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Commentary

What Merck, Airbnb and GoDaddy Understand About Charlottesville

Aug 14, 2017

It ostensibly started with the menacing image of angry men in polo shirts and tiki torches surrounding an unarmed group of University of Virginia college students carrying handmade signs.

After a weekend of clashes and neo-Nazi threats and violence, the now-famous “Unite The Right” rally ended with many injuries and one fatality, the horrific death-by-motorist of Heather D. Heyer, a peaceful counter-protester. Two Virginia State Police officers, monitoring the situation, were also killed in a helicopter crash.

But in reality, all of this began long before the white supremacists rolled into Charlottesville, Va to defend the honor of a statue of Robert E. Lee. And the horror hasn’t ended, either for Charlottesville or for the rest of the country.

In the wake of the violence, there was no “fire and fury” from President Trump. Instead, waving off advice to condemn the terrorism explicitly, he called it an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence that’s on many sides.”

Buzzfeed has an excellent on-the-ground tick-tock of events here. The hatred, bigotry and violence does not remotely appear to be “on many sides.”

The Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website, heralded the president’s remarks. “He didn’t attack us,” the outlet wrote. “Refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”

Where the president fell short, other people stood up.

In the days before the rally, Airbnb began suspending accounts of attendees who had rented lodging in the area. Why? Because white nationalist philosophy is a violation of their terms of service.

The web hosting company GoDaddy booted The Daily Stormer after it posted an article denigrating Heather Heyer. "We informed The Daily Stormer that they have 24 hours to move the domain to another provider, as they have violated our terms of service," the company said in a statement.

Hate groups can expect more of the same. The Los Angeles Times’s Matt Pearce has a must-read piece about how hate groups are being forced to set up their own alt-services -- from “Nazi Uber” to a hate-themed crowdfunding site called “Hatreon.”

And Monday was no better for the movement. Merck’s CEO, Ken Frazier, said today that he was resigning from President Trump's manufacturing council. "America's leaders must honor our fundamental views by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal," he said in a statement. (For what it’s worth, the president only took 54 minutes to respond to Frazier with a nasty threat.)

Even TIKI managed to issue a statement. “TIKI Brand is not associated in any way with the events that took place in Charlottesville and are deeply saddened and disappointed. We do not support their message or the use of our products in this way. Our products are designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friends connect with each other at home in their yard.”

So what are you going to say today? Tomorrow? To the white nationalist in the next cubicle? In the high potential pool? Who underwrites your project? Who is your best supplier?

I have no easy answers, though it’s clear our work is cut out for all of us. You can take this column as my pledge to keep surfacing ideas and exploring strategies for dealing with the legacy of racism, our collective shame and stain.

Consider starting with this essay by author Kelly J. Baker. She focused on the Klan for her dissertation as part of a PhD program in American religious history, and her thoughts on what she learned are illuminating - but not about the Klan. (She starts with a bit of chit-chat about the election that some Trump voters may not enjoy, but stick with it.)

She talks about the scores of ethnographies she’d read, and how white, liberal social scientists were shocked, shocked to discover that most of the Klan members they studied were pretty nice people. They were not cartoon villains. They went to church. They had manners. The researchers were, to an alarming degree, largely unable to reconcile the fundamental decency of people with their beliefs in white supremacy. “Pop culture obscures the heartbreaking ordinariness of members of white supremacist organizations,” writes Baker. “They look like other white people. They speak like other white people. They act like other white people.”

And therein lies the most insidious part of the terror they instill. They are like other people until suddenly, they’re not.

Because hate is so often invisible, especially within others who look like them, its emergence can take white allies by surprise. Of course, striving to understand the lived experiences of marginalized people remains job number one. But turning away from the Nazi next door is simply not an option. They're there. They're us. And now we all have to figure out what to say next.

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