On August 10, 2017 white supremacists and others of that icky ilk descended on Charlottesville, Virginia. They delivered a deadly reminder that old-fashioned prejudice remains a stubborn American problem. Less obvious perhaps is that the Confederate monuments themselves and resistance to their removal suggest more modern forms of prejudice are also at work.
Although America’s alt-right groups and other ideologically adjacent groups such as the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists, may represent a minority of Americans, I think we should worry about them gaining power. Especially worrisome: the sneaky Alt-Right that wraps prejudice in the less odious cloak of preserving white history and culture. I am alarmed by the similarities of these groups to ISIS and other fundamentalist groups who have wrought havoc globally. After all, fundamentalists also seek to curtail human rights in the name of tradition and nationalism. They too pursue a return to an idealized past where their ethnic (and male) dominance was assured. Like the fundamentalisms on the rise worldwide, the rise of white power groups in the US is an inadvertent outcome of globalization, fueled by identities based on nationalism, tradition, and rejecting norms of universal human rights and multiculturalism. Like ISIS and other fundamentalist groups, America’s white hate groups claim to represent a local culture under attack by foreign forces but in reality, they are equally at war with the people in their own cultures and countries. They offer hope, pride, and community, primarily to young men who feel marginalized and deprived.
America’s white hate groups—and unfortunately, leaders like President Trump—cultivate and exploit the dynamics of prejudice to gain political power. It is the historically winning strategy used by fascists and religious fundamentalists worldwide. By recasting themselves as victims, they promote the “us-them” thinking that promotes in-group solidarity and intergroup conflict. They boost the self-esteem of their members by convincing them they are members of a genetically and/or culturally superior group, beliefs used to rationalize their privilege and discrimination against other groups and deny their own prejudice. Norms of hate are encouraged and reinforced through example, social approval, and isolation from other groups and ideas. They are masters of scapegoating. As members of a historically privileged group experiencing frustration with social change, they blame groups against whom they are already prejudiced for any misfortune they experience. Some US politicians and pundits from conservative news outlets encourage and nurture the whites’ scapegoating of immigrants and minorities. Members of these blamed groups then become targets of aggression arising from frustration. The result: resistance to social justice progress and a rise in hate crimes.
I am originally from Richmond, Virginia, a city dotted with Confederate monuments and Confederate battle flags. The last time I was there (in 2015) I couldn’t help but feel that the Confederate statues lining Monument Avenue represented a less obvious form of prejudice known as microaggression. Psychologist Donald Wing Sue defined microaggressions as subtle verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Persistent, visual reminders of racial prejudice in the form of statues and other monuments, and Confederate flags fit the microaggression “bill” and are likely harmful to the mental health of minorities. That’s because being a target of prejudice and discrimination creates what is known as “minority stress” which has negative mental health effects. The events of Charlottesville likely enhanced the microaggressive experience because they made more salient the monuments’ positive meaning to today’s violent white American hate groups.
I think it would be helpful for race relations and racial healing were more white Americans to acknowledge that Confederate monuments are not benign. I understand that many unprejudiced white Americans personally experience the monuments as merely historical but I would like these Americans to think (and feel) about two things. First, others in our communities experience the monuments as daily reminders of prejudice and discrimination against them and their ancestors and that should matter (a lot) regardless of whether you experience them that way. Not only do blatantly prejudiced and violent white Americans embrace them as aspirational symbols of white supremacy, they were erected by architects of a Jim Crow South as resistance to civil rights progress. It hurts race relations to deny or minimize this (a social harm) and adds to psychological harm as it is also experienced as prejudice. Second thing: If you care about the historical value of the monuments you should consider that presently, the monuments glorify the champions and defenders of slavery more than they teach about history and the horrors of slavery. Adding context to or removing smaller displays and putting the statues in museums would enhance the monuments’ value as history teaching tools. It would also contribute to racial healing. Seems like a win-win to me.
Imam, A. 2016. The devil is in the details: At the nexus of development, women’s rights, and religious fundamentalisms. Toronto: AWID.
Sue, D.W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. New York: Wiley & Sons.
UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights. 2017. Report of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G17/007/43/PDF/G1700743.pdf?OpenElement