The violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Va. this August turned the idyllic town on the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains into ground-zero of the debate on statues and white supremacy in America.
There’s been much discussion on what to do with Confederate statues across the country. But, more interestingly, there is much public confusion over the motives of the rally organizers and their connection to Confederate statues.
Despite the rally organizers opposing the contemplated removal of a Robert E. Lee statue from a Charlottesville park, the rally really wasn’t about the Confederacy or statues. The planned removal of Robert E. Lee statue was simply an excuse for the organizers to promote their views—not the object or focal point of their belief system. The rally participants have stated publicly for years that they think there is a genocide being waged against white people, and that they favor measures to restrict non-white immigration into the U.S.. They want a white ethnostate free of minorities. They are against Jews, Muslims, blacks, and anyone who isn’t of pure European descent. The ideology that drove the rallies would have existed without any statues of Confederate generals.
Although the rally was clearly about white supremacy more than it was about the Robert E. Lee statute (or Confederate statues more broadly), there has been a move by many to conflate the issue of Confederate statues with white supremacy. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi recently said after the incidents in Charlottesville that “If Republicans are serious about rejecting white supremacy, I call upon Speaker Ryan to join Democrats to remove the Confederate statues from the Capitol immediately.” By explicitly linking Confederate statues to the promotion of racism, Pelosi suggests that the statues are closely connected to white supremacist activity. After Birmingham, Alabama, Mayor William Bell ordered that a wooden structure be built around a Confederate monument in his town to shroud its appearance, he stated, “This country should in no way tolerate the hatred that the KKK, neo-Nazis, fascists and other hate groups spew.” Both Pelosi and Bell suggest that public Confederate statues function as a de facto condoning of racism in American, and that the removal of statues will lead to a more tolerant society. The reality, however, is that the problem of white supremacy transcends the statue debate, and should be treated separately.
Conflating the two issues—Confederate statues in public areas and white supremacy beliefs—risks driving a wedge in American politics and further fragmenting the nation. Polls show a clear majority of Americans do not support removing Confederate statues, while the overwhelming majority of Americans denounce white supremacist groups. Reasonable people can argue in favor of keeping Confederate statues for the sake of remembering the nation’s history, among other reasons completely unrelated to support for the white supremacy. It’s important that people avoid tarring the character of millions of Americans through accusations of racism for believing that Confederate statues should remain in public areas.
Furthermore, events around the world demonstrate that racist activity can easily arise independent of the presence of Confederate statues. Consider the European far-right. Marine Le Pen—president of National Front, a far-right political party in France with ties to the Nazi movement—nearly beat out moderate Emmanuel Macron in becoming president of France—the second most populous country in Europe. Like their American counterpart, the European far-right is openly against immigration and believes that their people are being attacked—socially and politically—by minorities. But, unlike the U.S., there are no Confederate statues in Europe, though that hasn’t toned down the zealousness with which the European far-right promulgates their dangerous ideology.
The tragedy of Charlottesville is about more than the Robert E. Lee statue in Emancipation Park. Charlottesville brought some of the ugliest ideologies to the forefront of discussion. We should refrain from exploiting the rally in Charlottesville to address the statue issue, and instead focus on the clear-cut, global issue of bigotry.