Editor’s Note: Lisa Woolfork is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Virginia, a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project and an organizer with Black Lives Matter Charlottesville. The views expressed here are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
As the gleeful image of Kyle Guy on the digital cover of Sports Illustrated suggests, the University of Virginia’s Men’s Basketball team’s victory at the NCAA tournament on Monday is a story of redemption. The men’s basketball team made history last year when they were the first top-ranked team to be eliminated from the tournament by a number 16 seed, the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). A few nights ago, they became the first men’s basketball team in our university’s history to win the NCAA championship.
The fortitude, skills and resolve this team deployed on their journey to the pinnacle of college hoops belies conventional expectations. Unfortunately, some have seized on this moment to transform these student-athletes’ Herculean victory into a panacea, a pivot and a public relations pitch to erase the trauma of the white supremacist attacks of 2017 that forever marked the University of Virginia and its home, the city of Charlottesville.
Writing about the unifying possibilities of the championship, David Toscano – who represents Charlottesville in Virginia’s House of Delegates – was recently quoted in the print edition of the local newspaper as saying, “If there were Antifa or white supremacists [out in public in Charlottesville after the team’s win], they were all wearing orange and celebrating together.” This baffling claim dangerously naturalizes “white supremacists” as just another set of fans and not a well-organized group that marched with torches, attacking students and community members on campus 20 months ago. This problematic false equivalency was later revised in the paper’s online edition, replaced with a softer version of the same outrageous claim, “There were no white supremacists and no antifa, only happy fans in orange and blue T-shirts celebrating together.” This feel-good moment is pernicious in its assumption that a sports victory is all that’s required to bring out the best in “both sides.”
Such attempts are harmful to our community and to the country. The notion that a sports team can magically erase the pain and anguish inflicted on Charlottesville by white supremacists minimizes the severity of our trauma. It also diminishes the years of work these student-athletes, many of whom my colleagues and I have had in our own classrooms, performed in the service of their athletic goals. They are NCAA champions. They are students who worked diligently in their courses and on the court. They are not hand sanitizer. Their accomplishments should not be used to conveniently expunge traumatic racist history or clean the reputation of this city.
It is tempting to believe that the team’s victory is an opportunity for Charlottesville to turn to a fresh page in its history. As UVA politics professor Larry Sabato told The Washington Post, “It’s certainly attracting a great amount of positive attention, which is a nice antidote to the avalanche of negative attention” following the violence of August 11 and August 12, 2017, which he pointed out involved many protesters, most from out of town (while neglecting to mention that two of the main white nationalist organizers were UVA graduates).
There is a narrative emerging in Charlottesville, one that seems impatient with frank conversations about racism and white supremacy. This way of thinking positions the city of Charlottesville’s reputation – in the words of some local officials – as the most damaged victim of the 2017 summer of hate.Those who hold this view might agree with Sabato’s assessment of Charlottesville as “a lovely small town.” They might also concur with his claim that “It’s heaven to live in,” a perspective that overlooks completely the increasing gentrification, black family displacement and untenable affordable housing crisis at the very borders of the university. The same article quoting Sabato also quoted City Council member Wes Bellamy and framed his comments as drawing “parallels between the narrative of the city and the team.” Bellamy said: “We both took a blow…But we got up and pushed harder, and we’re better because of it.”
Even when people try to resist the narrative arc of redemption, some media outlets are so wedded to the tidiness of that story that they have tried to frame commentary to fit. Consider UVA media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan’s interview on PBS NewsHour following the big win. When asked if the victory represented a new story for Charlottesville, Vaidhyanathan was rightly explicit: “I think this victory will be among the great moments in Charlottesville history as we look back, but it will not — it will not wipe out the tremendous pain, the tremendous violence that has built Charlottesville, that has built Virginia, that has built the United States of America, right?” Yet the interview was titled “How the ‘Hoos of Charlottesville Could Help Heal Their City.”An interview title may seem like a small thing to most, but for those of us who live in Charlottesville, it’s a false narrative about many of our lives.
To be sure, Charlottesville and those who love the University of Virginia have a great reason to celebrate. These student-athletes overcame an unprecedentedly brutal 2018 tournament loss with focus, determination and poise in 2019. This is a remarkable feat that illustrates grace under pressure. What it is not is a reset button on history. It is not an excuse to resurrect the dangerous illusion of an idealized civil Charlottesville.
Rather than project a savior narrative onto the UVA men’s basketball team, we could take a much humbler approach and try to learn from their recent accomplishments. We could accept that though the team has labored to reach the pinnacle of success following a hard loss, Charlottesville has yet to ascend those heights. One lesson we might wish to adopt from the team is that hard work is a key ingredient of redemption. It is not given; it is earned.
Instead of redemption, it seems that those who would frame these students’ achievement this way are actually seeking what pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” – which he defined as “the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance […]” In this context, cheap grace is claiming a team’s victory as a municipal accomplishment that redeems a traumatic past without regret, repentance, remorse or even acknowledgement of harm. It is unfair to take these student athletes’ hard earned redemption on the basketball court and use it for Charlottesville’s cheap grace.
Charlottesville would be better served to follow the lead of its mayor, Nikuyah Walker, whose campaign slogan was “Unmasking The Illusion.” She implored the community to remember rather than forget.
“We can celebrate the win,” she wrote in a Facebook post on Tuesday morning, “but this win doesn’t undo the 400+ year-old oppressive legacy of Virginia nor does it erase the legacy that this community was built on. I plead with you to remember that many of our community members have experienced ‘summer of hate’ moments throughout their entire lives. What is our work? Don’t crawl back into the corner of comfortable lies! Please stay with me on this path of uncomfortable healing.”
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Once we do the difficult work the mayor describes, Charlottesville will have a redemption story it can fully claim.