One prominent line of conservative response to this weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Virginia, has been to admit that murderous white supremacist violence is bad while noting that liberals who engage in “identity politics” are bad too. An editorial about Charlottesville in the Wall Street Journal took time to complain about leftists who “divide Americans by race, ethnicity, gender and even religion” and asserted that “a politics fixated on indelible differences will inevitably lead to resentments that extremists can exploit in ugly ways.” An otherwise laudable op-ed by right-wing pundit Erick Erickson in the New York Times opened by arguing that “the social justice warrior alt-left and the white supremacist alt-right” are “two sides of the same coin.” Donald Trump himself alluded to the activist left by suggesting that “many sides” deserved blame for an incident in which a white supremacist appears to have murdered a nonviolent anti-racism protester.
The idea that the Black Lives Matter–style groups are being “divisive” by highlighting the role of racial identity in American society is not a new trope, but it is particularly ridiculous to bring up in reference to an actual white supremacist riot.
Here’s a short history of racial categorization in the United States:
- 1619: African slaves are brought to North America.
- 1787: The United States Constitution approves the continued existence of black/African slavery.
- 1857: The Supreme Court rules in the Dred Scott case that “Negroes” cannot be American citizens.
- 1865: Slavery is outlawed, but many black Americans are subsequently denied the right to vote, among many other rights, often via violence.
- 1896: The Supreme Court rules in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation is constitutionally permissible.
- 1960s: Congress finally passes laws ending segregation and guaranteeing black Americans the right to vote.
In short, the first 350 years or so of U.S. history involved white Americans insisting that black Americans were members of an inferior racial group and setting up systems of employment, housing, education, and law enforcement that reflected that belief. The subsequent 50 years have involved whites presuming to be flabbergasted that anyone could think racial identity was a relevant subject in American life. It’s a neat trick!