by Ron Carlee, director, Center for Regional Excellence, Strome College of Business, & visiting assistant professor, School of Public Service, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia
Editor’s Note: This is an abbreviated version of a post that appeared on the author’s Facebook page as the events in Charlottesville were unfolding.
Most people at some level in their hearts and heads wish that as a society we did not need to talk about race any more. To paraphrase Michele Norris, who spoke at Old Dominion University earlier this year: when Barack Obama was elected president some people thought that the U.S. had become post-racial; her hope, she said, was that we could at least become post-racist .
As I write this post, white supremacists are marching in Charlottesville, Virginia—the home of freedom-loving and slave-holding founding father, Thomas Jefferson.
Clearly we are not post-racist.
The problem, however, is that most white people, fortunately, are not overtly white supremacists. When you think you are not racist, it can get tiring talking about racism.
On the August 10 NPR radio program 1A , host Joshua Johnson talked with journalists who report on race. Errin Haines Whack noted that “to be an American is to be living with the legacy of how this country came to be and you cannot talk about the history of America without talking about race and race is still very much with us as a country.”
A listener sent this tweet, “For Pete’s sake man, can’t you go a week without bringing up race in everything you discuss?”
Journalist Tanzina Vega responded, “Race is embedded in everything we do in America and often when we say we’re so tired of talking about race, we’re saying that we’re so tired of talking about brown people and black people. The normative is whiteness in America, so anything that deviates from that means it’s about race—it’s a race conversation. Well, race is critical to understanding the United States of America . . .”
Reporter Julia Craven said, “if you’re tired of talking about racism and sexism, I think you need to reflect on why you’re tired of it. It’s not that you’re tired of the conversation, it’s that you’re tired of listening to brown people and black people and you’re tired of listening to women. As a black woman, I am tired all the time . . . like my existence is tiring . . . if you’re tired, you don’t want to live a day in my shoes.”
As a society we have never had a complete conversation about race. Until we do, cities across the U.S. are at risk of civil unrest—as in Charlottesville and earlier in Charlotte, Baltimore, Ferguson, Milwaukee, Baton Rouge, and other cities. As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Uprising, we realize how far we have not come.
The race conversation that we need to have will not be easy. In fact, the events in Charlottesville grew out of that city’s effort to have a more inclusive dialogue.
In 2016, the city of Charlottesville’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces issued its recommendation that has led to the furor over the Lee Memorial. The following is from the introduction to the commission’s report:
Few institutions and communities in the United States, if any, have ever fully explored the truths and legacies of slavery, Jim Crow and white supremacy. Charlottesville is no exception. Many of the ways in which our history is presented—in monuments, memorials, and history books—do more to hide these wrongs, to justify them, and even to glorify them, than to reveal them. The impact of this neglect and distortion may be seen in continuing systems and structures (cultural beliefs, institutionalized policies and practices) that disenfranchise, disempower, and devalue African Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color.
Three recent examples of efforts to struggle with Confederate symbols can be found in South Carolina, New Orleans, and Richmond.
In South Carolina, the Confederate flag was finally removed from its State Capital in July 2015, but only after nine African-Americans were murdered in their church in Charleston.
The city of New Orleans is dealing more broadly with the issue of Confederate memorials. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu laid out the case in a speech earlier this year:
The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal—through monuments and through other means—to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity . . . .
In the city of Richmond, Virginia, a commission has been named to address its famed Monument Avenue, where massive statues of Confederates were erected between 1890 and 1919, as the rights of African-Americans were being systematically removed. The city notes that in 1867, 105,832 African American men were registered to vote in Virginia, and between 1867 and 1895, nearly 100 black Virginians served in the two houses of the general assembly or in the Constitutional Convention of 1867-1868. But in 1876, two constitutional amendments were ratified in Virginia. One amendment instituted a poll tax and the other disfranchised men (women could not yet vote) convicted of petty offences. Registered voters dropped dramatically and black legislators disappeared in Virginia until 1968.
In naming the new commission, Richmond Mayor Levar M. Stoney made a case similar to Mayor Landrieu:
It’s the story told by the Confederate monuments that gives [Monument Avenue] its famous name and has defined its landscape for more than a century. That story is, at best, an incomplete story—equal parts myth and deception. It was written in stone and bronze more than 100 years ago—not only to distort history by lionizing the architects and defenders of slavery, but also to perpetuate the tyranny and terror of Jim Crow and usher in a new era of white supremacy.
The quotations from Charlottesville, New Orleans, and Richmond are offered because they represent a very different narrative than what I learned growing up in the South.
I was taught to revere Robert E. Lee and blindly accept the monuments as legitimately honoring the valor of Confederate soldiers, but with virtually no discussion of the realities of slavery or the post-reconstruction governmental actions to preserve white supremacy through the creation of so-called Jim Crow laws that mandated racial segregation across most of the South.
During Jim Crow, we were taught that racial segregation was God’s plan and the black people liked it that way, too. Then with the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, Southern leaders doubled down to preserve white supremacy, going so far as to close schools and parks rather than integrate them. More subtle white supremacist actions followed, using tools euphemistically called “urban renewal” and “war on crime.”
Many white people like me have only a vague understanding of this history and do not see how it connects with us. But it does. It is this history of white supremacy that kept African-Americans from educational, employment, and housing opportunities. It is the legacy that lives today through voter suppression, racial gerrymandering, and mass incarceration. The Confederate statues, monuments, and flags serve as enduring symbols of this history and the continuing effort to preserve white male privilege.
“White privilege” is a term that is not typically used by whites. It is a privilege of which most of us are totally unaware, for it is a privilege that requires no action. A white man does not consciously exercise white privilege when hailing a cab, booking a room, shopping, buying a house, walking down the street, or driving a nice car in a nice neighborhood. It just happens. And, the same is true of racism when a person of color hails a cab, books a room, shops, buys a house, walks down the street, or drives a nice car in a nice neighborhood. A white person need not be aware of privilege to use it, while an African-American is perpetually aware of racism in all its subtle and not so subtle forms. . . .
Recently over dinner with dear friends that I’ve known for decades, we had an unusually open discussion of race. I noted that white people are reluctant to talk about race and don’t even want to think about it. A highly accomplished African-American male noted that he didn’t want to think about it either, but he had no choice; it’s a reality he confronts everyday. He had hoped that the world would change over his lifetime so that he wouldn’t have to worry about his son having a bad encounter with police, but now he finds himself with the same worries for his grandchildren.
As I complete this piece, word comes that one person has been killed in Charlottesville and 19 injured when a driver apparently used his car to attack counter-protestors. How many will die in how many cities before we are willing to have real conversations about race and reconciliation?
We cannot let ourselves get tired. If we truly want a nation of communities with liberty and justice for all, we must be willing to at least talk about it.
Note:  For a novel approach to the race conversation, see Michele Norris’s Race Card Project: http://theracecardproject.com