As we open up our hearts to mourn the loss of Heather Heyer, 32, who was killed last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, for standing up to racism and Nazism, we must also take on the task of opening our eyes to the underlying reality that led to this outpouring of violence and hatred.
What transpired in the streets of Charlottesville was not a tragic stain on an otherwise immaculate quilt of social progress. Rather, it was the boiling point of a putrid sentiment that centuries of systemic racial oppression — and the privileged class’ reticence to unequivocally condemn it in all of its forms — have allowed to live on: white supremacy.
Perhaps the greatest mistake we’ve made as a society in the battle against white supremacy has been our failure to recognize and disavow its various adherents and manifestations.
Instead, we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking it’s a fringe ideology on its last legs, one so extremely vile that the deranged and powerless few who truly believe in the genetic superiority of the white race will always stand out to us as clearly as if they were wearing pointed white hoods.
However, among the many lessons to be gleaned in the aftermath of Charlottesville, we must confront the fact that, on one hand, we’ve underestimated how easily white supremacists can assimilate and thrive in our communities and, on the other hand, that we have overestimated our own ability to detect and ostracize them.
Indeed, as the harrowing images Charlottesville demonstrate, white supremacists in America are not merely a handful of disorganized, senile, old men spouting racial slurs with no coherent worldview.
Nay, like Peter Cvjetanovic — a University of Nevada Reno student and employee whose identity was confirmed by CNN after a photo of him yelling at Unite the Right went viral—these people are our classmates, students, coworkers, bosses, acquaintanes and colleagues. They move seamlessly among the many groups they feel are genetically inferior to them.
Not only do these bigoted ideologues effortlessly blend into the mainstream — especially now that the President won’t explicitly reprobate their violence or rhetoric — but they are much more plentiful and powerful in this country than we are comfortable believing.
Attesting to the prevalence of organized white supremacy, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports a staggering 917 registered hate groups in the United States, a whopping 130 of which are Klu Klux Klan groups, another 100 of which are White Nationalist groups and 99 of which are Neo Nazi groups.
Additionally, when David Duke — a former Imperial Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan and Nazi sympathizer—ran for US Senate in 2016, he amassed an unnerving 58,606 votes. That means more people voted for the former KKK leader to represent them in Congress than there are students at the University of South Florida.
These examples provide merely a glimpse into the vast influence and acceptance of white supremacy in America.
As we traverse through this turbulent and often dangerous political climate, it is incumbent upon us to disabuse ourselves of the baseless stereotype that white supremacists are a small, inconsequential group on the verge of dying out.
Bigots are all around us, deeply embedded into all levels of society, from our classrooms to the White House, and our failure to recognize them is precisely what allows their hatred to endure.
Renee Perez is a junior majoring in political science and economics.