Friday, August 18, 2017

A Call to Dialogue After Charlottesville

by Andrew Mamo


As someone working in the field of dispute resolution and committed to the importance of dialogue, I find it difficult to know where to go with the events in Charlottesville. There were actual neo-Nazis in Charlottesville participating in a rally in which someone was killed. The wrongness of white supremacist ideology is certainly not subject to discussion, so what would dialogue even entail? The violent rally and the beliefs expressed by its participants call for simple condemnation.

We must remember that this is not an isolated incident. The racism on display in Charlottesville has been with us all along, and the claims about American identity and heritage made by the far right are currently at the heart of our politics. The extremists carrying weapons and openly advocating white supremacy are distractions—albeit important, dangerous distractions—from the deeper issues running through American history that will continue to poison our politics in the absence of genuine dialogue. Can dialogue about our history accomplish anything? As a dispute resolution practitioner with a previous background as a historian, I remain hopeful, even if recent events give reason for cynicism.

Part of what makes intractable conflicts, such as those involving the achievement of racial equality in our country, so difficult is that they draw upon deeply held, shared narratives that form the basis of collective memory. Meaningfully engaging with history and questioning this collective memory can be instrumental in resolving intractable conflicts. In many ways, Charlottesville encapsulates much of the history of race in America: participants in the rally carried Confederate flags and torches reminiscent of the KKK, gathering at a university campus founded by Thomas Jefferson and integrated during the Civil Rights Movement, to protest the removal of a monument honoring Robert E. Lee that was erected at the height of Jim Crow. We cannot talk about Charlottesville or American identity in 2017 without confronting the long history that has brought us to today and the centrality of racism in “heritage.” We cannot move forward without first looking backward and constructing a better understanding of our history and who we are as Americans.

Intractable conflicts are often so difficult to resolve because they involve profound challenges to group identity, which is often grounded in historical narratives of conflict or victimization. The imagery at the rally suggests that its participants draw upon familiar narratives about the history of race in America—that the Confederacy involved the defense of certain fundamental principles, that it remains appropriate to commemorate the “Lost Cause,” and that the past half century has involved a gradual erosion of the position of white Americans, creating a situation in which white identity is itself threatened. The public opinion data in the links above indicates that these views are not limited to the fringes of the right. The narratives that promote white supremacy belong to more than the obvious villains, which indicates both the necessity and the difficulty of dialogue. There is potentially a large pool of people susceptible to further radicalization, given the newfound semi-respectability of this right-wing extremism. But some may only loosely endorse these narratives and may be willing to genuinely engage with other interpretations of our history. If we are able to skillfully engage in these difficult conversations, the present efforts to remove Confederate statues may present a striking opportunity for broad-based dialogue about what the memorialization of the Confederacy means to Americans from all walks of life and what lessons we want to emphasize today from this part of our history.

While there is value in discussing the facts of our history, narratives of personal experiences that convey emotional truths are particularly important in challenging the mythologies that ground group identity. Productive dialogue therefore requires spaces in which emotions can be shared and discussed openly and honestly. We absolutely need to hear about the pain felt by people of color within the enduring structures of white supremacy. We also need to hear about the pain felt by white Americans who are struggling to make sense of their lives as they recognize that a system of white supremacy—such a basic part of the daily fabric of life that it never even needed to be named—is (very) gradually being dismantled. We also need to continue difficult conversations about what remedies might entail, drawing upon the lessons of the restorative justice field. Only then can we forge a new identity narrative based on an honest reckoning with the harm caused by white supremacy and on genuine progress to remedy these harms.

The place of race in contemporary American identity is at the heart of the current political moment. Perhaps the violence in Charlottesville provides the opportunity to have frank conversations about who we are as Americans and the distances we have traversed (or failed to traverse). The hard work of ending racial inequality has been repeatedly taken up and continually deferred—due to the fragility of the American experiment in the eighteenth century, due to the prioritization of reconciliation with the South to preserve the Union in the nineteenth century, and due to the desire to create a colorblind society without the will to take the necessary steps to achieve it in the twentieth century. Today, in the twenty-first century, we are long overdue to work through our history of racial inequality and the difficult questions it raises about our country. We cannot orient ourselves toward the future and move forward from the events of the past week until we recognize the past’s continuing hold on us.


Andrew Mamo is a Clinical Instructor and Lecturer on Law at the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program.