What to make of Charlottesville?

For Republicans and Democrats, the Charlottesville events offer lessons.  The first is one about history.  The Confederacy represented complex political concepts not always given the full attention of those who would only politicize the events.  Many historians, from both the right and left perspectives, have noted that the Civil War was the United States “Second Revolution.”  From the right, that perspective noted that fighting against a tyrannical central power was precisely what fueled 18th century events, as well as the ability of states to form their own union. From the left, historians view the Civil War as settling the question of slavery, apparent from the start, and negotiated not merely to satisfy southern states but the vast majority of the 13 original colonies in which slavery was legal.  

But what few observers have noted in this discussion of the statues is that it was not the Confederacy that put them up.  In other words, it was not slave owners and holders. It was, however, in the main the daughters of men who fought that war on the side of the South. While one can understand the pride of a daughter for her father’s service (as I have for my father who fought in World War II), what many neglect is that the Daughters of the Confederacy did so in the midst of the height of Jim Crow segregation. To me, that is the poignant point about these statues and why they are controversial, not slavery so much.  

The federal government – not just the states of the Old South -- enshrined segregation in the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896.  It is that case that established the notion of “separate but equal” that assuaged the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment sufficient to make segregation laws legal. “Separate but equal” Jim Crow segregation lasted until the Brown v. Board of Education overruled Plessy in 1954. In other words, segregation was the law of the entire United States, North and South, for 58 years. Recognizing that segregation and systematic oppression of people with African origins (along with other groups throughout American history, not least Asians) occurred long before 1896 and long after 1954, I have nonetheless supported “affirmative action” for 54 years beginning in 1954.  It is a crude and rough measure for compensation, to be sure, but at least one that makes some basic sense.  

Which brings us back to the lessons of Charlottesville.  The origins of the contemporary white supremacist’s political agenda are complex and involve not merely an understanding of race but of American economics, society and culture.  In that context, “affirmative action” has taken on representative meaning, just as the statues have in this current debate. Perhaps the most important lesson to be taken from these events is that violence will never resolve the real issues at stake such as economic opportunity made available equally and without discrimination and at least behavioral toleration of differences among us.  By law, given the First Amendment on the grounds of both speech and religion, the government cannot tell an individual what to say or think.  Surrounding law, including exceptions to the First Amendment such as incitement of violence; time, place and manner restrictions; other criminal acts does dictate behavior.  Follow the law we must while allowing for this debate.  

Beginning with the 1954 case, the federal government embarked on a path of civil rights.  Constitutional protections exist for protected categories of people in terms such as race, national origin, and sex. In other words, governmental entities cannot discriminate against those groups. Civil law establishes those protections in public spaces operated by private entities such as restaurants, hotels, schools and workplaces; these laws further extend protection against discrimination to those with disabilities or, for age, to those private entities that receive federal funds. 

People of good faith -- Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Conservatives and Independents – can agree on this much: that we must follow the law.  In a democratic republic, processes exist whereby the law can be changed.  That approach does not and never should include violence.  It is this proverbial line in the sand that we must draw.  To date, the Civil War incurred more deaths than any other war that the United States has ever fought.  It is national suicide for us to go down a path that leads to violence.  It is time for people of different political positions joined by good faith to join hands on this essential understanding of what is at stake and how we might go forward to strengthen our body politic.  It is to that path that I dedicate my public work.