Sometimes we don’t even know we have been asleep when an alarm bell unexpectedly rings. Such happened for us this past week end. For those who have physical and emotional ties to Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, the last week has been particularly jarring. Mr. Jefferson’s “Academical Village,” as he was fond of calling it, revealed itself to be embroiled in a street brawl with tragic consequences and overtones that are yet to be fully addressed or even understood.
Charlottesville is far from alone in the controversy about whether the recognition of history can be differentiated from the its sad underpinnings. Many cities are faced with similar questions and they are not confined to a single geographical region. The underlying hate that fueled the weekend’s tragic events is found universally. Perhaps in the south it is more organized but the seeds of such violence are widespread and totally unrelated to the concern about the removal of Civil War statues. It comes down to humanity’s failure to recognize that ethic differences are universal and our reaction to them is laced with prejudice which sets the stage for violence that has so often erupted.
The first reaction is that such riots are due to “outsiders.” To some extent that may be true, but to blame others is to miss the point. Those who foment hatred and violence seek opportunities to incite but it is short-sighted to believe that any community or any nation, for that matter, doesn’t contain fertile soil where such seeds can grow. A more appropriate question is how can people immunize themselves against harvesting such a crop?
No one is born a racist. What allows such hatred to sprout and prosper? There are innumerable answers and none of them are simple. One of the fundamental problems has to do with what Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots wrote in the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and pursuit of Happiness.”
There are all sorts of holes in that statement, the most obvious of which are gender, the fact the slave holding was not addressed, and millions were excluded from the “unalienable rights.” Does that mean that the whole document can be ignored? Certainly not but it is obvious that hate groups are totally willing to endorse the faults which, by omission, have been allowed to persist to this day.
Should history be rewritten to make correctives? Again, certainly not but it does mean that what was deemed appropriate 241 years ago must be modified to accommodate modern humanity’s vastly altered views of civilization. This requires a universal belief that all sides must work to reconcile the differences in which this can be accomplished.
The idea that violence and hatred are the mechanism by which we can mitigate our differences bespeaks of a profound ignorance that can only perpetuate the injustices included in that venerable document.
The fundamental question which remains to be answered is this: Are we as a people capable of achieving such a high-minded goal? If we allow white supremacy, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and public indifference to prejudice and violence to go unchallenged then our Founding Fathers’ faults will be proven alive and well.
This curse on our heritage has been present since our beginnings and it surfaces with suddenness periodically but it has been lurking all these decades. Pulitzer Prize winning author, Isobel Wilkerson chronicles its virulence in The Warmth of Other Suns. She said in a recent interview that most common comment about her book is, “I just had no idea all that was going on and I didn’t know it!”
The rude awakening and the tragedies associated with it should mobilize everyone to corrective action. Every thinking citizen should hope we will find the courage to act.