For prospective members of this still-forming community, joining Emerson Commons may mean moving to the Charlottesville area, and we realize that the image of swastikas, confederate battle flags, and heavily-armed white nationalists may give pause to folks who are considering picking up and moving. It is worth repeating what has already been said by public officials and locally-owned businesses: by and large, these racists were not from Charlottesville and do not reflect the values of this community.
This, we realize, is where we could comfortably stop thinking about the events from earlier this month. We reject racism. That wasn’t Charlottesville. Let’s get back to building our houses.
We are writing because we think this moment presents an opportunity for us to do more. Because while a torch-bearing group of white men shouting racist and homophobic slurs is an undeniable manifestation of hatred, there are other more insidious forms of white supremacy that exist everywhere in the country. Charlottesville is not immune to the white supremacy of income disparity, mass incarceration, and denied access to health care, education, and housing.
The monuments that inspired the KKK to visit Charlottesville are not relics of the civil war, but rather 20th century tools of oppression and intimidation, designed to endorse Jim Crow segregation. They signaled public support for a mindset that produced massive resistance, redlining, and other state-sanctioned efforts to maintain the white supremacy on which this country was built. While the white supremacists have returned to their homes, we in the Charlottesville area are left to figure out what we might do differently or better so that there is no longer ambiguity about the extent to which the country and this community are prepared to live the still-unrealized principle that all of us are created equal.
Issues of race and housing are complex. Our country’s history is marked by ongoing efforts to deny housing based on race, religion, or nationality. There are houses in Charlottesville that still have racially restrictive covenants on them. As we get ready to break ground, it is imperative that we are, at least, mindful of this history.
The complexity of housing and race extends to the cohousing movement. As a group, members of Emerson Commons have already talked about the challenge of building a truly diverse cohousing community. To a person, members of Emerson Commons are dedicated to building on the diversity that our small group already exhibits and to making sure that our community champions diversity in word and deed.
There are things we can do (and are doing!) individually. Some of us participated in the counter-protest, marching from the Jefferson School to McGuffey Park. Others have donated to African American Teaching Fellows, and we have engaged in small ways to make sure we recognize our own bias. At our most recent plenary meeting, we discussed the power of individual action in affecting change and the realization that relationships are forged two people at a time.
But there are also things we can do collectively. Yesterday’s meeting opened with a brainstorming session for actions we can take, and Emerson Commons members are excited about everything from a more intentional outreach to communities that are underrepresented in cohousing to a chance to revisit our community values. Is embracing diversity enough? Perhaps we need to have a statement that directly rejects white nationalism and racism. And to what extent do our community values demand collective action when local events threaten what we care about?
We don’t yet have answers to these questions, but we recognize the urgency of addressing them. Because the reality is this: we are building a cohousing community in a predominantly white part of the country that recently witnessed neo Nazis marching in support of white supremacy. Dr. Beverly Tatum describes racism as a moving walkway. If you are just standing there, not doing anything, you are still moving in the wrong direction. White supremacy in this country is the same way. To simply build our homes, deny the history of housing discrimination and cohousing homogeneity, and assume that we don’t have to think about race, is to perpetuate white supremacy.
So yes, we reject racism. Moreover, the Charlottesville community has made it clear that voices of hatred don’t speak for us. But acknowledging these two things seems like only a first step. As we move forward with our plans, we will continue to engage in community efforts to dismantle racism (and its monuments) and consider how we might expand the national cohousing movement to reflect the diversity of the country. We hope you will join us.