Field notes

Battle to define America's identity in college town

Aug 12 events in mostly liberal Charlottesville have reignited conversation about race in US

White supremacists were back in Charlottesville, Virginia, last Saturday night, marching on the pavement, holding flaming tiki torches, and gathering at the statue in the park ominously shrouded in black tarpaulin.

"Hello Charlottesville," one man shouted through a bullhorn, breaking the quiet college town night.

"We're back and we have a message. We're back and we're gonna keep coming back. You will not replace us, you will not erase us!"

The march came nearly two months after Aug 12. That day a pleasant summer morning turned into chaos, violence and death when white supremacists - with a heavily armed white militia lurking on the sidelines - battled counter-protesters in the streets, leaving one woman dead.

The previous evening, white supremacists had marched in the University of Virginia with flaming torches, their faces uncovered.

Life since then has not quite been the same for residents of Charlottesville, a city of roughly 47,000 of whom over 65 per cent are white, 19 per cent are African-American and close to 8 per cent are ethnic Asian.

There are now regular free seminars on topics like race, fascism and heritage. People like Ms Tina Morrison, who runs a café serving freshly baked pies some 100m from where a young neo-Nazi slammed his car into a crowd, killing 32-year-old local Heather Heyer, have been shocked out of their liberal bubble.

"We have woken up to the fact that because we walk in a circle of like-minded people, we were able to ignore something that has always existed," Ms Morrison, 46, told The Straits Times.

PICKING THEIR BATTLES

At issue is a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in a small leafy park. After petitions and debates, the City Council this year voted to have it removed.

In the 1861-1865 civil war, a Confederacy of southern states fought northern states for independence and to preserve the institution of slavery. The north's victory kept the United States intact as one nation and ended slavery.

CHALLENGING SLICE OF HISTORY

Those statues recognise, symbolise and have memorialised a very challenging piece of our history. We have learnt to live with that, but it doesn't mean we're complacent.

MR TOUSSAINT ROMAIN, an African-American activist and lawyer in the public defender's office of Mecklenburg County in North Carolina.

 

But it was only a century later that African-Americans got full civil rights. In between, as part of a campaign to recast the image of the south and portray slavery as benevolent, a plethora of monuments to the Confederacy - including the statue in Charlottesville - was erected mostly across southern states.

"The monuments were put up as explicit symbols of white supremacy," Dr Karen L. Cox, professor of history at the University of North Carolina, wrote in August in the Washington Post.

To many - and especially to African-Americans - the statues are an offensive reminder of oppression. But Robert E. Lee, commander of Northern Virginia's army during America's civil war, is a hero to many white southerners whose ancestors fought for the south. And white supremacists want the statue to stay.

It is a "symbol of the history of our people, of white people in all of Virginia and south and the entire United States", the speaker screamed through the loudhailer last Saturday.

Ms Gretchen Thomas, a blue-eyed, flaxen-haired 51-year-old mother of three, works as an administrative assistant in an office outside of whose glass doors Ms Heyer was killed. She blinked back her emotions as she spoke of Aug 12.

The spot had become a place of unity and healing, not hate, she said.

Ms Thomas identified herself as on the right of the political spectrum. The African-American community was not really bothered about the statue before some people on the town council made it an issue, she claimed. With an air of some resignation, she added: "Dare I say, the pot has been stirred."

Dr Germine Awad, associate professor at the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, disagrees. "The assumption that no one was bothered is… naive and misinformed," Dr Awad told The Straits Times.

But, she added: "People of colour in this country have to pick their battles. They have a lot of issues and fighting about statues is not worth their time."

Mr Toussaint Romain, an African-American activist and lawyer in the public defender's office of Mecklenburg County in North Carolina, told The Straits Times: "Those statues recognise, symbolise and have memorialised a very challenging piece of our history. We have learnt to live with that, but it doesn't mean we're complacent," he said over the phone.

In the past, the black community simply did not have the power to remove them, he said.

The events of Aug 12 made global headlines and triggered a federal investigation. They also reignited a conversation about race across much of America.

There are 1,503 Confederate monuments across the US, mostly in the south. Over 700 of them are statues. Several towns have resolved to remove Confederate statues. In Durham, North Carolina, in the days after the Charlottesville incident, locals tore down a Confederate statue.

Today, the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville looms in black tarpaulin, awaiting the result of a lawsuit. The wrapping has been torn off a few times. The white supremacists have vowed to return.

Police keep an eye on the park, but allow the white supremacists to gather.

EMBOLDENED BY TRUMP

Virginia is an "open carry" state where one can carry a licensed gun openly. Now, said Ms Morrison, "we're getting used to seeing private citizens with guns strapped to their legs, or single figures with guns standing in the park holding Confederate flags".

"It has become a daily or weekly occurrence; you kind of get used to it unfortunately," she added.

Analysts say President Donald Trump's incendiary campaign rhetoric has emboldened white supremacists. Civil rights groups like the Southern Poverty Law Centre and Anti-Defamation League have recorded a sharp increase in incidents targeting minorities after his election last year.

To a large extent, Charlottesville was not really surprising for those who are either touched by or study racism, Dr Awad said. In fact, extreme events like those of Aug 12 risked detracting from perennial, institutional racism, she cautioned.

"Charlottesville was seminal for the reason that in 2017 we had something like this occur that was so public; we would have expected it no later than the 1970s," she said. "But it was only shocking for some people who are adamant that racism no longer exists in that form.

"It's a reminder that you have these groups lurking all the time, and they've essentially been emboldened by the leadership of this country to speak out and feel more at ease to do so," Dr Awad told The Straits Times.

Said Mr Romain, the activist: "Now there is an awareness that wasn't there before; it keeps being thrown at people's faces. That's good. We're keeping the conversation going, which is only going to inform another generation of people who will make changes."

In mostly liberal Charlottesville, many white people like Ms Morrison are also determined to be part of that change, even if Charlottesville may see more violence as the fate of the statue remains a sticking point.

It may have to get worse before it gets better, Ms Morrison told The Straits Times.

But shrugging, she added: "Why not? Why not us? This should not be something that just happens somewhere overseas. I want change to happen.

"As a person of privilege just because of my skin colour, I can no longer remain ignorant or silent. We have a responsibility to not sit in our privilege," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2017, with the headline 'Battle to define America's identity in college town'. Print Edition | Subscribe