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“The problem of race in America, insofar as that problem is related to packets of melanin in men’s skin, is a white problem,” began historian and Ebony editor Lerone Bennett Jr. in a 1965 essay for the magazine titled “The White Problem in America.” He continued: “When we say that the causes of the race problem are rooted in the white American and the white community, we mean that the power is the white American’s and so is the responsibility. We mean that the white American created, invented the race problem and that his fears and frailties are responsible for the urgency of the problem.”
Bennett wasn’t the first to state this truth about “race relations” in the United States. Two years earlier in The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin made a similar point in more elegiac terms: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
This point is especially relevant in the wake of Charlottesville, Virginia, where a demonstration by armed white supremacists culminated in the death of one person. That event, which will likely define the city for the foreseeable future, has laid bare the question of the Donald Trump era: Who is America for? Is this country a multiracial republic, or is it a herrenvolk democracy where whiteness alone confers full citizenship and equal standing? And in turn, Charlottesville has made clear that the final say belongs to white Americans. For as much as blacks and other people of color can fight for the former, it’s up to white people to make a choice—will they share the country and its story, or will they reject equality for hierarchy and caste?
The fight over Confederate memorials is a proxy for this question. Their origin is in the myth-making of the Jim Crow South as symbols of white supremacy over a “redeemed” South and building blocks in a narrative of national innocence meant to unify a divided white polity. In the myth, a figure like Robert E. Lee is transformed from the disgraced general of a brutal effort to expand an empire of bondage to the glorious figure represented in monuments like the one in Charlottesville, a valiant leader in a fight for independence. A man worthy of honor.
That myth-making was the foundation for a new narrative of the United States, one tailored to a white public that could now celebrate the past without guilt or shame, and honor men like Lee without confronting what they actually fought for. In this story, slavery is marginal, black people are incidental, the Confederacy is tragic, and American history is an unbroken line of progress populated by heroes, saints, and demigods. Those massive equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and other Confederate leaders were built to immortalize this story and the racial domination it justified.
That narrative, that myth of innocence, was powerful. It still is. And not just in popular culture where it’s largely defined American images of the old South. Donald Trump’s campaign for president was built on that myth. His supporters were victims beset by immigrants, Muslims, and black protesters, forced to apologize for America’s presumed greatness. He would end their victimization and make them great again, let them feel proud without bowing to “political correctness.” And after his election, when observers criticized his voters for supporting a campaign of racial demagoguery, their defenders summoned that myth of innocence in response. As Michael Lerner wrote in the New York Times, “The left needs to stop ignoring people’s inner pain and fear. The racism, sexism and xenophobia used by Mr. Trump to advance his candidacy does not reveal an inherent malice in the majority of Americans.”
Now president, Trump has taken a vocal stance against removing Confederate memorials, tying Robert E. Lee to George Washington and invoking the myth of American innocence. “Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” he tweeted. “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson – who’s next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!” And he has ample support: 86 percent of Republicans—and two-thirds of white Americans—agree with the president’s stance.
This consensus illustrates Lee’s central place in public memory. It’s a reminder, too, that the fight to redefine that memory will be an uphill battle, since the call to remove Confederate monuments is a challenge to the myth of innocence that still shapes white Americans and their beliefs about this country. Indeed, if Confederate statues represent the effort to erase history, then this push to remove them is a request to recover and reckon with it. It’s a demand that those white Americans abandon the comforting fictions of unity and progress and confront the past and present in all of its ugliness. And it’s a call for white Americans to broaden their moral imaginations and consider the impact these monuments make on their fellow citizens, to understand what it means to reify the symbols of a slaveholder’s rebellion. To answer any of this is to answer that question of the era: Who is America for?
A few days before the chaos in Charlottesville, the editorial board of the Daily Progress—the city’s daily newspaper—gave its view of the turmoil around the statue of Robert E. Lee. In an unsigned piece, it blamed the upheaval on local leaders who questioned the memorial and called for its removal, labeling one such figure—the only black representative on city council—an “agitator” who is “largely responsible for the conflagration that continues to escalate.” Other voices made similar points, slamming “identity politics” for the actions of white nationalists.
But this is wrong. It presumes that these monuments were never controversial and that the narratives they represent were never contested. They were. They always have been. And the reason we have this fight is because for more than a century, too many white Americans were content with narratives built on exclusion and erasure. The question now is whether they’re still content, whether they still believe this is a white country, or whether they’re ready to share this country, and its story, with others.