Thomas Jefferson, White Supremacy, and Last Night’s March in Charlottesville

Last night, several hundred individuals bearing torches marched on the University of Virginia to protest the removal of Confederate monuments. They chanted “White Lives Matter,” denounced racial diversity, and insisted that white Americans could not be “replaced.” This type of episode has become more common in Trump’s America, as the election of someone who ran a campaign based on deliberate race-baiting has unleashed and justified a torrent of racist actions across the nation aimed to marginalize minority voices. Some observers are consistently shocked at this—they point to the clean-shaven faces, modern clothes, and generally modern appearance of the protesters. One internet meme dubbed them the “Nazis of Pier One Imports.” The constant surprise at these developments, however, belies the persistence of this very tension at the heart of American culture.

That the march took place in Charlottesville, on the campus for a university founded by Thomas Jefferson, is tragically fitting. Jefferson is best known as author of the Declaration of Independence, and the ideal that “all mankind are created equal” is what is still at stake. But Jefferson also authored—as well as enacted—a number of racial beliefs that excluded non-whites from the American political body. Even when he confessed that slavery was a moral wrong, a tenuous position that was always more an abstract ideal for him than a driving principle, he could not envision a mixed-race society. His idea of a nation was rooted in racial homogeneity. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson explained why the emancipation of slavery could only be coupled with the forced removal of the black population:

It will probably be asked, Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.

This quote was what immediately came to mind as I looked at pictures of white supremacists marching near the University of Virginia’s Rotunda. Racial tension has always been part of America’s nationalist imagination.

As I have previously written, these racist outbursts have always been central to the American political tradition. Respectable, educated, and, indeed, “modern” individuals have long envisioned a nation based on white supremacy. That included the president whose campus the protestors marched on last night. We won’t be able to address this predominant sin of American racism until we acknowledge how rooted it is in our culture. It will require much more than just historical amnesia to forge a more inclusive patriotism.

Trump’s victory did not reawaken white supremacy, but rather merely provided the cover for its open performance. The national sin of racism has been with us all along, whether we admit it or not.

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