As the nation’s health is besieged by the coronavirus, another invisible yet more insidious infectious disease threatens the very fiber of our democracy.
Although its generic form is packaged as white nationalism, the masks that hide and protect this virus are found in more familiar places: the three-fifths compromise that approved slavery in the Constitution, the era of Jim Crow, the rise of the KKK, the use of the 10th Amendment as a state’s rights defense, the birther movement, and most perniciously, our blithe view that things are much better about race in America.
Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it, right? But those who miss clear signals that things are not better and need changing, well, that seems much worse.
As a student of political science, I have lived through great changes in race relations, and tried to teach those lessons to my students. The Brown decisions, the Central High crisis, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the election of a Black president: all monuments to significant change and progress in how the races treated each other. Sure, there was still inequality of racial status despite the equal protection of the law as written in the 14th Amendment. Still, this was progress. I was satisfied.
But I missed the warning signs. I had naively thought that incidents I had witnessed were the dying gasps of small groups of incorrigible people. I had sat in the fine arts auditorium at UALR circa 1980 surrounded by hooded Ku Klux Klan members listening to an immaculately suited David Duke intersperse his speech with extended Hitler-like hand salutes of white power as Klansmen stood up to echo the call.
My wife and I and a colleague did not rise, and how vulnerable we were. The hate in the room was palpable. The symbolism was as inescapable as it was incongruous. Duke was flanked by two large men in gray shirts and black pants, and a physically imposing Black state trooper stood guard without expression.
Duke went on to run for governor in Louisiana, earning nearly 700,000 votes. He even won a state legislative seat, but I chalked it up to the strangeness of Louisiana politics and Duke’s ability to convey a demeanor, insidious as it was, of being an articulate advocate against affirmative action and reverse discrimination. He fooled them … or did he? Were there a lot more people living in the Pelican State that believed in white privilege, in racial separatism by region, by nation?
Not long after my encounter with Duke, while driving back to Arkansas from Rhode Island, I randomly stopped in Lebanon, Tenn., for the night and ran smack into a Klan rally taking place in a large open field behind the hotel, where a large cross had been erected.
Checking in at the desk was a Black man who was oblivious to what he could observe through a large window that opened to the field. Was this not a metaphor for broad racial progress, I later thought? He couldn’t care less and obviously felt no danger.
I went to stand with others observing the Klan proceedings, filled with intense-looking hooded young men brandishing automatic weapons. When the older Grand Klansmen finished reading passages from the Bible—often used by slave owners to demonstrate God’s endorsement of slavery—shouts of “to the cross!” reverberated through that once bucolic field as the Klansmen ran to the cross and lit it.
I was both mesmerized and intimidated. How could this be happening 15 years after the adoption of the Voting Rights Act, 12 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the Carter appointment of Black federal judges? But harsh memories of that night faded away as I continued living and teaching. This was not America, just random acts that represented the hatred of a minuscule minority, not the racial ethos of a nation.
With the election of Barack Obama, I became more certain of my belief that fuller racial tolerance was culturally possible. But as Obama’s presidency moved forward, a birther movement largely sponsored and fueled by Donald Trump gathered national attention.
I thought Trump to be a man that no one could take seriously. The citizenship and national identity of a candidate for president are well vetted. Obama was a citizen and was not a Muslim. How could anyone believe otherwise?
Again, I missed signs of our long racial nightmare. Millions believed Trump, and when as a presidential candidate he said on television that Obama was a citizen—period, end of sentence—few seemed to hold him responsible for the lie he had long perpetuated.
As I left full-time teaching in 2013, I happened to do an interview with a consortium of Black radio stations in response to comments I had made in an interview with CNN about some 18,000 people in Texas signing a petition for secession. I told them that this was a manifestation of state’s rights, not the hatred of a Black president.
The interview was supposed to last 15 minutes; it went on for two hours. My questioners insisted that the doctrine of white supremacy was behind the secession petition and was widespread, despite my arguments that substantial progress had been made.
Ironically, while I staunchly adhered to my position, racially punctuated letters to the editor written to the Democrat-Gazette by Arkansas state legislators had just come to public light. I did not admit to the belief that white supremacy was an abundantly shared value in America, but did I miss how deep these seeds were planted?
With the advent of the Trump presidency, racial justice—along with the pandemic and questions of a legitimate vote count—have become national crises, and are all significantly related.
Confronted with the Charlottesville white nationalism march, the president said there were good people on both sides. Presented with protests and unrest after the murder of George Floyd, the president declined the role of conciliator-in-chief. Faced with a pandemic that knows no bounds, the president passed on acknowledging the heavy toll it has taken on people of color.
Division seems to abound everywhere in our society. Is a civil disturbance of violent magnitude on the horizon should the presidential election raise doubt about a winner? It’s quite possible.
It seems all our previous modern presidents could keep us together despite their own frailties and prejudices. I am not sure this one will, and in consequence unmask a latent white nationalism that many of us may have naively missed.
Arthur English is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of Arkansas Little Rock.