Charlottesville and the Politics of White Violence

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little over a week ago, aspiring White Nationalist James Fields Jr. plowed his car into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 others. The cowardly attack came after roughly a day and a half of violent White Nationalist rallies held under the “Unite the Right” banner, to which anti-fascist protesters responded to by meeting them head on in the streets. As a result of Heyer’s death, high level politicians across the country—and across the aisle—have come out to condemn White Nationalism, and mourn Heyer’s death. A protest planned by Richard Spencer at Texas A&M, an otherwise safely right-wing campus, was promptly cancelled by the administration. Even President Trump, before backpedalling, condemned the KKK and White Nationalism on national television. 

Welcomed as such responses from the officialdom of US politics are, as well as the overarching condemnation of the attack across the public, we shouldn’t let the opportunity to gauge the situation from a larger viewpoint pass us by. As we mourn we must also analyse. The racial politics of the killing, in the larger context of the colonial US political system, point to historical precedents and implications that have yet to be fully articulated in coverage of the event.

"Some kinds of violence in this country merit national media attention, and near universal political condemnation, while others do not."

For one, as the events of August 12th made clear, when White People kill each other for political reasons the national political conscience and its system is shaken and revealed in a uniquely holistic way. Not only does the blood trail lead us to motivations marking new fault lines in the political landscape—fascists vs. socialists—but the reactions to the bloodshed, from above and below, also illuminate old fault lines that are present precisely in their absence. Namely, the difference in national political reaction between the bloodshed of a white citizen and that of a black or brown citizen on the one hand, and the difference between the bloodshed of a citizen and that of the native americans, prisoners, immigrants, and all those deemed less than human by our legal system, on the other. As the Black Lives Matter movement revealed so radically, some kinds of violence in this country merit national media attention, and near universal political condemnation, while others do not.

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So, are we posed at another historical moment which serves as an example of white-biased political sympathy and media coverage? Yes—between the 50, 785 prisoners who died in State and Federal prisons between 2001 and 2014, most of whom were of color, and the 322 Latinx immigrants who died trying to make it through the Southern US border in 2016 alone—there is something to be said about bias, least of all when the conditions that lead to these equally tragic deaths were just as hateful, and indeed political, as those that transpired a little over a week ago. This, however, is not the more productive point to linger on.

Rather, the more productive point is the irreversible urgency of the historical moment that has been revealed by Heather Heyer’s death. Because our colonial political system began and evolved as a Herrenvolk Democracy—one which systematically values white lives to a multiplicatively higher degree than those of non-white lives—when white citizens, who otherwise benefit from the political-economic status quo, have shed each other’s blood in the national theatre, historically, it has preceded and accompanied periods of far reaching political re-structuring and change.

“When the kind of white people who are otherwise deemed ‘innocent’ begin killing each other in the name of ideologies, either directly or indirectly, doors are opened and options explored which are not in the case of much more common kinds of bloodshed and death.”

It is not for nothing that the white lives lost during the “Bleeding Kansas” period of pro-and-anti-slavery violence, and the raid on Harper’s Ferry that it lead to, catalyzed official US political interest in the evils of slavery in ways that the world-consuming violences of the international slave trade and cotton industry did not. Nor was it for nothing that a major turning point in the Civil Rights era came when two white civil rights workers were lynched alongside James Chaney in Mississippi. The same point could be made for the widespread outrage at the Kent Shootings during the Vietnam war, as well as the subsequent banning of the draft that mass protest eventually led to—after the conflict saw the death of nearly sixty thousand soldiers, the overwhelming majority of whom were white.

In all these cases, when the kind of white people who are otherwise deemed “innocent” begin killing each other in the name of ideologies, either directly or indirectly, doors are opened and options explored which are not in the case of much more common kinds of bloodshed and death. The institutional white nationalism of our political system comes alive. Leaders in high places, to say nothing of ordinary people in middling places, suddenly display an urgency and attentiveness that they have lacked while scores of colored people died in intervening years. Laws are changed and bent, armies are mustered, statues start coming down in the dozens, and so on.

So, when we observe a political climate in which white beneficiaries begin to kill each other in the name of ideologies, should we take that as the ominous sign that it is—a sign of impending change? Is it a sign of more violence to come, preceding larger changes to our political order? Yes. And that it takes the socially specific qualities of White blood to shock the national political system into heightened historical awareness and action should be acknowledged as what it is—partial—but not denied.

This brings us back to the new fault lines revealed by death—fascism vs. socialism. They aren’t going anywhere, and if anything will only accelerate in their growth as the old political regime of Clintonite third way neoliberalism continues to display its yawning irrelevance. Whether or not one reads the writing on the wall is a matter of individual choice, but nothing says that change is inherently good. Good change requires good action. If you care, it’s time to get organized. We have the benefit of living in a time of not only an ascending radical right, but also an ascending and vibrant radical left, so the choice of specific organization is up to you. But let’s no longer allow ourselves to pretend that individual action is enough to direct the overwhelming tide of history, whose arrival has clearly been signaled—by last weekend, yes, but also by the hundreds and thousands of last weekends that have not been memorialized.