White supremacists, 2007
Credit: Robert Thivierge/FLICKR

As I watched the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, unfold over the weekend and tried to grasp the reality that a President of the United States was unwilling to condemn these homegrown Nazis marching in support of white supremacy, I couldn’t help but think that it was only two years ago that another white supremacist walked into a church and gunned down eight African Americans for no other reason than racial hatred.

That led me to long for the wisdom of our 44th president at moments like this. So I re-watched Obama’s “amazing grace” eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney—and not just the part where he sings. This is how an authentic leader addressed us at a moment when the ugliest parts of our past are shown to be present once again:

That was the most blatantly anti-racist speech of Obama’s presidency. He used the words of the song Amazing Grace to talk about how perhaps we as a country, stained by the original sin of slavery, might resonate with the fact that we were once lost, but now are found…were blind, but now can see. Sadly, those words were more aspirational than factual, as the events of this last weekend demonstrate.

Ever since Donald Trump was elected last November, I’ve struggled with how we as a country could go from a president who could talk so eloquently about “we” when describing the role of the black church in this country to our current occupant in the White House. I simply can’t reconcile it in my head. If feels like there has been some gigantic rupture in the space/time continuum.

With the benefit of hindsight, I’m sure that future historians will be able to explain the connective tissue that ties one event to the other, and there are certainly multiple threads that make up that connection. But I’d like to focus a bit on the question of racism as a way to reach some partial understanding in the moment.

There was a time in the 1990’s and early 2000’s when race seemed to fade into the background as a defining issue because white people weren’t hearing about it all the time. As Derrick Jensen wrote in The Culture of Make Believe, that didn’t mean it went away.

From the perspective of those who are entitled, the problems begin when those they despise do not go along with—and have the power and wherewithal to not go along with—the perceived entitlement…

Several times I have commented that hatred felt long and deeply enough no longer feels like hatred, but more like tradition, economics, religion, what have you. It is when those traditions are challenged, when the entitlement is threatened, when the masks of religion, economics, and so on are pulled away that hate transforms from its more seemingly sophisticated, “normal,” chronic state—where those exploited are looked down upon, or despised—to a more acute and obvious manifestation. Hate becomes more perceptible when it is no longer normalized.

Another way to say all of this is that if the rhetoric of superiority works to maintain the entitlement, hatred and direct physical force remains underground. But when that rhetoric begins to fail, force and hatred waits in the wings, ready to explode.

What Jensen is describing when he talks about hatred as a tradition embedded in economics, religion, etc. is the way that racism becomes systemic in our institutions. It was “normalized” as part of our criminal justice, education, employment and health care systems.

The rhetoric of normalization eventually began to fail because it was challenged by those who had been despised, but were no longer willing to go along with it. Affirmative action programs instituted decades ago began to produce African American leaders, not just in sports and entertainment, but in commerce, education and politics. Demographers began to talk about the day when white people will no longer make up the majority in this country. The Great Recession terrified white people as they were impacted economically in a way that hadn’t happened since the 1930’s. We elected our first African American president. The shooting of unarmed black people became a national scandal and led to the Black Lives Matter Movement. Tim Wise talked about some of these events forming “the perfect storm for white anxiety.”

Force and hatred were waiting in the wings, ready to explode. That is not a new pattern, as Jonathan Chait described after watching 12 Years a Slave.

Notably, the most horrific torture depicted in 12 Years a Slave is set in motion when the protagonist, Solomon Northup, offers up to his master engineering knowledge he acquired as a free man, thereby showing up his enraged white overseer. It was precisely Northup’s calm, dignified competence in the scene that so enraged his oppressor. The social system embedded within slavery as depicted in the film is one that survived long past the Emancipation Proclamation – the one that resulted in the murder of Emmett Till a century after Northup published his autobiography. It’s a system in which the most unforgivable crime was for an African-American to presume himself an equal to — or, heaven forbid, better than — a white person.

Ever since I read that, I’ve thought about the description of “Northup’s calm, dignified competence” as exactly what we witnessed from President Obama. Just as it did during the days of slavery, that was the most unforgivable crime—for an African American to presume himself to be equal to a white person. We should never underestimate how that contributed to the explosion of hatred.

Almost two years ago I wrote about Trump and the white supremacists. When it comes to the changing demographics in this country, there was this quote from Richard Spencer, the man who hails himself as the leader of the so-called “alt-right.”

“Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America.” He said, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he did believe that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have – that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon.”

One of the men who marched in Charlottesville, Peter Cvjetanovic, is claiming that he’s not the racist that is portrayed by the pictures of him that surfaced this weekend. Take a look at how he explains himself:

I came to this march for the message that white European culture has a right to be here just like every other culture. It is not perfect; there are flaws to it, of course. However I do believe that the replacement of the statue will be the slow replacement of white heritage within the United States and the people who fought and defended and built their homeland. Robert E Lee is a great example of that. He wasn’t a perfect man, but I want to honor and respect what he stood for during his time.

Let’s be clear, what Robert E. Lee stood for during his time was the right of white people to enslave black people. But do you hear how the fear Spencer talked about is expressed in what Cvjetanovic described as the “slow replacement of white heritage?”

I find some optimism in understanding what we are witnessing today in these terms. While it’s true that the election of Donald Trump has emboldened these Nazis and white supremacists, it is also true that they are petrified at the way that America is changing…by the power that is being unleashed when people of color rise up with calm dignified competence and are no longer willing to accept the entitlement of white people, when African Americans (and other people of color) presume themselves to be equal to—or heaven forbid, better than—a white person.

We can find lots of different reasons to turn away from this as the defining issue that is being presented to us as Americans right now. But it is impossible to explain how this rupture from Obama to Trump occurred without grasping that the entitlement for white people is being threatened, and that is why hatred (which is always rooted in fear) is in the process of exploding.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.