I grew up in Lexington, Virginia, a beautiful town nestled in the Shenandoah Valley just south of Charlottesville. My father taught at Washington and Lee University (as in General Robert E. Lee). I lived on Stonewall Street and was born in Stonewall Jackson Hospital (as in General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson). When I was in grade school, we celebrated Lee-Jackson Day on Dr. Martin Luther King Day. I attended middle school in a building that once served as the segregated school for the African American children in the community. My parents went to great lengths to teach me about real heroes: Dr. Martin Luther King, Ruby Bridges, James Farmer, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and many more.
I grew up and married a man born in Israel on a kibbutz overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. His grandparents, displaced persons, met as teenagers in a refugee camp. Ben and Rella were the only people in their immediate families to survive the Holocaust. Ben never spoke about his experiences in the concentration camps and Rella rarely spoke. However, they taught their children and grandchildren the importance of standing up against hatred and intolerance.
The events in Charlottesville filled me with dread and fear as I watched racism, anti-semitism, and hate march in my country. I thought of the explicit and institutionalized racism deeply instilled in my hometown. I thought of Rella and the night the SS came to her home in the Warsaw Ghetto.
You may be asking yourself what this has to do with gun violence prevention. In addition to the torches, many of these white supremacists brought handguns and rifles. In many instances, the paramilitary groups guarding the hate-mongers were more heavily armed and better equipped than the Virginia State Police there to keep order. Many attending used the First Amendment to defend their noxious, hate-filled chants, but there is no true free speech when people are able to show up armed with semiautomatic rifles. Weapons stifle all dialogue through intimidation and fear. Virginia has very lenient open carry laws that foster an environment of intimidation and fear. The injustice of armed white men being allowed to march and rally under their message of racial superiority and violence towards minorities and people of color has to end. In times like this, I am grateful that my family and I live in Maryland and will continue to work to protect our state from similar lax gun laws.
I dislike quoting Donald Trump but I think it is important in the context of this question:
Are we going to take down his (Thomas Jefferson) statue because he was a major slave owner? Now we are going to take down his statue? So, you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history, you’re changing culture, and you had people—and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally—but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.
I grew up with some of those “many people” whom Trump believes should be spared criticism. Men and women who stood silently by as they watched people forced to the back of the bus on the basis of the color of their skin. Politicians who responded to the Civil Rights Movement by erecting statues of Confederate soldiers. Educators who refused to include children of color in the gifted and talented classes. Just because you don’t don a white hood and carry a torch, doesn’t absolve you of racism. Marching with a group of self-avowed neo-Nazis confirms you are a racist. Speaking behind the presidential seal in support of said neo-Nazis definitively confirms that you are a racist. Receiving praise from David Duke the former Grandmaster of the KKK further validates this: “Thank you President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth about Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorist from BLM.”
There is one thing that I agree with in Trump’s statement: “you’re changing culture.” Yes. The violence on Saturday was not gun violence, but like a great deal of gun violence, it was fueled by racist ideology. We must acknowledge that one of the reasons that gun violence prevention has not received universal support is because it is an issue that disproportionately affects young men of color. If any other epidemic killed white people at the rate that gun violence is wiping out a generation of young men in urban areas, we would be up in arms.
Because I love my hometown of Lexington, it is incumbent upon me to stand up and speak out. It is past time to acknowledge this country’s violent past. We must confront the reality that our culture is imbued with an insidious racial violence that is deeply embedded in our society. We must stand up and denounce not only our President, but also the leaders who quietly stand by the President of the United States and his blatantly un-American statements.
I began to scroll through my Facebook feed when I learned a self-declared neo-Nazi ran his car into the crowd in Charlottesville. I grew up with a number of desperately poor white children. Some of the children grew up in homes that more closely resembled slums in third world countries than quaint Virginia farm homes. It was not uncommon to see a Confederate flag flying from one of the houses. I noticed a post from an acquaintance, one of the white children who grew up in poverty and under the shadow of racist ideology. His post showed he was ending the cycle and was on the side of cultural change, standing up against the norms of his childhood home. A ray of light on a very dark day.
I often look at my children, who are alive only because two of their great grandparents survived the Holocaust, and think: “Would I have had the courage to stand up against the Nazis?” I don’t know. What I do know is that our country is experiencing a significant turning point in our history. We can stand silently by and watch the violence on our television and smartphone screens or we can choose to make a difference. Stand with me and stand against BOTH the people who hold the torches and the people who are too fearful to speak up against hate.