the view

White supremacist groups part of old tradition that isn’t going away, UB historian says

White nationalists demonstrate in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 11.

White nationalists demonstrate in Charlottesville, VA. on August 11, 2017. Photo: Karla Cote, creative commons license


Published August 15, 2017

headshot of Carole Emberton.
“It happened in Virginia this weekend, but it could happen anywhere. This won’t be the last time we see something like this.”
Carole Emberton, associate professor
Department of History

The photos and videos coming out of Charlottesville, Virginia — heavily armed individuals, anti-Semitic and racist chants, torch-lit rallies — are all images this country has seen throughout its history, says UB historian Carole Emberton.

So when Emberton saw what was unfolding over the weekend in Charlottesville, she was certainly disturbed, but not all that surprised. These images are not only reminiscent of history, she says, but are also likely to continue again, long after the vigils and memorials in Charlottesville.

“The removal of the Robert E. Lee statue might have ignited the rally this weekend, but I think that was an excuse in many ways,” says Emberton, associate professor in the Department of History. “White supremacists are emboldened now and are more vocal and aggressive, and see a moment when people who are echoing their sentiments are in positions of power — in the Trump administration. That gives everyday citizens who might be inclined to act out in that way a stamp of approval to do exactly what we saw this weekend.”

Emberton studies the Civil War era and the history of race, and wrote the book “Beyond Redemption: Race Violence, and the American South after the Civil War.”

So while the attention this weekend focused on Charlottesville, it has been in many other places before and will be in other places again, she says.

The election of Donald Trump empowered white supremacist groups, she says. We saw it earlier this year in Berkeley, Portland, New Orleans and in Charlottesville before this weekend. The groups’ hateful rhetoric is steeped in history, Emberton explains, and it is only getting more vocal and aggressive since the election of Trump.

White supremacist groups want to invoke chaos, she says: It justifies what they are doing. Their goal is to paint themselves as an attacked minority group. Throughout history these groups have dressed in camouflage and have been heavily armed, Emberton says, in an effort to look like the National Guard or other military or law enforcement groups.

“We have a long history of conflict in this country and it isn’t going to go away, especially as political divisions deepen,” she says. “It happened in Virginia this weekend, but it could happen anywhere. This won’t be the last time we see something like this.”