That American white supremacism once more reared its ugly head last weekend was not shocking; it’s been experiencing a resurgence for several years. That president Donald Trump equivocated about condemning it was also, sadly, no surprise. What’s troubling is how ambivalent much of America has been about it.
That might not be your impression if you read the mainstream media, which have relentlessly covered the liberal outrage at Trump’s remarks and the hasty attempts by business leaders, public intellectuals, and certain Republican politicians to distance themselves from him. But many Republican lawmakers have not spoken up, and 40% of Americans, according to one poll, agreed with Trump that both sides were equally responsible for the Charlottesville violence.
For the opponents of racism, this is a difficult moment. As a prominent Democratic strategist observed this week (paywall), a shrill focus on racial injustice risks making the party seem as if it cares only about ethnic minorities. Moreover, the intense public and media attention on what are, in fact, very small groups of extremists both amplifies their message and builds sympathy for them as underdogs. All this risks making that ambivalent 40% even more ambivalent.
And yet, what option is there but to take an unambiguous stand against racism? It’s precisely through tolerance for ambiguity, through the tacit acceptance of moral equivalence, and through the reluctance to challenge hatred that prejudice is normalized. That is how democratic societies accept fascism—not in a joyous embrace but with a quiet, what-can-you-do shrug.
This was published as part of the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief, our round-up of the world’s most important news. Sign up here for the newsletter, tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe and Africa, or the Americas.