Hours before a mob of white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, Friday, an old cartoon by Dr. Seuss started circulating online. The drawing features two men — one with a swastika on his shirt and the other with “America first” written on his coat sleeve — standing face to face, beards growing into one another, connecting them at the chin.
Uncle Sam stands in front of them, pointing at the men with a cane and addressing a gathered crowd: “Unrelated by blood, they are joined in a manner that mystifies the mightiest minds in the land,” the caption reads.
The 1941 cartoon articulates a sentiment held widely today: that the white supremacists marching in Charlottesville — under the pretense of preserving an America they feel has slipped away from them — are not so different from the Nazis in 1940s Germany. The post has been retweeted more than 40,000 times.
It’s an easy connection to draw, and not wholly inaccurate. For many Americans, lumping these racist movements together is not just a statement of ideological equivalence — it satisfies a deeper impulse to liken things that disgust them (it’s also worth noting that some of the weekend’s participants were, in fact, neo-Nazis).
But their outrage also illustrates how hard it is for some Americans to see their own bigotry. Decrying white supremacists is all well and good. But it’s meaningless unless we can do so when they’re not screaming in our faces — when the culprits are less obvious than alt-right activists and torch-waving Klansmen; when they are our friends, our neighbors and our families.
Opposing hate rallies is just the beginning. The real challenge is identifying white supremacy in the shadows, and in ourselves.
To recognize white supremacy in action means going beyond just shaming Matthew Heimach and David Duke for leading hate rallies by torchlight. It means understanding that these men are gears in a bigger machine — a machine that produces practices that look way more normal to us. Americans feed this machine when they insist that cries of racism from people of color are overblown, or when they see bigotry in action, ignore it and vote demagogues like Donald Trump into office anyway.
Pointing at the white supremacists in Charlottesville and saying, “That’s not me,” allows Americans to create a comfortable distance between themselves and what they see as real, violent, riotous hate. It’s the kind of delusion that permits a hashtag like #ThisIsNotUs to circulate — even as U.S. history demonstrates, repeatedly, that Charlottesville is an uncanny snapshot of who we’ve always been.
Dr. Seuss is an example of this disconnect. Where the famed children’s book author was a lauded anti-Nazi cartoonist during the war years, much of his work was also extremely racist. His minstrel-esque illustrations demonizing Japanese-Americans and others, stoking fear around their presence in the United States, fed the same paranoia that led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to intern them in concentration camps.
This hypocrisy is common — the habit of calling out flagrant bigotry without confronting one’s own prejudices. Even some who endorse racist beliefs themselves have trouble seeing theirs: When a photo of 20-year-old white nationalist Peter Cvjetanovic — snarling, eyes gleaming, tiki torch held high — emerged as one of the weekend’s defining images, the University of Nevada-Reno student defended himself to KTVN:
“I understand the photo has a very negative connotation,” Cvjetanovic told the news network. “But I hope that the people sharing the photo are willing to listen that I’m not the angry racist they see in that photo.”
The rub, of course, is that he is: Cvjetanovic is quite literally the racist we see in that photo. By the same token, Dr. Seuss was not just a kids’ book writer and virtuous anti-Nazi whose work rebuked totalitarian bigotry. He was a racist propagandist as well.
There’s a divide between how these men see themselves and the less flattering reality. Echoing his logic, many well-meaning Americans will condemn hateful displays like the Unite the Right rally, then turn around and vote “tough-on-crime” prosecutors into office, rationalize gentrification, shout, “All lives matter!” at a Black Lives Matter rally and — in the case of GOP senators like Marco Rubio, Orrin Hatch and Cory Gardner — toe the line for a party that disenfranchises black voters by the thousands.
These same people will call the police on “suspicious” black teenagers walking down their neighborhood streets; argue passionately against policies that would require their white children to attend schools with black students; and insist on their own “color-blindness” while stating that protesting is too disruptive a way for black people to get the equality they want.
In his April 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote famously:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
These transgressions aren’t all equally egregious — but they do maintain white supremacy without anyone having to expend too much thought, energy or effort. They are extensions of the natural order, gone unchallenged. And until similar outrage is directed at these inequities as was leveled at white supremacists over the weekend, the outcry against the Charlottesville rally will be little more than cosmetic.
Because the subtle ways in which white supremacy maintains itself in this country are far more consistent dangers to equality than the flagrant hate we saw unfold in Virginia. Americans are right to denounce such open vitriol — as they plan on continuing to do this week, staging rallies in response to Charlottesville in cities across the country. But to what end, if they lose sight of their own culpability in the process? How can we truly fight white supremacy without recognizing the subtle ways we uphold it?