The latest tragedy in Charlottesville, Virginia is yet another manifestation of the identity politics that have plagued American politics since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Republican party. Several politicians rushed last Saturday to condemn the violence and laid the blame on white nationalists, white supremacists and racists (wrongfully encapsulated in the term "alt-right").
President Trump however chose to condemn the “many sides” responsible for this violence. Even if his comment has raised harsh criticisms across the political spectrum, he was not too far from the truth.
Since he announced his candidacy for the leadership of the GOP, his opponents began a virulent campaign to tarnish his image, dubbing him racist and misogynist. Anyone supporting him became by extension racist and misogynist, regardless of their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
Clinton became the only moral candidate and anyone disagreeing with the election of the first female president automatically became bigots. Her political supporters believed that her victory was unavoidable and the media warned the public through repeated accusations of racism that Trump’s victory would represent a threat to progress and to marginal groups.
After his election, a radicalization of racial discourses occurred in the media and inside liberal circles. Crimes were more often reported as hate crimes; Trump’s proposed legislation was depicted as the latest symbol of racist America. After all, Trump was elected because of the ambient racism of white America, wasn’t he? White supremacy became synonymous with conservatism. The polarization of political life continued as violence against fictive white supremacists spread to the streets (during the inauguration night, at Berkeley etc.). “Punch a Nazi” became the new slogan of radical left-wing activists.
On campuses, this new paranoia surrounding “whiteness” manifested itself through tribal allegiances. If you were white, you were not allowed to give your opinion on some topics involving minorities. You needed to acknowledge your privileges, recognized your oppressive historical status and give your place to marginalized people. If you were a member of a minority, you had to adhere to the official narrative or you were deemed a traitor who has internalized racism so much that you now support the enemy.
What was first a rhetorical device to shed light on the alleged sufferings of minority groups became a weapon to attack whites based on their collective faults. Groups forbidding whites were organized, lectures were created to address “the problem of whiteness” and accusations of discrimination towards whites were ridiculed by left-wing activists and the media.
While the liberal media fed this obsession of skin colors, conservative media reported this discrimination, thus partaking to the ever-growing polarization. By interviewing black nationalists (usually referred to as black activists by liberals) on national television, hosts like Tucker Carlson informed the average American that a new form of discrimination has been taken place, against Trump supporters, against conservative ideas and against whites in general. By overemphasizing this topic, conservative and liberal media give the impression that isolated events have become a common part of our daily life. By overemphasizing this topic, they created what they sought to eliminate in the first place: racism.
White nationalists like Richard Spencer are a product of this polarization. Like liberal activists who used skin color or sexual orientation as the determinant criterion of someone’s individual character, white nationalist used the fact that they are white to bond together and defend themselves against what they believe to be growing discrimination. The media’s overemphasis on skin color to denounce opponents played a significant role in bringing people from both sides of the political spectrum to gather together to resist the other.
The events of Charlottesville are just the logical conclusion of the polarization of American political life, where group identity became the main foundation of someone’s character. The language that was once used only by liberals to emphasize the identity of groups they claim were being marginalized are now being appropriated by the white majority.
The threat does not come from the supposed rise of white supremacy because the people adhering to such a backward idea are too few to be taken seriously. The danger comes from the constant references to skin color as the determining factor of someone’s value. The danger comes from the attribution of collective guilt or collective suffering to a group based uniquely on their skin color. The danger comes from the tribalization of society into opposing factions that are not only based on electoral preferences, but also on skin color, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
More than ever, it is time to unite around common values and embrace similarities instead of focusing on differences. It is time to stop these racial discourses before violence degenerates into open conflict. Instead of interpreting everything in terms of skin color and ethnicity, it is time to identify the real causes of social issues and work together to create a better society.
Eric B. Williams