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.

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