In Charlottesville, Virginia, we saw two major aspects of racist ideology. The first was the uniting of Nazis, white nationalists and others holding fast to the ideology of white supremacy and segregation. These groups came together to “unite the Right.” They intended to make a show of unity and strength, in support of their ideology of white racial dominance and the segregation and elimination of people of color and Jews from the United States. While these groups should be closely watched and monitored, I wonder if our focus should be elsewhere.
Stamped from the Beginning, an excellent book by Ibram X. Kendi, skillfully tells the story of the history of the racist ideas of segregationists like those in Charlottesville. However, Kendi also reminds us of another form of virulent racist ideology that had a prominent history in American society. That ideology is not segregationists, but assimilationists. Segregationists claim that Blacks are inherently inferior to whites. These whites therefore distance themselves from Blacks in their educational and housing choices. Assimilationists also believe Blacks are inferior but contend that it results from poverty, culture and poor education and that assimilated Black individuals can be equal to whites. They prefer racial diversity as long as white racial dominance stays intact, so neighborhoods and schools are enhanced, in their view, when appropriate numbers of assimilated Blacks are present. They feel that integration and assimilation into the dominant culture and values held by whites will ultimately elevate African-Americans to a level of equality.
Despite our fascination with the Nazis and white nationalists/segregationists, our greater concern has to be for the racist ideology of the assimilationists within our city, state and nation. They occupy important political offices and prominent places in business and leadership in our educational, commercial and financial institutions. They set boundaries and limits on the numbers of African-Americans they are willing to hire, admit into colleges and universities, and to whom they will provide loans and investment support. I believe this group represents the largest population of whites in America. It is the combination of these two groups holding onto racist ideologies that governed our last presidential election and influences much of the legislation in many states of this country, including Indiana.
Rather than harboring the explicit biases of the segregationist, the assimilationist has more implicit bias that influences their views. Members of this group typically fail to recognize or acknowledge the privileges associated with white identity and the need for “truly equal opportunity” or the pervasive discrimination faced by African-Americans today. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared a similar concern. He argued that the white moderates were the greatest threat to the civil rights movement, not the segregationists. The moderates he spoke of were assimilationists. They were comfortable personally with the injustice and inequality of the day and denied the urgency and the need for immediate action.
Kendi reminds us that there is also a third group of whites confronting issues of race, as well. This group can be properly identified as “anti-racist.” This group is small and always has been. However, this group has played, and still plays, a critical role in confronting and challenging the racist ideologies of the segregationists and the assimilationists. That applies to the fight in Charlottesville and elsewhere over Confederate monuments and statues. Assimilationists support the racist legacy these monuments represent by supporting that these men who rebelled against our nation retain places of honor and veneration. What we need in Indiana and across America is more anti-racist whites who recognize the mental and material injustices that this society inflicts on African-Americans on a daily basis and are willing to confront and challenge other whites to end it.
Some of you may say statues and monuments do not matter, but you are wrong. Memory determines who we are individually and together. These statues and monuments represent the honor that we afford these men who risked their lives to maintain the large-scale systemic abuse and deprivation of rights for African-Americans. Why should they hold places of honor and veneration in our society instead of the abolitionists who fought against slavery, like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and Thaddeus Stevens? More so, why is Robert E. Lee honored instead of a war hero like Harriet Tubman? The answer is simple racism.
It is vital that African-American communities work with anti-racist whites to not just remove Confederate monuments but also replace them with African-Americans and whites who fought to end slavery and preserve the union. Changing the way we view the past is the first step to changing the way we understand the present and create the future.
Carlton Waterhouse is a professor of law and Dean’s Fellow at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.