A little more than a week ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, white nationalist and University of Virginia graduate Richard Spencer joined roughly 100 fellow travelers in a nighttime protest of the city’s drive to remove a prominent statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and rename the titular park where it stands. Holding makeshift torches and standing in front of the Lee statue, these protesters chanted “Russia is our friend,” “blood and soil”—a reference to Nazi ideology—and “we will not be replaced,” a reference to the related idea that demographic change will make white Americans an “endangered” minority in “their” country.
It’s tempting to treat this so-called protest as a joke by a marginal and vulgar few, an ultimately meaningless spectacle meant to shock and inflame. After all, Spencer is a fringe figure, and his supporters are far from representative of Charlottesville and its residents, as evidenced by the large counterdemonstration held the next evening. But while Spencer is little-known, his basic view—that America is a white country, that its government belongs to white people, and that diversity is an existential threat to its identity—is essentially mainstream, the established view of the president of the United States, his advisers, and many of his supporters.
Which is precisely why Spencer would make his stand at a Confederate monument: not as a defense of “history,” but as a symbolic statement whose force relies on the commemoration and celebration of white supremacy as well as the enhanced political position of those who back Trump’s racial politics. To the extent that Spencer’s protest was unusually bold—in line with rising activity from white supremacists across the country—it’s because he now operates in a more favorable political environment, where public space for white nationalism is greater than it’s been in years, and where white reaction holds a preeminent place in political life.
It is worth a closer look at Charlottesville’s history for an even broader context. The city’s monument to Robert E. Lee was commissioned in 1917 and erected seven years later, in 1924. Presented as part of a Confederate reunion celebration, the parade and ceremony involved Confederate veterans, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, as well as 100 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, decorated in Confederate colors.
From our vantage point, what makes this strange is Charlottesville’s place in Civil War history, or rather, its lack of place. Unlike neighboring cities such as Richmond and Fredericksburg, Charlottesville has no significant Civil War history. A few skirmishes and a small Confederate hospital notwithstanding, the central Virginia city largely avoided the heat of the war. The Lee statue—and its sibling, a similarly large memorial to Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson—was erected less as a marker of history and more as a symbol of something more insidious.
Specifically, the years during which the Lee statue was commissioned, sculpted, and built were also a high-water mark for racial violence and racist ideology in the United States. D.W. Griffith’s three-hour epic Birth of a Nation—a racist dramatization of the Civil War and “Lost Cause” history—was still packing theaters as late as 1917 and 1918. The summer of 1919 saw an epidemic of anti-black pogroms across the United States, what James Weldon Johnson—then the field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—called the “Red Summer” because of its bloody terror. In his book on this period, Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America, journalist Cameron McWhirter estimates that “at least 25 major riots and mob actions erupted and at least 52 black people were lynched.” Hundreds of people were killed, and tens of thousands were forced to flee their homes.
The release and popularity of Birth of a Nation had reinvigorated the long dormant Ku Klux Klan. By the mid-1920s, this fraternal order—committed to white supremacy, fundamentalist religion, and patriarchal leadership—counted millions of members across the country, including state and federal lawmakers, along with the governors of Georgia, Indiana, and Colorado. In Virginia, Klan activity was most intense in the state’s commercial and manufacturing centers, including Charlottesville’s neighbors Staunton and Richmond.
In the world of academics, eugenicists and race theorists were also at the height of their popularity. Men like the New York–born Madison Grant and New England–born Lothrop Stoddard devoted hundreds of pages to “proving” the superiority of “Anglo-Saxons” and warning of their decline at the hands of “lesser races.” “The immigrant tide must at all costs be stopped and America given a chance to stabilize her ethnic being,” wrote Stoddard in his 1920 tract The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy. “If America is not true to her own race-soul, she will inevitably lose it.” Far from obscure, this rhetoric was echoed by the president, Warren Harding, who endorsed Stoddard’s book outright.
It’s impossible to disentangle the Lee statue in Charlottesville from this larger history. Similarly, it’s impossible to separate the Confederate monuments in New Orleans—recently removed by the city’s mayor, Mitch Landrieu—from their heritage as celebrations of white vigilantism and violence. Indeed, like the Lee statue, the New Orleans structures were also recent rallying points for white supremacists, with defenders whose rhetoric evokes an uglier age in our nation’s history. That context is why the present drive to remove these statues is so urgent; these monuments memorialize violence, intolerance, and repression, and reify a propagandized “history,” where slaveholders become models of virtue and where anti-black terrorism is viewed as freedom fighting. And in turn, they are a backdrop to present-day hate: Virginia’s Corey Stewart has built his campaign for governor around neo-Confederate imagery.
That context also has a context. We should look at these controversies—whether in Charlottesville, or New Orleans, or any other city—and the meta-arguments over history and memory with an eye toward today’s political environment. The current president of the United States won his office following a yearlong campaign of racist demagoguery, during which he elevated and mainstreamed various far-right figures. The most prominent of these has been Steve Bannon, the presidential adviser whose chief contribution to American life is Breitbart and its stable of misogynistic, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and racist voices, but there have been others. Trump’s election energized the white-nationalist movement, emboldening figures like the aforementioned Spencer. Beyond Bannon, White House aides like Michael Anton and Stephen Miller—to say nothing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions—have trafficked in white-nationalist themes. Miller was a key figure behind the “Muslim ban” that Trump issued at the start of his administration, while Anton is infamous for an essay in support of Trump, where he hailed him as the only figure who could preserve the American republic against the “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.”
Notions of white hegemony—of the idea that white Americans have a stronger claim on national resources, that they are somehow more legitimate citizens—have never left our politics. But for most of the past four decades, they’ve been expressed in coded terms, with a degree of deniability. (“Welfare queens,” the “47 percent,” etc.) The ascent of Donald Trump, propelled by a message of white anxiety and white anger, has cleared space in our political landscape for the explicit articulation of that view. It has been bolstered by a media that gives its greatest attention to the president’s supporters and treats their resentments—against Muslims, immigrants, and black Americans—as legitimate expressions, worthy of attention and political consideration.
With that as backdrop, of course the most explicit racists would organize around a memorial to the Confederacy; of course their fellow travelers would begin flooding college campuses with flyers and threats; of course they would all see a space for their rhetoric in American public life. Why are we shocked by Spencer’s demonstration when his slogan, “we will not be replaced,” does little more than make plain the racial content of Trump’s election-year pledge to “take back our country”?
What we are witnessing with these fierce fights over Confederate memorialization is the cultural fallout from the recent turn in our politics. The statues and monuments may come down, but the values they reflect—the message of exclusion and hierarchy they represent—don’t just endure; they thrive.