(Heather Heyer and James Alex Fields represent two very real lineages of American history and society)
The spectacle of white supremacist violence and hatred on display in Charlottesville last week was disgusting and unacceptable. It seems to have been a wake up call for a lot of Americans about how serious the threat of racism and outright Nazism is to our communities. The sacrifices of those who gave their lives and safety in resistance to white supremacy may yet serve to be a catalyst that moves many individuals to action and our country closer to overcoming our toxic history of slavery and bigotry.
In the days since the atrocities of Charlottesville, there have been many commentators on social media who have rightly insisted that white Americans cannot declare that the racism we witnessed is not who we are. They point out that the ideology of James Alex Fields, the white supremacist who murdered Heather Heyer, is as old as America and is embedded in our nation’s history. It is part of the social history that formed all of us, which means that ugly ideology is buried in each of us and toxifies our relationships. This is the reality that needs to be acknowledged and unpacked if we are to work toward racial justice.
But I think it is equally important to remember there was also fierce resistance to white supremacy on the streets of Charlottesville, and this too is part of who we are and always have been as a nation. Abolitionism is also old as America, and long before the civl war, outspoken white and black abolitionists were often murdered by white supremacists. Shortly after Christopher Columbus arrived on this continent, there were dissenters like Bartolomé de las Casas who decried European barbarism against Native Americans and advocated for universal human rights. Every shameful chapter of American injustice has been paralleled by a chapter in the tradition of struggling for equality and mutual liberation. Just like the lineage of white supremacy, this tradition of resistance is inside us and has shaped all Americans, whether we have embraced it or not. In the words of the last sane Republican president in this country, “Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels - men and women who dare to dissent from accepted doctrine.”
If James Alex Fields is part of us, then so is Heather Heyer. We can no more deny the legacy that gave rise to one than that which gave rise to the other. Both legacies are real. This is the American paradox that is embedded in all Americans regardless of race or ideology. We have within us seeds of evil bigotry and seeds of courageous justice-making. This is critical to remember because it means that the path of “doing something” is not aimless or without a starting point. When we are called to take action to end white supremacy, we are not only called to renounce the evil hatred within and around us. We are also called to grow the seeds of courageous love that are in ourselves and in our communities.
Just as we have to learn to recognize the subtle ways that white supremacy might linger in our thinking, we also have to recognize the small voice of dissent within us. We have to practice speaking up and validate the small acts of justice-making that we see in those around us. We have to honor the many ways that the lineage of resistance manifests in us until it becomes our prevailing identity.
Feeding that seed of courageous justice-making while starving the seed of bigotry is why I’m going to Boston this Saturday to join the counter-protest against the white supremacists who are rallying there. We will be using our potential for resistance and building up that moral muscle. We will be reminding each other that American lineage of standing up to injustice is alive and well. And we will be making sure that this proud but sparse thread of our past becomes the overwhelming theme of our future.