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In the days since President Trump’s incendiary press conference—where he more or less validated the racist and thuggish ideologies hurled by white supremacists and neo-Nazis—I have been unable to escape something he said. “I think there’s blame on both sides,” he told reporters. “I have no doubt about it—and you don’t have any doubt about it either.” The manner in which he cast the statement, with such plutocratic force, left no room for dissent. It was textbook Donald: puckish and irreverent, uncowed and every bit the bully.
In the lineage of American horrors, the carnage that metastasized in Charlottesville, Virginia, this week presents itself as a familiar one, an occurrence that bears much of the same bloodied fruit of generations past. It’s why, when Trump blustered on about the demand for equal blame, I wondered if he had seen what I had. The gore, the hurt, the bigoted speech—with one person murdered and 19 injured. It was more than clear what had transpired and where blame should be placed. But he chose to see it another way: not as myopia but as intentionally applied blindness.
This is how white supremacy works in the contemporary world, when the cameras are always on and a person is their own livestream. Much like an Instagram filter or makeup being used to cover a nasty blemish, white supremacy asks the viewer to ignore the displeasing textures that lie below the surface, offering instead an altered reality. White supremacy works to beautify untruths—and with Trump it has its most vocal vessel like at no time in history before, a direct and continuous feed into our lives.
Before America formed the democratic state, its grand project was the cultivation of white supremacy—a cunning, ravenous invention pillared by social divisions. In his essay “On Being White … and Other Lies,” James Baldwin referred to whiteness as a “genocidal lie,” writing how white supremacy “is a vision as remarkable for what it pretends to include as for what it remorselessly diminishes, demolishes or leaves totally out of account.” In this way, it became a kind of sight, a gaze through which to view one’s version of the world. To view the world through a white supremacist lens is to exist as an antithesis to progress. It is to live in the complicity of false equivalences, to shroud your scope in dangerous fabrications like “alt-left,” and to willfully color malice as virtue (days ago protesters heinously chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “blood and soil” during the rally, the latter of which the Anti-Defamation League classifies as hate speech). With brute intention, white supremacy lives surrounded by lies. And aren’t lies nothing if not intoxicating instruments to brandish in times of inconvenience?
Sight is how one frames perception—it is a window to understanding, to empathy. White supremacists, then, use their frame, a skewed perception at best, to filter how others should decipher the false reality they have chosen to subscribe to (according to scholar and author Joe Feagin, the white racial frame “buttresses and grows out of the material reality of racial oppression”). It’s the reason David Duke, a former grand wizard in the KKK, labels Black Lives Matter “terrorists.” Or why many conservatives are convinced President Obama is the architect of modern racial and political strife. Or why one Charlottesville resident believes James Alex Fields, the man who drove his car into a crowd of counter-demonstrators on Saturday, is not a right-wing extremist but a Democrat.
Historian David Roediger, in his book How Race Survived U.S. History, theorizes that an essential trait of whiteness is its need for protection. This necessity can be understood as either a kind of calculated walling-off or as simple victimhood (as in, there is clear blame on each side). In both instances, though, the goal is to erect a partition; the filter is meant to operate as a shield against the lived actuality of others.
But filters are man-made inventions, doomed to flaw and fracture. In response to the turmoil in Charlottesville, Fox & Friends—one of the president’s favorite shows—invited Wendy Osefo, a Democrat, and Gianno Caldwell, a Republican, to speak about the ethics of removing Confederate statues. The interview, however, took an unexpected turn in this age of manufactured cable-news friction: Both panelists, clearly shaken by Trump’s unpalatable remarks, found common ground. “Our president literally betrayed the conscience of our country,” Caldwell said, later referring to him as “morally bankrupt.” The host tried to steer the conversation back into Trump’s favor, but it was too late. The patina of white supremacy, with its pallid luster, had again been seen for what it really was.