When I was around nine I was swimming in a local pool with a childhood friend of mine. My dad was sitting close by making sure the teenage lifeguards were paying attention. I was paying my dad no mind; I was bobbing in the shallow end of the pool swapping knock-knock jokes with my friend.
After I wowed her with some goofy variation of “why did the chicken cross the road?” She regurgitated a joke that she surely heard from some older family member.
“What was God saying when he made black people? Oops burnt one, oops burnt one!” she said.
I thought for a second and responded, “I don’t think that’s very funny; I think it’s racist.”
My friend shrugged. The incident didn’t mean much to either of us. We were kids, and the complicated nature of race and hatred was not something we could fully grasp yet.
After we dropped my friend off at her home it was just my dad and I in the car.
“I heard you tell your friend that you didn’t like her joke, that was good Emily. I’m very proud of you,” my dad said.
Like any kid, praise from my parents was important to me. What I learned later is that my dad had grown up with a lot of racism in his community, so his choice to make sure his children were taught from an early age that it was wrong was very important to him At different points in my life I’ve witnessed racism, and as a white woman it’s never been directed at me so I have no idea what that must feel like. Still, when I have seen racism directed at loved ones, or even strangers, it has always been upsetting. I think most people agree—racism is ugly, and being anywhere near it is sickening.
When racism reared its ugly head in my life I had mantra that helped me feel better about it: Racists are a dying breed. My dad came from a community where racism ran rampant and he went the other way and taught his own children that it was wrong. Surely that is how things change, that is how racism dies.
I see now that I was naïve.
All of the images that came out of Charlottesville Saturday are terrifying. The Unite the Right rally involved mayhem, swastikas, and domestic terrorism. Lives were lost all in the name of statues. However, one image in particular stuck with me.
The photo that has been shown over and over of a group of young white men holding tiki torches truly struck me. These are not older men set in their ways from a bygone era, but young men who have lived the majority of their lives in a time when I thought most racism was being slowly and surely eliminated.
Again, I am aware that this is a naïve worldview. When Trump was elected perhaps any vestige of hope I had should have been eliminated, but I still held on to hope that the passing of time would eventually solve this problem. I hoped that more and more people would teach their children right from wrong.
Now I see that the current political climate has bred a whole new generation of racists. Racists that don’t need generations of hateful thinking to back their ideologies; all they need is a Wi-Fi password.
A New York Times article written about the events that transpired quoted George Hawley, a University of Alabama political science professor. Hawley interviewed many of the Neo-Nazis who attended Saturday’s rally and came to a surprising conclusion. According to Hawley most of the young white men did not inherit their racist ways from their family members, but instead found it in online communities.
The cycle is starting again and we are watching its birth. This is not the time defend both sides. There are clear villains here, and they aren’t hard to spot. They are the men and women holding the swastikas; it’s the men and women carrying torches while yelling racist chants, and it is the man who was driving the car that killed Heather Heyer. We don’t need to debate; we need to come together to resist a new generation of racists.