America’s Quaking Racial Divide

Martin Luther King Jr

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Andrew Oxford reflects on America’s extant racial divide and the lingering threat of white nationalism.

In the preface to his monumental study of the contemporary American white supremacist movement (1), Leonard Zeskind points to the Sarajevo Haggadah for a pertinent lesson on race and society. A Hebrew text of stories, songs, and prayers written by Spanish Jews around 1314, it arrived in the Yugo peninsula with Sephardic Jews fleeing the Inquisition. In the nineteenth century, it was entered into the Sarajevo Museum and saved from invading Germans during World War II by the Croation curator. For the duration of the war, it was guarded by Muslim clerics and it currently resides in the vaults of the Serbian National Bank while it is revered as a cultural icon of all peoples of the region. Reflecting upon the curious history of this relic, Zeskind writes:

It is useful to remember that at one time a hodgepodge of religious and ethnic groups lived together in relative harmony. Places like Sarajevo were cosmopolitan centers of learning and culture for centuries. But in a matter of a few historical seconds, the whole place went up in flames, like a refugee hostel attacked by arsonists…

The United States, unlike the former Yugoslavia, has well cemented the foundations of its federal order in the 150 years since our own Civil War, and the election of a black man, Barack Obama, has broken the white monopoly on the presidency. Nevertheless, collective identities based on race and religion have remained just under the skin of American life. As such, we will continue to be vulnerable to the machinations of … white nationalists … particularly as population demographics shift in the next few decades. For those of us who hope to protect and extend our multiracial democracy, and the cosmopolitanism of the type that preserved the Sarajevo Haggadah, we ignore this white nationalist movement at our own peril.

In our history as Americans as in the history of the Haggadah we see both the conquering glory of tolerance and humanity as well as the treacherous and undermining peril of fascism and bigotry. In the grander scheme of human events, we see the civil rights movement — which we celebrate this month with the honoring of the martyred Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — as a recent phenomenon. This is to say nothing of racial harmony or coexistence which seems an illusion when considered against the backdrop of the increasing inequalities between races in this nation.

Indeed, history is riddled with civilizations which developed as splendid centers of diversity, coexistence, and tolerance only to slide, in relatively short time, into lands divided by race and pockmarked by ethnic conflict. If the recent resurgence in white supremacist activity chronicled by activists like Zeskind demonstrates anything, it is that it can happen here too.

This is not hyperbole but a reality reflected in the tumult of the day. The dramatic growth of nativist and white supremacist organizations (2) coupled with a right-wing foaming with an unapologetically nationalist and nativist message underscores the brevity of the current state of race relations (3). Consider as well the rise in hate-crimes against Americans of the Muslim faith (4) and Latinos (immigrants and citizens alike) (5). When viewing all of this in the context of the slow or even halted progress that has been made in efforts to integrate our communities and schools we see a quaking racial divide patched over by fairly recent gains. Such victories, whether it be the passing of the Civil Rights Act or, on a different scale, the election of a black president, are monumental but ignore the nature of bigotry. The challenge to our multiracial democracy posed by racism is ever changing.

Perhaps this is the problem with memorializing the Dr. King’s legacy with an annual holiday — it relegates the very issue at hand to the history books. When we celebrate Dr. King, we emphasize the progress he and his allies made against the racial challenges of his day rather than the need to rally against those of ours. After all, if we are celebrating something, than we have already won. Nothing could be further from fact. America remains a racially divided if restive country and a movement to destroy the accomplishments of the past is gathering momentum above and below the gloss of our mainstream discourse.

Should we look beyond our own brief national narrative, however, we will find reflections of ourselves and as Zeskind so adeptly pointed out, one such place is in the story of the Sarajevo Haggadah. The people who saved that artifact did not share a religion or ethnic group but all now claim it as a source of pride even after, in the case of those who where once Yugoslavian, very nearly destroying each other. Will we say the same thing about our homeland a century from now? After all, it can happen here too.

Andrew Oxford is a writer and journalist from Texas. His work has appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique and The San Antonio Express-News.


(1) Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream by Leonard Zeskind, published 2009 by Farar, Straus, and Giroux.

(2) The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report has chronicled what it terms “The Second Wave” in a recent report.

(3) Megan Carpenter underscores the white supremacist beliefs of the American right in this article from The Guardian:

(4) Human Rights First has documented this extensively in their 2008 report on hate crimes in America.

(5) While widely documented and discussed, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report lays out the rise in hate crimes against Latinos as of Fall 2008.

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