Perhaps the “this is not what American values represent” attitude towards racial violence is aspirational; people want to believe that our country has reached a level of racial equality and peace such that it defines our society. At best, that involves a hope that we have overcome previous societal racism, with a vague memory of what that racism actually entailed. At worst, it involves denial that societal racism was ever really that bad, or defensive justification of it. But to respond to incidents like Charlottesville by saying “this isn’t us” ignores the stain of racial violence on American history, as well as how that history continues to impact our society.
This IS us, and it’s been us for centuries. “American values” used to represent enslavement of black people, and unchecked violence against them for generations after emancipation. “American values” used to represent denial of basic citizenship rights that white people take for granted, like the ability to vote or go to school, to choose where to own or rent property, or congregate freely in public places. One could justifiably argue that “American values” still effectively represent these things, and that it just looks slightly different than it did 100 years ago. What America has not done, unlike other nations that have committed large-scale atrocities, is admit what we did wrong and instill in our society a level of collective guilt about it.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable to own up to this history, but it’s what we have to do. Racism against black people is woven tightly into the legacy of America and nothing will change that part of our past. However, we can work to change its impact on our future as long as we recognize this fact. We cannot truly address the problem if we deny its existence.
(Originally written as thoughts in response to this article from The Atlantic.)