Skip to main content

H.A. Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, the Royal United Services Institute in London, and visiting professor at the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilization.

"Save me the sanctimonious talk about hate & violence. These men came to Charlottesville to say that they won't be denied their rights & future."

If the above statement sounds odd, it is. It certainly wouldn't be the first thing that might spring to my mind. But it is the genuine articulation of a far-right extremist who used to be an "Imperial Wizard" of the Ku Klux Klan. In his world, whites are the victims in America; the rise of the far-right (euphemistically called the "alt-right") is a part of their "White Spring"; and Charlottesville is their Tahrir (Liberation) Square.

It's an interesting frame of mind. And one that deserves careful examination.

I'm white. My father is a Caucasian, blond, blue-eyed man from the south of England, and generally speaking, I can, should I so choose, pass for white in most parts of continental and southern Europe.

But I am also not just white. My mother was a "person of colour" – she never would have used the term herself, because as an Arab of Egyptian, Sudanese and Moroccan stock, it wasn't really relevant to her in her own cultural context.

As a youngster, the first time I consciously encountered race was through the prism of anti-racism – my father was a senior member of the anti-apartheid movement in the U.K., and the anti-apartheid movement left an indelible effect upon me in my childhood.

So, as I look at the scenes coming from Charlottesville, there are resonations of different types. After all – these white nationalists are, ostensibly, marching for the "rights" of my father, and I suppose, myself? And the people marching against them are marching for, I suppose, the rights of my mother, and … myself?

It seems tempting for some people, it seems, to look at Charlottesville in that kind of purposely befuddled and confused manner. Certainly, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, seems to want to do precisely that, albeit in a different way. He must know that it is utterly unconscionable that a group of white supremacists are marching in Virginia, and thus he must somehow censure them. But he also knows – and the aforementioned former "Imperial Wizard" reminds us all of this fact – that same group voted for him.

And why did they vote for him? Because this alt-Reich saw a Trump presidency as the best way for them to pursue their goals. That's the reality, which is probably why a Trump White House can be counted on to give only lukewarm, pseudo-neutral criticisms of the Charlottesville march. He knows that is a big part of his base on the move.

Mr. Trump's supporters will try to explain the couching of his language in a kind of sensitivity, where we are called upon to show empathy toward white Americans as victims of some sort. It's a bizarre, but also dangerous proposition. It turns history on its head, and discrimination becomes a false notion altogether because it loses any real meaning.

The reality is that in the United States, there are certainly white people who suffer for a broad variety of reasons. But the United States is not a country built somehow on antipathy against whites. It is preposterous to even have to write that sentence – but with such revisionist history being promoted, so as to allow for this strange universe where people have to demand that whites won't be denied their rights and futures, it seems necessary to be utterly clear.

The United States was built on the back of the notion that the white male was the most worthy; in terms of political power, material wealth, language and so forth. Generations of struggle by the civil rights movement pushed back against that, but make no mistake – the norms established are still fundamentally slanted, biased and skewed toward white, rich, men. That is where the power lies – and success in American society has hitherto, in large part, depended on approximating that norm as much as possible.

I'm writing these words from Cape Town in South Africa – and even in post-apartheid South Africa, the effects of white-established apartheid are still evident. That is in a country where the overwhelming majority of inhabitants are, and always have been, people of colour. In the United States, the overwhelming majority of the elite, whether political or economic, is still white and male.

Whether these marchers in Charlottesville recognize it or not, they still benefit, tremendously, from the colour of their skin, in comparison to any other group in the United States. White nationalists aren't victims fighting against oppression of their race – they're deluded misanthropes, oblivious of the privileges they continue to enjoy. I shan't make grandiose statements about whether that is "American" or not – but certainly history doesn't record whites in America as being victims. If anything, on the contrary.

Interact with The Globe