After watching the first presidential debate Tuesday night and then watching hours of subsequent post-debate analysis on different cable networks, I found myself reflecting on the erasure of Black organizing tradition in the South. It’s barely discussed in our political landscape, and certainly not on the presidential debate stage.
Charlottesville — my hometown — was used Tuesday night as a buzzword to jump-start a conversation on the impact of violent white supremacy on our democracy and our nation. I found myself frustrated at the blatant unwillingness to condemn these violent boys’ clubs that are taking to the streets across the nation, declaring an open season on anti-racism organizers and Black and brown civilians.
Then again, I have never seen a white supremacist openly condemn white supremacy, but what I have seen is the president rely on racially inflammatory euphemisms and dog whistles as a way to rally his base into an uproar in response to broader conversations about race and equity. We have seen this from President Trump before.
This week, he only made it clear that a victory for him is dependent upon fearmongering and division. Trump depends on scaring Americans so much that they do not show up to vote. Much like his commands to the Proud Boys to “stand down and stand by,” causing fear, especially for those who have been in the streets for over 100 days since the death of George Floyd. Trump is good at causing panic. That is precisely what he did Tuesday night.
Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous and should be clearly understood as such. Take it from Charlottesville, where in 2017 he claimed that there are “very fine people on both sides,” in response to a car attack in downtown Charlottesville during the Unite the Right rally that killed Heather Heyer and injured many others. There in fact are not “very fine people” on “both sides”— in fact, there aren’t even two equal sides.
There is the side of justice, and there is the side of hate. This debate is not just about the statues that prompted the rallies. It never was. This debate is about questioning historical narratives. This debate is about uncovering and unmasking the stories that have been strategically and systemically erased. While some of us are interested in education and activating our communities to be more civically engaged and critical of the mainstream narratives, the other side is fueled by blatant racism and intimidation tactics.
As a person who was actively organizing during the summer of 2017, and now as someone who continues to organize while studying at the University of Virginia, I can say that the events of that summer are not only a part of us and our story, but it is also one that continues to be written. Charlottesville is not a moment. It is a community where Black people have lived, survived and have done what Black people have always done in the face of white supremacy and injustice: fought back.
To view Charlottesville as only a hashtag or a talking point during a debate is to minimize generations of historical trauma and to erase the Black women who have helped lead the fight all over the country.
To speak about white supremacy as if it only appeared during the Trump presidency is to erase a history of lynchings, eugenics, housing segregation and massive resistance.
His failure to denounce the Proud Boys was not a mistake, just as it is no mistake that members of the Proud Boys were at the Unite the Right rally. I want to be clear: This is not new. It is no longer even hiding or lurking beneath the surface.
We must continue to show up in our communities to denounce white supremacy and racism in all of its forms.
To the youngest and most diverse generation of voters: Keep your eyes on the ultimate goal. We must remain focused on affordable health care for all, access to a quality education for all, a living wage for all, and we must continue to fight for policies and practices that protect and work for Black, brown, and Indigenous people.
There are lives on the line.