For those who thought the racial tensions that have long shaped the fault lines of American politics could continue to be ignored, Charlottesville was the seismic event that shook up this complacency. Like many an earthquake, much of the damage was not limited to the initial event; the political aftershocks have done equal, if not greater, damage. For when torch wielding Nazis and white supremacists march in large numbers, chanting racist slogans, screaming slurs, and threatening violence against minorities, when one of them drives his car into a crowd, killing one and injuring nineteen others, we should be able to expect our President, at the very least, to denounce them immediately and unequivocally. And yet this did not happen; incredibly, the opposite did.
Civility and a commitment to equality for all are American values that transcend partisan interests. We have a right to expect our leaders to form a government for everyone, and strive to keep the peace for all of the people. President Trump appeared to be trying to do this, denouncing “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides, many sides” (emphasis mine). However, this initial response was, as many have pointed out, disastrously off base: the bigotry was clearly on one side, and there is no moral equivalence between the promulgation of fascist and racist ideology and principled opposition to it. While the counter-protest was far from perfect, it was not worthy of our president’s equal condemnation.
Presidents are supposed to unify their citizens in times of crisis, but in the aftermath of Charlottesville the only thing that seemed to unify most Americans was disappointment in the president’s inability to carry out this vital task. In a rare moment of concession to his many critics, Trump later denounced the hate groups by name. But this rare act of humility was short-lived. Just a few days later Trump lashed out at the press and doubled down in defense of himself; notoriously, he even went so far as to claim that there were “some very fine people” involved in the “unite the right” rally. And just in case anyone doubted what his true priorities were, the following week Trump held a rally in Phoenix, not primarily aimed at defusing racial tensions or uniting a divided populace in turbulent times, but solely in defense and even celebration of his troubling remarks.
We are about a month on from Charlottesville; nuclear threats, destructive hurricanes, and football now dominate our news feeds, and it would be all to easy to forget about it. But forgetting about it is a kind of political negligence, a failure to give it the importance it deserves. Negligence is a too little considered feature of our moral and political life. It is also important to the analysis of what was so awful about Trump’s post-Charlottesville behavior.
Consider his defense of some of those marching for “historical preservation” in Charlottesville. Negligence is a key to grasping why these defenses are indefensible. Let us set aside the issue of whether it is legitimate to support confederate monuments, as it is beside the point. As is well known, the “unite the right” rally in Charlottesville was organized and promoted by white supremacist groups. The names listed to speak at the rally comprise a veritable who’s who of fascist and racist political leaders in America. These are men who openly admire Hitler, adopt Nazi imagery and rhetoric, and who advocate some form of racial apartheid in our country. A rally that is organized, promoted, and features speeches by such men is arguably a racist rally, no matter what cause it serves; but it is most certainly a racist rally when the cause is the defense of the statues of men who devoted their lives to the perpetuation of enslavement of blacks in the South. Any right thinking person who merely cared about preserving historical monuments as a testimony to history would not make common cause with Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists.
Even if we concede the very remote possibility that one of these warm hearted historical preservationists somehow missed the fact that the organizers, promoters, and speakers at the rally were all extreme racists, at best we could say their actions were grossly negligent, which makes them very far from being “very fine.” Failure to know what’s going on isn’t admirable, nor does it inoculate one against censure or blame. Ignorance doesn’t always excuse.
Determining culpable ignorance is an important aspect of morality and the law, and is part of any theory of negligence. Negligence comes from the Latin phrase “nec eligens” which literally translates to “not choosing.” Negligence is a normative and not merely descriptive word. There are an infinite number of choices I didn’t make this morning, but most of them, like the choice I didn’t make to begin writing the next great American novel, are of no consequence. Only a very small range of what I don’t do counts as a blameworthy failure, and the determination typically depends on the roles that can be legitimately assigned to me (for instance, as a parent, I am culpable if I oversleep and fail to get the kids to school on time).
We know as a matter of common sense morality and the law that we are responsible for what we fail to do, even when that failure is completely unintentional. Now, a prudent citizen should be well informed about the kinds of civic engagement he participates in; therefore a failure to notice that an event is organized by and prominently features white supremacists is a classic case of culpable ignorance.
Even so, one might still argue that culpable ignorance does not necessarily imply racism. Fine, but footage of Charlottesville reveals that once there one could have had no doubt that this was an event for promoting racist ideology. At that point, one is further at fault for not realizing that marching in the rally not only would not advance the cause of preserving history, but would also deepen racial tensions in Charlottesville and possibly lead to racially motivated violence.
To march alongside virulent racists shouting racist slogans and slurs displays a culpable lack of concern for members of the minority groups being targeted. We need to be clear that one is a racist not simply if one has active animus directed towards racial minorities, but also if one lacks active good will towards them; one lacks such good will when one does not care at all, or does not care enough about their well being and security to act (and not act) towards them in certain ways. One should care enough about minorities not to march alongside those that seek to marginalize and defame them. Failure to care enough about the manifest harms to these communities by placing the importance of historical preservation above their safety and well being is racist.
Charlottesville should still deeply trouble us. We cannot make racial progress, however, if we cannot come to a reasonable agreement about what racism is. If elements on the left can sometimes be blamed for making us all racists just in virtue of being born into a racially unequal society, elements on the right can sometimes be blamed for making the racist into a fantastical unicorn by imagining criteria for it that almost none of us will ever meet. A sensible understanding of the complexities of racism would steer a steady course between these two extremes, and we need such an understanding if we have any hope of having a reasonable public discourse about race in this country. A small step in this direction would be to acknowledge that racism of neglect is a real and damaging.
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.