By Schnarr, J.W. on September 8, 2017.
The roots of the current wave in white nationalism recently seen in places like last month’s violent protests in Charlottesville, Va., were explored as the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs opened a new season on Thursday.
Professor Lynn Kennedy is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Lethbridge whose research focus is on the southern United States before the Civil War – in particular, the link between domestic relationships and broader social and political structures.
She spoke about America’s racist history and how groups and symbols of that history continue to be seen today.
“Racism existed at the very beginning of American society and existed before that in many different ways,” she said.
She noted the rise and fall of white racist movements seem to go in waves as a counter to progressive accomplishments. This time around, there is significant backlash to having a black president with Barack Obama.
“That seemed to many people to be their ultimate loss of power,” Kennedy said. “There was a festering anger about that which fed these groups.”
The same anger is also directed at other racial groups and immigrants, and can be a result of anger over a perceived loss of “white privilege.”
The issues are similar in that some people feel they are losing their own privilege by extending equality to other groups. It is this fear which Kennedy said the base for many white power groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan.
“They try to bring terror to others, but it is grounded in their own fear that they are losing their position in society,” she said.
The internet has had a significant impact on the rise of these groups. In years past, groups might be locally powerful, but were mostly ignored.
“It was mostly a joke,” she said. “You’d see it on talk shows, in their outfits, and people would make fun of them. It’s become much more serious because they’ve come together. And these groups that, in some ways, shouldn’t like each other, are working together.”
She noted neo-Nazi groups bring structure and form a “perfect storm of racism” when mixed with historical groups like the KKK.
The issue has been compounded by American President Donald Trump, who has been uneven in his condemnation of these groups while being accused of using racist “dog whistles” – coded phrases directed at specific segments of the population.
While historians might generally not be among the voices calling for the removal of these statues, Kennedy said many would rather see statues such as the Robert E. Lee memorial in Charlottesville contextualized.
“It’s about why they were put up,” Kennedy said. “It’s not just who they were in person.”
In this case, the raising of the statue had clearly racist intent.
“The only reason they were put up is because they were fighting to defend slavery,” Kennedy said.
In Charlottesville, the statue was erected in 1924 and built on the edge of the “black” part of town.
“It was clearly meant to intimidate residents of Charlottesville when it was put up,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said it is important to remember that under the open displays of racism being seen, there lies a more dangerous form or racism that is unseen but potentially more damaging.
“Really, the most insidious and worst racism for most people is on a more day-to-day basis,” she said. “It’s happening next door, and not somewhere else.”
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