White Americans have to make a choice


baltimore statue White Americans have to make a choice White Americans have to make a choice screen 20shot 202017 08 18 20at 2014221 20pm
monument being removed.


“The problem of race in America, insofar as that problem is
related to packets of melanin in men’s skin, is a white
problem,” began historian and Ebony editor Lerone
Bennett Jr. in a 1965 essay for the magazine titled “The White
Problem in America

He continued: “When we say that the causes of the race problem
are rooted in the white American and the white community, we
mean that the power is the white American’s and so is the
responsibility. We mean that the white American created,
invented the race problem and that his fears and
frailties are responsible for the urgency of the problem.”

Bennett wasn’t the first to state this truth about “race
relations” in the United States. Two years earlier in The Fire
Next Time
, James Baldwin made a similar point in more
elegiac terms: “White people in this country will have quite
enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and
each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be
tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no
longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”

This point is especially relevant in the wake of
Charlottesville, Virginia, where a demonstration by armed white
supremacists culminated in the death of one person. That event,
which will likely define the city for the foreseeable future,
has laid bare the question of the Donald Trump era: Who is
America for? Is this country a multiracial republic, or is it a
herrenvolk democracy where whiteness alone confers
full citizenship and equal standing? And in turn,
Charlottesville has made clear that the final say belongs to
white Americans. For as much as blacks and other people of
color can fight for the former, it’s up to white people to make
a choice—will they share the country and its story, or will
they reject equality for hierarchy and caste?

Robert E. Lee Statue Charlottesville White Americans have to make a choice White Americans have to make a choice gettyimages 830986252
The Robert E. Lee statue
in Charlottesville.

Somodevilla/Getty Images

The fight over Confederate memorials is a proxy for this
question. Their origin is in the myth-making of the Jim Crow
South as symbols of white supremacy over a “redeemed” South and
building blocks in a narrative of national innocence meant to
unify a divided white polity. In the myth, a figure like Robert
E. Lee is transformed from the disgraced general of a brutal
effort to expand an empire of bondage to the glorious figure
represented in monuments like the one in Charlottesville, a
valiant leader in a fight for independence. A man worthy of

That myth-making was the
foundation for a new narrative
of the United States, one
tailored to a white public that could now celebrate the past
without guilt or shame, and honor men like Lee without
confronting what they actually fought for. In this story,
slavery is marginal, black people are incidental, the
Confederacy is tragic, and American history is an unbroken line
of progress populated by heroes, saints, and demigods. Those
massive equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall”
Jackson, and other Confederate leaders were built to
immortalize this story and the racial domination it

That narrative, that myth of innocence, was powerful. It
still is. And not just in popular culture where it’s largely
defined American images of the old South. Donald Trump’s
campaign for president was built on that myth. His supporters
were victims beset by immigrants, Muslims, and black
protesters, forced to apologize for America’s presumed
greatness. He would end their victimization and make them great
again, let them feel proud without bowing to “political
correctness.” And after his election, when observers criticized
his voters for supporting a campaign of racial demagoguery,
their defenders summoned that myth of innocence in response.

Lerner wrote

in the
New York

, “The left needs to stop ignoring people’s
inner pain and fear. The racism, sexism and xenophobia used by
Mr. Trump to advance his candidacy does not reveal an inherent
malice in the majority of Americans.”

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to senior staff Steve Bannon during a swearing in ceremony for senior staff at the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. on January 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo  White Americans have to make a choice White Americans have to make a choice decision on whether trump adviser bannon keeps his job is imminent axios
President Donald Trump talks to senior staff Steve Bannon
during a swearing in ceremony for senior staff at the White
House in Washington


Now president, Trump has taken a vocal stance against
removing Confederate memorials, tying Robert E. Lee to George
Washington and invoking the myth of American innocence. “Sad
to see the history and culture of our great country being
ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and
monuments,” he
. “You can’t change history, but you can learn
from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next,
Washington, Jefferson? So
!” And he has
ample support
: 86 percent of Republicans—and two-thirds
of white Americans—agree with the president’s stance.

This consensus illustrates Lee’s central place in public
memory. It’s a reminder, too, that the fight to redefine that
memory will be an uphill battle, since the call to remove
Confederate monuments is a challenge to the myth of innocence
that still shapes white Americans and their beliefs about
this country. Indeed, if Confederate statues represent the
effort to erase history, then this push to remove them is a
request to recover and reckon with it. It’s a demand that
those white Americans abandon the comforting fictions of
unity and progress and confront the past and present
in all of its ugliness. And it’s a call for white Americans
to broaden their moral imaginations and consider the impact
these monuments make on their fellow citizens, to understand
what it means to reify the symbols of a slaveholder’s
rebellion. To answer any of this is to answer that question
of the era: Who is America for?

A few days before the chaos in Charlottesville, the editorial
board of the Daily Progress—the city’s daily
newspaper—gave its
of the turmoil around the statue of Robert E. Lee.
In an unsigned piece, it blamed the upheaval on local leaders
who questioned the memorial and called for its removal,
labeling one such figure—the only black representative on
city council—an “agitator” who is “largely responsible for
the conflagration that continues to escalate.” Other
made similar points, slamming “identity politics”
for the actions of white nationalists.

But this is wrong. It presumes that these monuments were
never controversial and that the narratives they represent
were never contested. They were. They always have been. And
the reason we have this fight is because for more than a
century, too many white Americans were content with
narratives built on exclusion and erasure. The question now
is whether they’re still content, whether they still
believe this is a white country, or whether they’re ready
to share this country, and its story, with others.

This column does not neccessarily reflect the opinion
of Business Insider. 

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