Country music star Jason Isbell has a song on his most recent album titled “White Man’s World.” The song begins with the lyric “I’m a white man living in a white man’s world,” an acknowledgement of the systemic marginalization of those who are not male and are not white.
Rejecting the idea that this systemic oppression even exists is one of the tools of white nationalism, an ideology that holds that whiteness is an identity, not a construct, and that it should be the basis for our national identity. The gradual normalization of this ideology, clothed in the reassuring garments of patriotism and American exceptionalism, is one of the more insidious tools for the perpetuation of the power dynamics that have dismissed the traumatic legacy of brutality, oppression, and marginalization for centuries. It allows racist ideology to hide in the depths of an “us” versus “them” mindset, leaving the specifics of who is “us” and who is “them” unspoken but well understood.
A cruder and more predictable technique is the kind of “hate incident” experienced here on the Eastern Shore this week, in which residents of St. Michaels woke to find outlandishly racist literature, spouting hateful nonsense and exhorting people to join the KKK, waiting on their driveways and front porches. It is perhaps indicative of systemic racism at play that this vile and destructive act did not make the top of the front page of the Star Democrat on Tuesday. Other, smaller, acts are part of the local landscape. They go unnoticed except by those who endure them in a grinding and infuriating routine of logistical obstacles and low-level harassment: being subtly (or overtly) discouraged from patronizing a local business, or being explicitly, if indirectly banned by a property owner.
Is white nationalism on the rise? President Trump says no. But in February the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that the number of white nationalist groups in the US grew by almost 50% in 2018. Data released by the Global Terrorism Database in 2018 showed that more than half the terrorist attacks in the US in 2017 were spurred by racist, anti-Muslim, homophobic, anti-Semitic, fascist, or xenophobic ideologies. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, has said “modern white supremacy is an international threat that knows no borders, being exported and globalized like never before.” This opinion is reflected in statistics reported by the ADL showing a 182% increase in incidents of the distribution of white supremacist propaganda—incidents like we saw in St. Michaels this week.
There is no question that white nationalism is on the rise. Intellectual honesty and lived experience require us to accept this. Ethics, patriotism, and—for many people—religious practice demand that we resist it, as we must resist all injustice and inhumanity. In Christian parlance, we must remove the beam in our own eye before we concern ourselves with the mote in someone else’s. We have beams in our eyes in the United States, in the form of systemic and institutional racism, increasing hate crimes, the continued dehumanization of fellow citizens and fellow humans who have black and brown bodies, or who speak accented English, or who practice certain religions.
In patriotic terms, national principles of liberty and equality—not to mention the rule of law—tell us that ideologies of white pride and white nationalism have no place in a country founded on the principles of liberty and equality for all. Common sense tells us that we are a richer, better, more stable nation when we do not discriminate, when we resist instead of embrace hatred, violence, and division. Yet we continue to debate and equivocate on the topic of racism and bigotry while allowing ever more extremist ideologies into the mainstream of our public discourse.
In 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “for the good of America, it is necessary to refute the idea that the dominant ideology in our country even today is freedom and equality while racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists.” In 2019, we must continue to refute the idea that racism is an occasional departure from the norm. The KKK lit drop in St. Michaels was doubtless the work of a few bigoted extremists; it was also a tool to recruit more extremists, and it was another signal that we need to continue the work of eliminating the scourge of racism on the Eastern Shore.
Many people and groups on the Eastern Shore are working tirelessly and valiantly to improve things. The Coalition for Justice for Anton Black is actively pursuing justice for the death of 19 year old Kent County native Anton Black while in police custody, and going further, to seek legal recourse to prevent similar future tragedies. The Social Action Committee for Racial Justice in Kent County is working towards an anti-racist future in schools, with law enforcement, in businesses, and in communities at large. The Unitarian Universalists of the Chester River are hosting a series of book discussions and an art exhibition focused on anti-racism.
The efforts of these groups and many individuals all over the shore are how we achieve a better Eastern Shore, a better Maryland, and a better world. Progress is maddeningly slow, and sometimes seems to stop or reverse, but as Dr. King said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Jason Isbell’s song concludes,
“I still have faith but I don’t know why
Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eye”
That fire in any child’s eye is an unparalleled motivator for all of us to keep working and fighting for real justice and equality, and to defeat both the insidiousness of normalized discrimination and the dramatic violence of overt acts of hatred.
Maria Wood returned to academic life in 2014, after a two-decade career in the music business, earning a BA in American Studies and a Certificate in Ethnomusicology from Smith College in 2018. Most recently, she served as Deputy Campaign Manager for Jesse Colvin for Congress.