The Chickamauga Battlefield just south of town is one of my favorite spots in the Chattanooga area. Its rolling hills and wooded roads offer a respite from life’s daily pressures. Visiting always puts me in a contemplative mood. The incongruity of a battlefield as a popular spot for peaceful recreation, mine included, is ever present.
It is beautiful and quiet, a quiet belied by the inescapable memory of the blood that was shed here 150 years ago, blood that was shed to stop and reverse the spread of slavery, blood that was shed as a consequence for this country’s original sin.
I visited Chickamauga Saturday evening, the same Saturday that racial violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I was reminded that though the Confederates lost on the battlefield, the ideology of racial hatred remains.
We are still fighting this war, but for some, that’s not a revelation. A lot of people, and let’s be honest, they’re the ones who look like me, will say, “This is not the America I live in” after events like Saturday’s; but for many of our fellow citizens, this is exactly the America they live in. The violence in Charlottesville is but one of the more high-profile acts in a line of injustice that stretches back centuries.
And whether it’s Martin Luther King Jr., Black Lives Matter, Colin Kaepernick or any of the thousands of others trying to expose that injustice, you will hear white people condemn the nature of the protest far more vociferously than they will ever condemn that which is being protested.
This is the white moderate that is the subject of King’s lament in “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.
The desire for peace is understandable, but too often it’s a negative peace that in King’s words is really just an “absence of tension.” Positive peace, which he defines as a “presence of justice,” requires action, it requires confrontation, and it requires telling and listening to the hard truths about the society we live in. It requires all of us to be active in our families, neighborhoods, churches and schools.
The violence in Charlottesville is only the most obvious symptom of a cancer that pervades our entire society, from housing to education to criminal justice. In myriad ways, ours is a society built by white people, for white people.
A common response from well-intentioned white moderates after events like those in Charlottesville is to ask their black friends or neighbors or leaders how we can help, but as Jemar Tisby points out in The Washington Post, “People of color did not create white supremacy; white people did.” It is our responsibility to dismantle it.
Precisely because white moderates like myself don’t walk around wearing sheets or carrying Confederate flags, it is dangerously easy for us to be horrified by the violent actions of a hateful fringe and condemn them, and yet let the moment pass without a deeper examination of the subtler ways racism impacts our society.
White supremacy has metastasized across this country; as a nation, it is our original and besetting sin. My family did not own slaves, but because I am a white man living in the United States, the consequences of our history have been passed down to me. The burden of dismantling our legacy of racial hatred is mine to bear. I’m not allowed the choice to sit on the sidelines—because doing nothing perpetuates a society that discriminates against my neighbors because of the color of their skin.
“It is not the episodic marches and rallies that define white supremacy. It is the ordinary, dull ways that society props up the racial caste system that lead to the most egregious offenses,” Tisby continues in an essay for the Reformed African-American Network. “American citizens, particularly white people, have to realize how they unintentionally allow Charlottesville and white supremacy to happen.”
Our enemies are still fighting this war. To preserve the gains that have been made and to reach new heights of justice, we must continue to fight as well.
John B. Graeber is a writer living in Chattanooga. He is a graduate of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has also contributed to Fathom Magazine, Glide Magazine, and Christ and Pop Culture. Follow him on Twitter @jbgraeber. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
Updated @ 12:20 p.m. on 8/23/2017 to correct a factual error.