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Recognizing the Power of Tribalism

     I live in Charlottesville. Last year on a Friday night, I witnessed three hundred, young, white, angry men march with tiki torches through the grounds of the University of Virginia. Undeterred, these young men shouted Nazi slogans, surrounded the Jefferson statute, and proceeded to beat students and faculty who were brave enough to tell them to go home.

     The next day these hundreds of young men armed with sticks, shields, and masks descended onto a small park (Lee Park) near the Downtown Mall to protest the city's decision to move General Robert E. Lee's statute. Shouting the same Nazi slogans as the evening before (their favorite was "Jews will not replace us"), these angry young men were accompanied by armed militia who were older with serious armament. (In case you didn't know by now, Virginia is an "open-carry" state which means I can walk into Kroger's and see a shopper with a rifle.)

     That Saturday, as I watched the protest grow more and more violent with hundreds of Charlottesville residents shouting "Nazis, go home," I could only think back to the early 60s. Then it was the same anger directed at Black people and all of us who accompanied them. At that time, I used to think it was irrational fear that led white men and women to scream "Go back to Africa," or "Monkeys, get our of our neighborhood." But I am older now and think it is much greater than fear.

    America is an experiment, an experiment in eliminating tribalism, and we are failing. At some times in our history, we were succeeding.  I tell my students that in more than 200 years after adopting our Constitution, gradually we have moved toward including all citizens with due process, equality under the law, and the right to vote. Certainly, we can make a case that during Reconstruction, we were succeeding in overcoming our prejudices. And yes, indeed, during the 1960s, when thousands of Americans supported the Civil Rights Movement, we were overcoming our prejudices.

    Those two ideas, the 14th Amendment (due process and equality under the law) and the 15th Amendment (the right to vote), are two Amendments to the Constitution that allow us to move beyond tribalism. Now having witnessed the rise of Nazism in this country and witnessing the lack of national leadership in opposing this rise, I despair for our country's future.

    In David Blight's new biography, Frederick Douglas, Douglas spoke about this problem of tribalism, "Not a Negro Problem, not a race problem, but a national problem, whether the American people will ultimately administer equal justice to all the varieties of the human race in this Republic." Douglas wanted to believe that the American Republic remained a beacon to escape the "bondage of the ages" and practice "truth, justice and humanity." I want to believe that too.


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