It is fitting that all of this racial violence originated at the statue of our third president. ‘White Lives Matter’ is a good summation of Jeffersonian thought
On Friday evening, a group of white supremacists marched across the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and surrounded a statue of Thomas Jefferson to scream: “White lives matter! White lives matter!” It was the start of what would be a bloody and tragic weekend of white supremacy and violence.
At a counter demonstration on Saturday afternoon, Heather Heyer, a white woman, was killed by a car allegedly driven by a white man, James Alex Fields. Around the same time, a police helicopter flying to monitor the white race riot crashed, killing two white police officers. President Trump initially chose not to blame white supremacists but “many sides” for this white-on-white crime spree.
It is fitting that all of this racial violence originated at the statue of our third president. White Lives Matter is a good summation of Jeffersonian thought – and the dominant political climate of the contemporary US.
Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. Despite writing that he believed – “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” – these rights were only applied to white people (specifically to white, landowning men) in his lifetime.
Jefferson was practically screaming “white lives matter” when he wrote, in Notes on the State of Virginia, that black people are are “dull, tasteless, and anomalous” in imagination and “much inferior” to white people in reason.
His white supremacist feelings were on display when he repeatedly raped enslaved Sally Hemings. After he impregnated her, he subjected their mixed-race offspring to bondage while his white offspring got the keys to the kingdom of Monticello.
Jefferson also advocated that black people should be sent back to Africa – once their bodies had been used up sufficiently. This sentiment is quite similar to one expressed in 1862 by the “Great Emancipator”, Abraham Lincoln himself, who pressured black leaders to move their community to South America.
Lincoln told them: “But for your race amongst us there could not be war.” This rhetorical technique – of creating a “them” to be made out as the responsible party for the woes of the oppressive, default, white “us” – was as American as America gets.
It’s what those marchers were doing Friday night, when they acted as if white lives don’t matter in US society and that their problems are due to all the imagined special privileges afforded to people who are African-American, women, queer, Muslim, immigrant or otherwise “other”.
This is also what Trump is doing when he so avoids blaming white supremacists. No wonder that the editor of the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, wrote Trump “loves us all”.
But though he is stoking and fueling anew the martyr’s gall, Trump is a symptom, not a root cause, of our white supremacist, toxic American reality.
It’s not like this nakedly violent and aggressive id of white supremacy is a surprise. Many of us, especially black women, warned what what would happen if Trump were elected. We also knew that, if even if he lost, he would remain a formidable danger.
So what do we do now that our fears are coming true?
One way is for white, able-bodied, straight people to stand up in person to these white supremacists, as a few brave students did at the University of Virginia and as Heather Heyer gave her life to do.
But as we applaud when white people show up, we must remember that tens of millions of us in the US are involuntarily at risk of bodily harm at all times. And we must wrestle with what we can learn from people who are doing this work of survival everyday, and use it as a model for a better world.
And we must understand that, as Trump remains silent on the mosque bombing, he is still ginning up a war against Asian people in North Korea. These events are not unrelated: Trump is angling to drop bombs on people of color abroad in order to manage white rage at home – something American presidents have done for generations.
If you’ve been waiting for a moment to get involved, wait no longer. Those marchers aren’t a harbinger of bad news to come, but a symptom of the mess we’re already in.
Go to marches. Speak up about hate. Be present with people who are in harm’s way. Re-evaluate what you think you know about America and its history – and start to do what you can to alter the corrosive, centuries-long stranglehold racism has had on the American zeitgeist.
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