The Charlottesville racists and the rest of us

Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot about Charlottesville these last few days. Of course some of what happened there doesn’t require much thought. Really, what are you supposed to say about twenty-somethings who dress up as Nazis and Ku Kluxers, talk about defending their “white heritage,” and act surprised when some of their pals kill and injure people? Even Steve Bannon is now saying these guys are fucked-up clowns and losers. Meanwhile centrists like Joe Biden have been using variations of the line Barack Obama liked so much, about how “that’s not who we are as a people.” Bannon and Biden have different politics and lingo, but basically they agree: the Charlottesville racists are marginals, a carnival freak show.

You can see the appeal in that kind of talk. It basically says, we’ve got a limited problem, not a mainstream America problem; as long as we control the salivating, tiki-torch waving losers, we’re good to go. The trouble is, these guys actually aren’t all that disconnected from the rest of American society. We’re not going to make sense of them until we ask about how they actually do represent us as a people, how they fit right into the big-tent middle of American society. Not in every way, but in ways that matter a lot.

The guns are the most visible aspect of that connection. In the aftermath, Virginia’s governor claimed “80% of the people here had semiautomatic weapons”– probably a fake statistic, but true in the sense that these racist losers were also a big, heavily armed gang. That’s reason enough to worry about them morphing into terriorist militias, capable of wreaking real havoc; I don’t see it as likely, but it’s not all that far-fetched either. Armed young men can cause a lot of damage.

And of course, once you ask why we have large numbers of racist loons carrying military-grade hardware through an American city, you have to look to the larger context. The hardware isn’t there just because these guys love their guns. It’s there because so many respectable, mainstream politicians have helped enshrine gun-ownership as a universal American reality, with no ceiling on the permissable fire-power; the courts and the legislatures have made sure even liberal enclaves like Charlottesville can’t opt out and set up their own systems of gun controls. That’s a collective decision, the work of Democrats and Republicans; we don’t have any American Nazi Party members sitting in Congress.

Policing is another point where the American mainstream connects with the racist loons. It’s no secret that America’s cops trend rightward in their politics– before the 2016 election, one poll had them voting 84 percent for Donald Trump. That poll wasn’t very scientific, but it’s probably good enough to draw the basic conclusion: that plenty of cops agree with Trump’s belief that many of the Charlottesville neo-Nazis were really good guys who just found themselves in a bad situation. Certainly the cops’ behavior has tended to fit that line– as so often happens when right-wingers turn violent, in Charlottesville they apparently stood back as the screaming, armed, torch-bearing crowd threatened lives and property. When they got to Charlottesville, the armed right-wingers could correctly assume they had a long leash before the cops cracked down.

Of course the police have contributed in another way to the threat level visible in Charlottesville– their own violence normalizes other people’s violence. America’s cops kill about 1,200 people every year, an average of three victims every single day, a disporportionate share of them black; the number’s been basically constant for the last three years, and ditto for the number of prosecutions– about 2 percent of these cases even wind up in court, and way fewer lead to convictions, usually on grounds that the cops felt threatened, so deadly force was justified. It’s a message the Charlottesville racists seem to have picked up– you get to be afraid of anyone on the street, and when you’re afraid you get to shoot.

Things get more complicated when you ask about mindsets, because there definitely is something special about the Charlottesville guys; here in 2017, it really is only marginals and weirdos who still dress up as Nazis and Ku Kluxers. But that doesn’t mean they’re floating free from mainstream middle America, either. As a trivial example, take what’s happened over the past year in response to some football stars protesting against police violence, by kneeling during the pre-game national anthem. It’s about as peaceful a protest as you could imagine, dignified, non-violent, non-disruptive; it was only a few games into last season that fans even noticed.

But when they did, they went ballistic, and not just in the red states, either. Here in Buffalo, some fans printed up tee-shirts calling for the assassination of Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco quarterback who started the protests, and the crowd howled every time he came on the field. A local sports columnist basically joined in, defending blacklisting Kaepernick on grounds that “Sports are about uniting people, about bringing players together while their fans join hands behind them;” hiring a trouble-maker like that would be “bad for business and not worth the hassle.” Meanwhile down in the more sophisticated part of the state, the owner of the New York Giants described getting an avalanche of mail denouncing the player protests. Given that fan feeling, he explained, his hands were tied; his team couldn’t possibly hire Kaepernick, no matter how much it needed his skills.

These aren’t white supremacists, and mostly they don’t even qualify as racists; I’m sure the columnist, the billionaire owner, and most of the fans are really swell people. But they’re all participants to the machinery of racism– because they’re all saying, it’s inappropriate for African Americans to get worked up about police killings, it’s a downer that interferes with our NFL fun, and there’s nothing much anyone can do about it, not even a billionaire team owner living in America’s most cosmopolitan city.

It’s a way more powerful message about race relations than any of the white supremacist      ravings.