I am a professor of philosophy at a small, liberal arts university in northern New England. Once a year (twice if I’m lucky), I teach a course called “Race, racism, and beyond.” The students who take the course are almost all white, in accord with the demography of Maine. Most of them espouse vaguely liberal views, although conservatives are also a significant part of the mix. They are good kids, and virtually all of them are open to what they discover to be an emotionally and intellectually demanding course.
One of the things I often hear from my students, both verbally in class and inscribed on their end-of-semester evaluations, is that before taking this course, they had been unaware of the full horror of the history of race and its ongoing ramifications in contemporary American life. A common refrain, uttered in a tone of justified outrage, is Why was I not taught this until now? These young people come away from the course understanding that they, in their obliviousness, have been part of the problem, as well as understanding that their culture (including, of course, the educational system in which they have been marinated) has made sure they are part of the problem by keeping them ignorant.
Sadly, by the end of a single semester, my students are much farther along the road to enlightenment than are many of the people to whom we entrust the governance of our country. I am not referring to right-wing xenophobes or Trump enthusiasts. I am referring to people whose pronouncements about the events in Charlottesville over the last 24 hours or so have been welcomed by many on both the left and the right — people who have said the right thing in the eyes of most Americans.
I disagree that they have said the right thing. I think that what these people have said is precisely wrong, that their words are a symptom of the very disease they ostensibly wish to cure. I have no desire to impugn their motives — to accuse them of hypocrisy or of using a tragedy for political expediency. I take their sentiments fully at face value, and as entirely sincere. And that’s the problem.
Let’s start with a distinguished Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose tweet that “the hate and bigotry witnessed in Charlottesville does not reflect American values” elicited approbation both from those on the left and those on the right. Think about his words for a moment, and something ugly begins to show through the patina of moral rightness.
The problem with McConnell’s statement is that the hate and bigotry witnessed in Charlottesville unequivocally do reflect American values, as should be evident to anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the hideous history of race in this country. The historical perspective — or rather, the lack of it — that is embodied in these words is the outcome of an exercise in wishful thinking that plenty of Americans will be all too happy to get behind. Just like the decision to remove the Confederate statue that ignited the grotesqueries in Charlottesville, statements like these sweep truth under the carpet.
Next up is a Democrat, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who stated that he was “disgusted by the hatred, bigotry, and violence these protesters have brought to our state.” Hold on, did he say “have brought to our state”?
It is true that many people traveled from elsewhere to participate in the racist festivities, but since when was Virginia a haven of diversity? Does he not remember why that statue of Robert E. Lee was there in the first place? I imagine the governor of any state in this nation would say much the same thing as McAuliffe did under similar circumstances. But it boils down to this: We are not the problem. They are the problem. Like Donald Trump’s “bad hombres,” the villains are always from someplace else. As Jean-Paul Sartre memorably remarked in his preface to Franz Fanon’s masterpiece The Wretched of the Earth, “On the other side of the ocean, there was a race of less-than-humans.”
Looked at from this angle, the righteous comments by McConnell and McAuliffe and other guardians of the public good ring hollow. They exemplify white Americans’ chronic inability to own up to the horrors of the past and to face the truth about the present. Unless and until this happens, we will stay trapped in the recurring nightmare of other Charlottesvilles, and worse, to come.
David Livingstone Smith is a professor of philosophy at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine. firstname.lastname@example.org