On Saturday, the white-supremacist rally “Unite the Right,” which brought hundreds of white nationalists and neo-Nazis to Charlottesville, Virginia, garnered a sizable counter-protest. In the afternoon, after the rally was dispersed, a car came barreling down the street, ramming into a group of counter-demonstrators. “It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Robert Armengol, a University of Virginia podcaster, told The New York Times. “After that it was pandemonium. The car hit reverse and sped and everybody who was up the street in my direction started running.” Heather D. Heyer, a 32-year-old woman who worked at a local law firm and had joined the counter-protesters, died. “It was important for her to speak up for people who were not being heard, to speak up when injustices were happening,” her mother said on Sunday night in a televised interview.
Later on Saturday President Trump tweeted his condolences to Heyer’s family and, in the same tweet, sent his regards to those who were injured, calling the situation “sad!” At a press conference earlier in the day, where he took no questions, Trump said, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.” This remark has been widely derided, by both Democrats and Republicans, for failing to explicitly condemn white supremacists. A White House spokesperson later issued a statement reiterating the president’s message and naming the racist groups explicitly—“The President said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred and of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazi, and all extremist groups”—but the president himself didn’t do so until today.
In his comments on Saturday, Trump said something else that hasn’t received nearly as much attention as his equivocating about hate groups. But it’s important to take note. Trump said, “We must love each other, respect each other, and cherish our history.” Some outlets have pointed it out, identifying the call to “cherish our history” as a dog whistle. But calling it a tacit hat tip to his white-supremacist supporters doesn’t fully explain the import of this phrase. It’s something much more significant.
The justification of white supremacy has often rested on a veneer of civility. Blatant and unabashed white supremacist language has rarely been used to uphold slavery. Instead, America’s putrid racism has often been cloaked by depictions intended to make it seem respectable. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Southern slaveholders said the Bible compelled them to hold slaves—that, in fact, civilizing black people was a good Christian way of “liberating” them from savagery. “Christians across the Confederacy were convinced that they were called not only to perpetuate slavery but also to ‘perfect’ it. And they understood the Bible to provide clear moral guidelines on how to properly practice it,” wrote Thom Bassett in The New York Times.