N. D. B. Connolly says Charlottesville showed that liberalism can’t defeat white supremacy

Historians in the News
tags: racism, Charlottesville, Trump, White Supremacy



N. D. B. Connolly is Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University and author of "A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida." He also co-hosts a weekly podcast, BackStory, alongside Ed Ayers, Brian Balogh, and Joanne Freeman.

The white nationalist riot in Charlottesville, a city that boasts “diversity makes us stronger,” made a lot of things clear. One of them is that generic solutions to the racial problem — bland affirmations of inclusiveness, tolerance and “free speech” — will no longer work. Indeed, they have never worked, at least not on their own. The problem of discrimination and equality in America has been far more dynamic, operating like an oversized historical game of Paper-rock-scissors. And in such a game, throwing the same thing over and over again is never a good idea.

For a long while, we’ve been throwing a lot of “paper.” Liberalism — our paper — preserves our country’s long commitment to contracts. Under liberalism, citizens stand in contract with their government. The government’s job, in turn, has been to enforce contracts between individuals and groups. Truly, when people ask for rights, be they women’s rights, gay and transgender rights, or rights as people of color, they are asking for contract rights. Capitalism, for better and often for worse, is that — baked in to our political system.

Markets didn’t give citizenship its only meaning, to be sure. But the meaning of citizenship in America has remained most real in the commercial possibilities and legal certainties offered by contract. Our “paper” citizenship, thus, inheres in things like the defensible access to employment, ownership and even, at times, the right to kill as a soldier, police officer or property owner. Liberalism’s loftiest promise, in brief, has been the right to own and not be property.

This weekend’s white power march in Charlottesville, and the march’s attendant terrorist attack, reminded the country of the persistence of white supremacy, our country’s “scissors.” Right at the country’s founding, racists cut black and indigenous people out of liberalism’s contract. Black bodies and Native American land did not deserve the protection of contract. They deserved bondage and expropriation.

The 19th- and 20th-century world was ablur with the furious cutting of scissors. And those who sought to keep black or indigenous people from voting, owning, working or traveling were often the very same people doing the very same thing to white women or gay or transgender people or the disabled.

Resistance, be it forceful or clandestine, threatened or explicit, stands as our “rock.” Rocks can look like armed self-defense or nonviolent direct-action campaigns....




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