Opinion: This Is Us: Charlottesville Is the Ugly Wake-Up Call America Needed
Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle and chant at counter protesters at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug. 11, 2017.Samuel Corum / Getty Images
"In this country 'American' means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate. " - Toni Morrison
To be an American is a gift and a privilege, a status that many outside our borders aspire to. But the problem with the definition of "American" is that it almost always seems to be interpreted as "white" — and if some have it their way, it always will.
America began as a nation of immigrants mostly from Europe: Dutch, Irish, English, Scottish and French. A country under the rule of the mighty British Crown.
And, of course, there were my ancestors who were captured and taken from West Africa in chains, brought over in the hulls of slave ships, treated like less than animals, sold off and robbed of their freedom as our founding fathers, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others, demanded their own liberty, even as they themselves owned other human beings.
Race and racism continue to be this great nation's birth defect: It is our weak link.
Eventually, slaves become Negroes, who become "colored" and finally Afro or African-Americans. Italian-Americans. Irish-Americans. Jewish-Americans. Native-Americans. Hispanic-Americans. The rest of us are known not simply as "Americans" but as other people who came after the English settled here in the 1600s.
If you know history, you know that is simply not true. It was not just white people who built this country. And if anyone needs to take their country back, it is the native people who lived here and had their land and sovereignty stolen from them.
The truth is, black people — slaves — built this country and created much of its wealth during its early years. The institution of slavery was a huge money maker for the American colonies. The wealth of the Southern colonies was in the billions of dollars at the height of slavery and up until the Civil War.
(If you want to understand history and why we are still here in 2017 fighting about whose country it is, just visit the powerful new exhibit The Mere Distinction of Colour at President James Madison's home, Montpelier. It uses slavery to connect the past to the present though the lens of the Constitution.)
Our history continues to haunt us. Call it karma. Call it chickens coming home to roost. The fact is that America started with codified, lawful racism in the form of slavery and then legalized Jim Crow segregation.
We are not that far from that racist past. Just look at the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. As we all watched the protests and violence in real time, the likes of former KKK Grand Dragon David Duke walked the streets of Charlottesville with other white men, talking about "taking their country back" and saying they felt emboldened because of President Donald Trump's election.
We should all be deeply concerned about the state of race relations in 2017 America.
Race and racism continue to be this great nation's birth defect: It is our weak link. It is our Achilles' heel. It is our dividing line. And if we are not careful, it will be the landing place for a foreign invader who is united in its goal to exploit our division.
Saturday, we watched yet another American president, Donald J. Trump, and a southern governor, Terry McAuliffe, call in the National Guard, declare a state of emergency and make nationally televised speeches calling for calm and unity.
Trump's statement has being widely condemned for being tepid and weak, in that he refused to condemn white supremacy directly and instead referred to "many sides" having issues.
The problem is that we have all seen this too many times. We have read and heard the words of politicians and corporations condemning racism and hatred as they themselves do not practice diversity in their offices, on their staffs or in their c-suites.
The problem is not just a group of alt-right radical white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia. The problem is the rest of us who do not think that this has anything to do with "us."
We have to start telling the truth. Because the truth is the only way forward for healing.
America is at a critical crossroads. These types of incidences will not just be limited to Virginia. They will spread on campuses. They will rear their ugly head in corporations — in fact, a white male Google engineer was just fired for producing a sexist "manifesto.
We must ask ourselves who are we and how far have we come when it comes to race relations. And we must summon the courage to change. The fact is many white Americans have lost jobs, they have lost wages, they are poor. I get it. But so, too, are many Americans of color in the same boat or worse.
White people have to begin to actually see color and stop saying that they do not.
The alt-right neo-Nazi groups are alive and well. Hate is saturating our social media. Hate is invading our college campuses. Hate is penetrating our communities and our corporate cultures. Hate is even infiltrating our churches.
Charlottesville is our wake-up call, America. It's time to do the work. It starts just like an AA program: The first step is admitting we have a problem.
Sophia A. Nelson
Sophia A. Nelson, Esq., is the award-winning author of three non-fiction books and a "Corporate Diversity Champion" (2012) award winner for her work in corporate diversity strategies and training for the Fortune 100. She has worked in the Congress, at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and at one of the nation's largest law firms in public/government Affairs. Nelson is a frequent guest on NBC News and MSNBC, as well as many other networks, and she has written for various outlets including Essence, Huffington Post, theGrio, Politico, Politico Magazine, CNN.com and Ebony.