In July 2017, the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society invited members of the press to a private conference to discuss a sensitive pair of items from the organization’s collection: a pair of robes that might have originally belonged to founding members of the local Ku Klux Klan, established near Thomas Jefferson’s tomb in 1921.
The robes, which the society said were donated in 1993, drew attention when local activists and scholars started asking about them. “It’s probably some old respectable family name which adorns a current Charlottesville building, street or park,” speculated one of the scholars who’d requested more detail on the robes, according to Charlottesville’s Daily Progress. But Steven Meeks, the society’s president, declined to reveal who donated the artifacts. “I will tell you this much,” Meeks said to the newspaper, “neither one of them was a prominent person in the Charlottesville community.”
The tussle over revealing the identities of long-ago Klansmen in Charlottesville, the potential shame to their living relatives or descendants, feels itself like an artifact of history at this moment, when people unadorned by masks or hoods are marching for white supremacy openly on the city’s streets and lawns. It hearkens back to a time when the likes of the Klan achieved terror partially through a uniform that often obscured the face of its wearer. “Anonymity wasn’t quite the point,” as Alison Kinney pointed out in The New Republic. And indeed, in many places, for much of the Klan's history, members marched openly. “While the hoods could assure their wearers’ personal anonymity, their force came from declaring membership in a safe, privileged identity that was anything but secret.” But where open racism was less acceptable, the hood offered a useful disguise. We could be anywhere, the uniform warned. We could be your neighbors.
But the images we saw in Charlottesville today and yesterday convey an entirely different sort of threat. They draw their menace not from what is there—mostly, young white men in polos and T-shirts goofily brandishing tiki torches—but from what isn’t: the masks, the hoods, the secrecy that could at least imply a sort of shame. We used to whisper these thoughts, the new white supremacists suggest. But now we can say them out loud. The “Unite the Right” rally wasn’t intended to be a Klan rally at all. It was a pride march.
The shameless return of white supremacy into America’s public spaces seems to be happening by degrees, and quickly. It wasn’t until most journalists left the conference of the innocuously named “National Policy Institute” in November that my colleague Daniel Lombroso captured Richard Spencer leading the attendees in open Nazi salutes. Spencer’s intention—to make normal that gesture and all the sentiments that underpin it—is no more secret than the identities of his tiki torch-wielding bannermen. "I don't see myself as a marginal figure who's going to be hated by society,” Spencer said to Daniel. “I see myself as a mainstream figure.”
For the moment, you can still spot the subtle boundaries that will have shifted if Spencer and his fellow-travelers succeed. One appeared, for example, in Graeme Wood’s June 2017 Atlantic story on Spencer, when one of his associates requested anonymity: “I have a ‘normie’ [conventional] job,” the young man said, “and I don’t want to get punished for this.” How soon until that young man no longer fears the consequences of his ideas?
“Norms” is such a bloodless, abstract word, which is a shame, because it describes such a bloody real thing. Norms impose genuine and manifold restraints on human behavior. They undergird all the gentle, civic niceties that make human society possible. Laws can codify and reinforce these norms, but the norms are what keep us from savagery.
It would recently have been normal for a president to condemn in harsh tones the participants in a march for white supremacy on the streets of an American city. Today it is not.