As a former graduate student at the University of Virginia who also raised a family in Charlottesville for six years, I felt shocked and sickened by the tragic events taking place in that quiet college town. Charlottesville became the eye of the storm last week when White nationalists descended on the town to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Terrified students were awakened in the middle of the night as protesters marched through the campus with torches, chanting, “Soil and blood. Jews will not replace us!” This was followed the next day by a rally in downtown Charlottesville, featuring White nationalist leaders, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
We need to recognize the White nationalist/supremacist movement for what it is — a well-armed domestic terrorist organization fueled by hate. And we also need to recognize the symbols that give it power. These Civil War monuments are not historical artifacts. They were primarily erected during the Jim Crow era to reestablish the historical social order in the face of Blacks attempting to gain equal rights. Statues, flags, and monuments celebrating the Confederacy are a way of reminding Black Americans that Whites are still in control of the government. It’s an ongoing form of oppression that celebrates those who started an armed rebellion against our nation in order to preserve a system that enslaved an entire race of human beings.
It’s easy to blame historical figures or the people holding Nazi flags, but let’s step back take and honest look at the whole problem. Charlottesville, Virginia, is a deeply segregated community, and racism can be seen everywhere. Racism is embedded in fabric of the town in the form of Civil War monuments, streets and parks named after Confederate war combatants, legacy admissions preferences at UVa, Monticello, and the town's beloved Thomas Jefferson. Let's not fool ourselves. Charlottesville and Thomas Jefferson’s university have been complicit in oppressing of people of color for a very long time. Removing a monument won’t fix this, but it is a small step in the right direction.
But when White supremacist descended on Charlottesville with torches and assault rifles, students reported that university leadership did nothing to protect them, and people on both sides of the melee noted that the police did nothing as the situation subsequently spiraled into violence. Finally, it was a dark day for the leadership our nation as President Trump was slow to publicly respond to what had now become a state of emergency in Virginia.
The Daily Kos, a liberal news blog, noted that “Presidents are tested in times of crisis, and Donald Trump failed miserably. He will never truly condemn the Nazis and Ku Klux Klan, because they are the ones whose support put him in office.”
But after President Trump denounced White supremacist groups, David Duke tweeted, “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.”
Shortly thereafter, Trump made an about-face, when he defended the White supremacist rally, saying many were good people. He even went so far as to support retaining the former confederate name of the memorial park and statue of Robert E. Lee. He said that by removing these symbols of history we are changing our culture and history. I agree with this statement, as these symbols were erected for that very purpose — to change our culture and history — and we need to change it back.
Duke was appeased and tweeted back, “Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”
It can be hard to understand why these things happen. Why do people defend blatant racism? Why do people join extremist groups? Research based on a sample of former White supremacists shows that as children these individuals experienced abuse and neglect, and then went on to risky adolescent behaviors like substance abuse and truancy, before finally finding refuge in the White supremacist movement. They also tended to have higher rates of mental illness, suicidality and substance abuse as adults.
It is not surprising that many White supremacists are victims of childhood abuse and neglect. Often they join such groups for the same reasons that kids join gangs — they have a deep need for affiliation and protection. Having been abused they feel vulnerable, and having been neglected they feel a need for belonging. The extremist groups, with their strong camaraderie and powerful automatic weapons, provide both of these. Youth who feel these vital needs are being met by the group will ascribe to any ideology advanced by them in order to stay connected.
This dysfunctional collective then becomes the perpetrator of harm, not unlike the ways in which the individuals in the collective were harmed themselves. Students and community members in Charlottesville were harassed by the supremacists, threatened, and called hateful names. Others were injured and one was even killed. One student of color who saw the armed, torch-wielding marchers on television now fears that when she returns to her dorm, armed protesters will at some point snatch her from her room and the university will do nothing to protect her.
I have been conducting research for some time on the problem of racism and the psychological fallout of various forms of discrimination. We find that racism is a real public health concern, as it can result in debilitating symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and other ailments. In March, our research group conducted a study at the University of Connecticut to see if we could measurably reduce racism using sensitive education and the science of social connection. We conducted a high-quality diversity workshop with equal numbers of black and white students, randomized to one of two conditions; one condition included social connection exercises and the other did not. We found that students in the former condition felt more connected to the other members of their group across racial lines, although students in both groups rated the workshop very highly (8.6 versus 8.1 out of 10, respectively).
Unfortunately, funding for this type of needed research is scarce, and in Trump’s America it is difficult to imagine more funds being made available for important anti-racism work. In fact, forces within the Trump White House defunded work aimed at making race relations more harmonious, and this started before Trump even took office. So, the fact that racial tensions in our country are worsening should not be a surprise to anyone.
The White nationalist website, The Daily Stormer, vowed that it would soon hold more events similar to the violent rally in Charlottesville. One poster wrote, “We are now at war," and will "take over the country."
At times like this psychology is more important than ever. Read more about What Well-Intentioned White People Can Do About Racism.
We will be conducting an anti-racism workshop for therapists in Seattle in September where we will address how both to help victims of racism and how to navigate racism in the counseling room. Register at www.cbsdiversity.org.
Chou, T., Asnaani, A., & Hofmann, S. G. (2012). Perception of racial discrimination and psychopathology across three U.S. ethnic minority groups. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 18(1), 74-81.
Simi, P., Sporer, K., & Bubolz, B. F. (2016). Narratives of childhood adversity and adolescent misconduct as precursors to violent extremism: A life-course criminological approach. Journal of Research In Crime And Delinquency, 53(4), 536-563. doi:10.1177/0022427815627312