The Power of Privilege: Why Charlottesville Has Succeeded Where Charleston Failed
Few remember the name Clementa Pinckney.
Even the most progressive among us may not recall who this person was or what they did. We can add the title of State Senator to his name and most people will still draw a blank. We can even add the title of Reverend, which may have a couple additional people recognize the name, but most still won't be able to recall this person. It is not until we add the geographic location of Charleston, South Carolina that people begin to remember the name. Reverend Clementa Pinckney was, in fact, the person eulogized by President Obama after the murder of nine African-American churchgoers by White supremacist Dylan Roof in Charleston in June of 2015.
Despite the moving eulogy by our then president, the needless deaths of Reverend Pinckney and eight others did very little to affect public policy in this country. Yes, the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina statehouse. However, gun laws in this country remained unchanged. Many AME churches had to hire additional security for their church services and Bible study groups. Hate groups ups like the ones Roof idolized not only faced zero repercussions for their influence but actually were able to prosper in the wake of the Charleston shooting. Roof himself was not only kept alive after committing mass murder but was kindly provided lunch by local law enforcement. Even with the public outcry at the time, the murder of Reverend Clementa Pinckney and eight other members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church proved to move the needle very little in terms of addressing the problem of White supremacy in this country.
Now, compare what happened in Charleston to what happened in Charlottesville these past ten days.
Ever since the group of torch-wielding Nazis descended upon the city, we have had near universal condemnation of the actions of those involved. Thanks to the powerful work of VICE News, the entire country saw firsthand the true intentions of the marchers, despite the Nazi apologism emulating from White House. Confederate monuments have come down in areas like Baltimore, Maryland and Durham, North Carolina. Art and business leaders have withdrawn from presidential councils. Web page hosts like GoDaddy and Google have refused to give Nazi websites a platform. Counter protesters outnumbered pro-Nazi supporters nearly 300 to 1 at a free speech rally in Boston this past Saturday. And Steve Bannon, one of the chief members of the White House Nazis, was fired and forced to return to his hate-filled Breitbart home. In short, public policy has dramatically shifted more in ten days after Charlottesville than in two years after Charleston.
The question is why?
Why has there now been a wide-scale effort to take down Confederate monuments and statues? Why have business leaders and artists now chosen to spoke out? Why are web-hosting sites now all of a sudden concerned about providing Nazis with a platform? Why are people in Boston and throughout the country now feeling compelled to leave their homes, take to the streets, and let it be known that we are not a nation that supports Nazis?
The answer to all these questions is, quite simply, White privilege.
Charlottesville did what Charleston could not because the events in that city directly affected White people. This wasn't simply something that happened in an historically African-American church in a deep-red state. This was a something that happened an affluent, middle-class community with a prominent public university in a purple state that has been trending blue in recent elections. In other words, it was something that could have happened anywhere. People choose to live in and around Charlottesville because they feel safe. Ten days ago, an army of torch-wielding, violent Nazis entered their town, weapons in hand. When on Saturday, three people died including activist Heather Heyer, the community felt threatened as if their own very lives were at stake. For those in the community who grew up in privilege, it was the first time in their lives they had felt this way and for them it was terrifying.
And it was this newfound White fear that finally got the ball rolling on the actions that occurred over the past week. Because the last time White people in this country felt legitimate fear was during World War II when the threat of Adolf Hitler taking over the world was very, very real. When Donald Trump refused to denounce, then half-heartedly denounced, then again refused to denounce the Nazis present in Charlottesville, White people became enraged. Their lives are supposed to be valued and protected and when the president seemed unable and unwilling to do so, it became apparent that something had to be done. If Donald Trump wasn't going to decry the violence in Charlottesville, then what was stopping the Nazis from spreading their hatred and violence to other cities and towns throughout the country?
Since White people were now angry, business leaders felt compelled to act. Since White people were now angry, artists felt compelled to act. Since White people were now angry, local city officials felt compelled to remove Confederate statues in the middle of the night. Since White people were now angry, they felt compelled to march in the streets to announce their displeasure. And since White people were now angry, Donald Trump felt compelled to get rid of the man who had caused so much of that anger for so many people.
This is privilege. Understanding what privilege is and how it works is essential for the progressive movement. Knowing how and why there has been such a public outcry to Charlottesville and not to Charleston is integral in dealing with this current administration. Nobody is denying the feeling of fear that Nazis brought upon the Charlottesville community. But this same sense of fear is felt each and every day by people of color in this country. African-Americans fear police brutality in our city streets every day. Immigrants fear a tap at the door of an ICE agent in the middle of every single night. Refugees fear being denied a job because of their ethnic-sounding name every day. Muslims fear a prayer service being interrupted by a violent object being thrown through a mosque window at every service. These fears are all very real and yet they don't elicit the kind of wide-scale response that Charlottesville was able to generate.
To succeed moving forward, White progressives need to remember the outrage they felt after Charlottesville and channel that same outrage for all instances of social injustice. Because one single incident can affect more than just one particular community. An offense against one is an offense against all and that single offense can destabilize the entire social system. These injustices happen every day and they impact our lives, even if we don't feel the immediate repercussions. They might not be bearing down on us like they were in Charlottesville, but that doesn't mean they don't make us all unsafe. In order to continue to advocate for social justice, White progressives need to become engaged at all levels and not just when an issue personally impacts them and their community. If they can start to do that, it will only help in creating an empathy that is both needed and necessary for the progressive movement to succeed moving forward.
And if they can do that, the name of Reverend Clementa Pinckney will ultimately be just as powerful as the name of Heather Heyer.
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