America is a funny place.
On the one hand, we’re one of the first modern Democracies, a product of Enlightenment thinking and unabashed pluralism and cultural diversity.
On the other, we’ve built our entire society on a cast system that is the basis of our economics, politics and cultural mores.
We’re the land of Benjamin Franklin, the Wright brothers, Duke Ellington, Toni Morrison, and Sandra Day O’Connor.
But we’re also the land of Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis, Charles Lindberg, Bull Connor, and David Duke.
Tolerance and love are as American as apple pie. But so are racism, sexism, prejudice and anti-Semitism.
“It is not as though the United States is the land of opportunity, or a hypocritical racist state,” says sociologist John Skrentny. “It is one or both, depending on context.”
So this week when people saw Nazis marching openly in Charlottesville, Virginia, the only thing that was really so surprising about it was how surprised so many people seem to be.
“That’s not my America!” they seem to be saying.
To which I reply, “Hell, yes, it is! Where have you been the last 241 years!?”
We base our salary scales on genitalia! You think we’re really so freaking advanced!?
The shade of your epidermis determines the likelihood of police arresting you, charging you, even killing you regardless of your having a weapon, whether you resist arrest or simply lay on the ground with your hands in the air.
Regardless of the evidence, if you’re convicted, the length and severity of the sentence are all partially determined by the amount of melanin in your skin. The cultural derivation of the name on your resume determines the likelihood of employers calling you back for an interview. In many places, your rights are legislated based on whom you love.
Our schools are segregated. Our taxes are levied most heavily on those with the least means to pay. Our prisons house more black people today than did slave plantations in the 1860s.
Yet a bunch of white dudes carrying Tiki torches shouting hate filled puns (“Jew will not replace us”? Seriously?) somehow doesn’t compute?
This is America.
Racism and prejudice are not threats smuggled in past border security. They’ve always been here. At least since Europeans came offering trade and peace with one hand and guns and smallpox with the other.
The land of the free was stolen from the Native Americans. Our national wealth was built on the backs of slaves. Our laws and electoral system were built to empower one group at the expense of others.
Yet reformations in this process are rarely met with celebration. Instead of memorializing the end of slavery, we embrace the institution with fond remembrance.
Nor did prejudice and bigotry end when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, after Brown vs. Board, the Voting Rights Act, Freedom Rides, sit-ins or civil rights protests.
America has always been a place hostile to the under privileged, the second sex, religious dissenters, the brown skinned.
At most, we had become less confrontational in recent years, but we never really changed our core values, our social structures, who has power and who does not.
During my lifetime, people started to equate having a black President with the end of racism. Somehow they ignored the everyday reality for most black people.
They ignored the constant prejudice against the poor, the continued bigotry against LGBTs, the Islamophobia, the increase in hate crimes.
If there has been any change during the past eight months, it hasn’t been with the degree to which Americans are prejudiced. It’s the degree with which we’re willing to hide it.
Whereas before racists would claim to be colorblind, that their actions were completely devoid of racial bias, today they sigh and repeat the dusty slogans of Jim Crow Alabama or 1930s Berlin.
And somehow people are actually surprised about this.
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It’s because too many of us have swallowed the lies about living in a post-racial society.
You thought we were beyond all that. It was a brave new world, morning in America, and we were finally treating everyone equally – unless you looked at what we were actually doing.
Mainly this is the reaction you get from white people. They rub their eyes and just can’t believe it.
You don’t see this too often from people of color, Muslims, LGBTs and some Jews. Why? Because they never had the luxury to ignore it.
That’s what we white folks have been doing since the beginning.
Whenever these issues come up, we have a knee jerk reaction to minimize it.
Things aren’t that bad. You’re just blowing it out of proportion.
But, no. I’m not.
That’s why you’re so damn shocked, son.
You haven’t been looking reality square in the face.
So when we’ve got undeniable video footage of angry white males (mostly) marching through Southern streets brandishing swastikas and assault rifles, it catches many white folks off guard.
They’re not prepared for it – because they haven’t been doing their homework.
We’ve been living in a bubble. Especially those living in major metropolitan areas.
That kind of thing never happens around here, right?
Of course it does!
Just because you live above the Mason Dixon Line doesn’t mean you’re safe.
You have a black friend, you like authentic Mexican food and you laugh while watching “Modern Family.”
But you haven’t opened your eyes to the reality outside your door.
You send your kids to private school or live in a mostly upper class white district. You have an exclusive gym membership that keeps out the riff-raff. You work in an office where that one token person of color makes you feel sophisticated and open-minded.
You’ve got to wake up.
You’ve got to educate yourself about race and class in America.
Because those people you saw in Charlottesville aren’t an anomaly.
They are an authentic part of this country, and if you don’t like it, you have to do something about it.
You can’t hide behind denial.
You have to take a stand, pick a side, and be counted.
Because one day soon, the torches will be outside your door.
You have to decide now – do you want to brandish or extinguish them?