had built the school was hardly discussed, and the most prominent acknowledgment that Jefferson was a slave owner came on Valentine’s Day, when signs went up all over campus that said “TJ ♥s Sally.” The town has been repeatedly, publicly wracked with awful tragedies—murders, kidnappings—centering on white female victims, but when the same things happen to black women in town, it barely makes the news. (In the exhaustive aftermath that followed Rolling Stone’s discredited story of fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia, hardly anyone thought to mention that the first rape known to have occurred on the campus was the gang rape of a seventeen-year-old slave.) There is a racial slant in Charlottesville’s policing: consider the department’s stop-and-frisk numbers, or the brutal assault by Alcohol and Beverage Control officers on a man named Martese Johnson, in 2015. And yet, for much of Saturday, as white men carried assault weapons and brandished symbols of catastrophic violence, the police stood by calmly; at one point, they retreated from the fray. In this respect, the spectacle succeeded in proving the ongoing reality of white supremacy in America. The message is sickening and unmistakable. Black demonstrators protesting the murder of teen-agers are met with tanks and riot gear; white demonstrators protesting the unpopularity of Nazi and Confederate ideology are met with politesse. [Continue reading…]

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