Mask On, Mask Off

In “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates claims that America was “built on looting and violence.” If this is indeed the case, then the nation has returned to its roots.

When we watch videos from Charlottesville and see white supremacists in militant formations, a few questions come to mind: Do they know who Hitler was, and what he did? Have they always lived their lives with a sense of immunity?

But the most important questions are perhaps historical, for they might contextualize what is happening. We might ask: For how long have they been harboring their rage? Why are these riots occurring now?

Surely President Trump has something to do with it. But his role is not clear. On the one hand, it appears that Trump has enkindled and catalyzed racist aggressors who, for whatever reason, had not garnered this kind of national attention until now. On the other hand, it might appear that Trump has actively created terror that, though always prevalent in America, had been ameliorated under Obama and his song of Hope.

I think most of us, and Coates himself, would side with the former view. Violent racists have always existed, and continued to exist, every single moment in this country — under Nixon, under Clinton, under Obama. Trump didn’t mold the brains of racists; he stripped away the mask of shame that they ought to be wearing and made it morally acceptable to be an Adolf Eichmann or David Duke in public.

We might go even further: Trump didn’t simply make it acceptable, but he made it even more desirable, more commodifiable, to be violent on screen than it has been for time immemorial in America. And the media hasn’t helped. While CNN and Vice have soaring viewerships and stream videos that depict violence as a TV special, the racists gain a consumptive audience rather than facing an indignant resistance.

If we accept the idea that Trump took off a mask rather than planting a seed, we must also accept a serious implication. It means that violent racism is a constitutive part of these peoples’ identities. But Barack Obama’s tweet, the most liked in history at 2.1 million, states, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion …” Surely he is right. But the problem is that we do not see eight-year-olds at these rallies: we see adults whose worldviews are largely formed and likely calcified. I don’t see much hope that they will change. I don’t feel that they will learn to respect, to see the lives they are seeking to destroy.

What, then, can anyone do? What, if anything, will prevent a raging racist from acting on his terrifying desires?
Perhaps the same two things that often spur such hatred and anger: fear and shame. If it is beyond hope to change these peoples’ minds, then perhaps we must mobilize the emotions that, for a brief period of time under Obama, kept them glued somewhat to their televisions rather than acting out, killing and destroying.

How does one evoke fear and shame, however, without being actively violent? There is, as I see it, only one way, and that is through letting them know that they no longer form part of the United States. Through letting them know that what they are doing makes them untouchable, unlovable and undesirable. Through letting them know that they are no longer part of us or associated with us. And that, in five years, in 10 years, in 20 years, we will replay these clips, and we will remember.

These must no longer be what Gore Vidal called the “United States of Amnesia.”

Let us return to the argument of many Americans: white folks have been neglected, left out, displaced and forgotten. The sentiment underlying this argument might have some validity. As many have pointed out, people in the Rust Belt and throughout the South have lost jobs upon which they rightfully relied. This might be true.

But it is beside the point. Even if these folks were “neglected,” the fact remains: no one can care for a neglected person if they are acting violently.

The larger point is this: perhaps it is only once we let the supremacists know that the country does not need them, does not want them and can readily function without them that they will know what it means to be “neglected.” Perhaps then they will surrender their weapons. Perhaps they will put their masks back on and resign to their couches.