Charlottesville or University of Virginia: The Locations of White Supremacy (1)

The narrative that occurred during Brexit and the election of Trump that continues with regards to the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville is that “educated people” understand the evils of racism while White supremacy is solely owned by a White working class. But the idea that those with a privileged University education are immune or exceptional is not a given. The violence, cruelty and hate that has appeared in recent and not-so-recent shootings or trolling seems to serve as a screen against which scholars, professionals, and/or the wealthy and prestigious hide their own contributions to social containment and control, and worse.

This kind of hiding halts and dismantles any inquiry into how supremacy gets preserved. Neither racism nor toxic masculinity have been completely eviscerated by any group to date, even if the strategies, methods and frequency of these things differ drastically among different groups. Some activism contexts, and a myriad of campus political movements, have recognized neo-fascism on the Left and within universities, covert forms of maintaining White power, and conflicts of interest when fighting on behalf of imperialized social bodies, identities, cultural realities and genders.

At the “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, The University of Virginia appears repeatedly painted with a broad brush, as if the entire University had, without exception, participated in the counter-protest. I wonder about the role of fraternities, and faculty members and administrators who support them, and budget cuts for departments that analyze historical conflicts or engage social reality. UVA is a locus for producing famous and powerful White people. Even if now the entire University is against Trumpism and its White supremacist supporters, I believe those who practice eugenics, Great White Man reading practices in literature and history, and legalized date rape, among other examples, owe an explanation for how this transformation into an anti-Nazi university en totale came about. How do such miracles occur?

I raise three examples as practices that abound not just at UVA but in many university contexts. First, UVA’s history of eugenics, its “American scientists [who] pushed for the perfection of the human `gene pool’ by influencing the reproductive process” supports arguments of segregation, and justifies violence against and dehumanization as ‘sub-normal’ particular populations whose social conditions of despair and privation are occluded by statements about intrinsic or genetic inferiority. Though eugenics gets dismissed as a history healed by progress, schools of essentialism, the under criticized realism of biology, and speculations as well as the science of DNA remain ongoing obsessions, with DNA uniquely rendered as the profound and concrete analysis of life-being. No stably funded science-critical fields seem to exist to trace the social implications of the genealogies of these sub-fields.

Second, “Great Man Theory” pertains to the order of works and knowledge, most obviously in literary studies where meaning is explicitly granted in relation to authorship, but also in practices that span many disciplines, including history and the sciences. The order of authorship produces a category of special, elite, privileged (usually White, male, often imperializing) figures whose work is read and re-read, from which entire communities that influenced and cultivated them are erased. Ideas ordered around ‘great’ people simplify the reality of social existence, and misleadingly produce, stabilize, and sanitize a supreme actor while erasing the uneven and multi-dimensional thicket of an ever-discoverable social reality.

Third, ‘legalized rape’ refers to a legal system that values and devalues evidence in an order that nullifies the wishes, limits and corporeal autonomy of survivors who are most often of a class of people such as cis-women, people of non-conforming genders, disability, people of color, and those designated to provide informal and exploited labor in prisons, in domestic contexts, and as undocumented workers. The more networked and privileged the rapist, the more the law does not apply to him.

Days after the rally, UVA English Professor Mark Edmundson wrote an opinion piece that broke the crowd down into three types: antifa, fascist and “peace and justice people.” In his telling, the antifa and the fascists are both extremists, each with some good, bad and comedic qualities. He doesn’t align himself within these groups except as basically critical of Donald Trump, though not critical of Trump’s “violence on all sides” phrase, which he agrees with. Edmundson’s position of exteriority in which racism should be condemned, but that the expressions of rage it produces is no better than that which initiates it, aligns with white privilege. The position of his article is almost neutral. For many in the classes of people who fear for their lives in the presence of threatening expressions, a mild temperament such as Edmundson’s may not be an option. He mildly acknowledges this kind of experience but does not meet or encounter it in any sincere way. His statements are un-critical of “freedom of speech,” with ‘speech’ being the supreme right with little exploration of its uses for endangering much more concrete freedoms of those people this right was not written for. What does it mean for a UVA English professor of administrative power to permit and concur with Trump’s whitewashing of life and death matters?

The Nazi March’s main organizer, Jason Kessler, is an alum of the University of Virginia. Richard Spencer attended UVA for undergraduate work. Neither of these men qualify as White working class if education is the gold standard for defining pedigree. Neither of them appear to be the types who can be ignored because, as Edmundson puts it, “they can only spell cat on the third try.” And what does it mean for a highly-celebrated teacher such as Edmundson to suggest that the uneducated can or should be dismissed?

We must not turn a blind eye to the role University administrators have played in producing the current situation, or the role of universities in sanctioning supremacist political stances and forms of being-in-the-world. What is the social role of the Humanities and Social Sciences and why have they been so fully disempowered?


(Photo Credit: The Guardian / Lois Beckett)

About Dora Bleu

Dora Bleu is a performing and composing storyteller-musician. Her work explores expressions of the internalized security/military state.