White people calling for “unity”: Your good intentions aren’t enough

Stop mourning Charlottesville with "this isn't us" and weak cries to "come together." Denounce bigotry instead

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published August 15, 2017 4:59AM (EDT)

White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" exchange insults with counter-protesters as they attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)
White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" exchange insults with counter-protesters as they attempt to guard the entrance to Emancipation Park (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

The despicable violence in Charlottesville prompted an outpouring of statements over the weekend by politicians who had been all too willing to play along, whether tacitly or overtly, with proponents of white supremacy in exchange for political power. It takes a great deal of moral flexibility to try to play both sides of this one — just ask Donald Trump, who waited until Monday afternoon to issue an unequivocal statement denouncing racists and their acts of terror, after even the TIKI torch company had issued stronger remarks — but Ivanka Trump attempted to rise to the challenge. On Saturday, the president’s daughter and White House adviser tweeted her thoughts on the racist violence in Charlottesville in two parts, one for each of her public audiences.

First, tweet #1, designed to reassure constituents freaked out by yet more visual proof that violent white supremacists have been emboldened by her father’s presidency and who will hold her responsible for her complicity:

“There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.”

She’s right; there should be no place in decent society for these people and their ideals. Yet Ivanka wants to pretend that she has played no role in carving out one rather significant place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-Nazi ideals, namely the White House her family currently controls.

Her language choice is revealing — Ivanka decries belief systems but not the people who subscribe to them, who advocate for them and who carry out their violent ends. And yet white supremacists work in her father’s office at the highest levels. They are writing the president’s speeches and shaping the president’s policies, right alongside her. There’s no way she still believes she’s working as a bulwark against their influence, so what exactly is she doing if not benefiting from their efforts?

This is a classic Ivanka equivocation — denouncing evil in the abstract yet continuing to maintain the illusion that she is helpless to fight it — but she’s hardly alone. Many affluent, well-educated white Americans, including those who fancy themselves socially progressive because they celebrate same-sex marriages and don’t speak in overt racial slurs, feel safest when condemning white supremacy in the shocked and horrified abstract, as if it were an unforeseeable act of God happening far from their sphere of influence, like a famine in a distant country.

You know what I mean: Many a "helpless” white person's heart is currently heavy over this “ignorance” which is “disappointing” and “not us.” There are good intentions behind the public announcement that one is feeling sad about the prominence of white nationalism in America today, but without naming and actively shaming this disgrace in our own communities, hand-wringing is not likely to do much good.

Ivanka’s second tweet, however, was aimed squarely at white people who resent being asked to confront America’s racist past and present:

“We must all come together as Americans -- and be one country UNITED.”

This is a capitulation to white fantasy masquerading as an irreproachable statement. On its surface, "unity" is a noble endeavor. Who can argue with it? It’s right there in our name! But without naming that which all Americans should be united against, this platitude creates a false equivalence between oppressors and the oppressed, between neo-Nazis and those who stand up against bigoted brutality. It is related to the same disconnect with reality that plugs its fingers in its ears and insists, "All Lives Matter."

"We must all come together as Americans" suggests that the terror in Charlottesville is an easily-repaired political disagreement, like things got a little heated at Thanksgiving over the capital gains tax rate. It's a statement of denial, just like #ThisIsNotUs.

But if the snarling white supremacists with violence in their hearts and blood on their hands are “not us,” who are we in 2017, when there's still a monument to Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville for the so-called Unite the Right to rally around?

On Saturday night in Louisville, Kentucky, a statue honoring a pardoned Confederate traitor that presides prominently over a proudly liberal city street — the same neighborhood F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictional feckless rich girl Daisy Buchanan hailed from — was vandalized. The first public response from the district’s liberal city council representative was to decry the vandalism, not the whitewashed symbol his wealthy constituents poured thousands of dollars into restoring. (The mayor has now called for a thorough review of its public art works; in nearby Lexington, the mayor has declared the city's Confederate monuments will be removed.)

A wealthy urban neighborhood that cherishes its hidden-in-plain-sight pro-slavery monument more than it celebrates anti-racist action speaks volumes about an ostensibly liberal community's actual values; it privileges reverence for tradition over progress, aesthetics over justice, a desire for polite unity over principled dissent. This is a small local drama, sure, but small local dramas like this one are unfolding throughout the country. In Louisville, the local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) held a rally against white supremacy at the statue Monday evening, demanding it come down. In Durham, North Carolina, protesters pulled down a statue "In memory of the boys who wore the grey." Meanwhile, they will certainly have white neighbors who don't think they are part of the problem, who simply look on and wish that people would stop talking about ugly things like "white supremacy" in such loud tones.

But don't think this is just a Southern problem. Remember that it took Yale University decades to remove John C. Calhoun’s name from one of its residential colleges, deciding only months ago -- after a long and bitter public debate about whether ceasing to honor slavery's most ardent and articulate defender would be tantamount to "erasing history" -- to rename the institution after computer scientist Grace Hopper.

Defense of the genteel glorification of racial terror isn't limited to neo-Nazis bearing torches; this pathology is embedded deep in America’s ostensibly enlightened enclaves. We are already one country too united with — enmeshed with, even, and in many ways embroiled in a codependent relationship with — the toxic tenets of white supremacy. Now is not the time for white Americans to wring our hands. We must be specific and clear in our demands of each other: There can be no further indulgence, tacit or otherwise, of bigots and their symbols, if true unity is indeed the goal.

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief. Her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," will be published in September 2022.

MORE FROM Erin Keane