Nearly a week after a rally conducted by White supremacist group Alt-right in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted into violence, including a man driving his car directly into counter-protesters and killing Heather D. Heyer, debate over how President Trump responded to the situation continues to dominate news headlines.
Some see the incidents in Charlottesville as a frightening example of how hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis have become emboldened under the Trump Administration. Others view the open displays of white supremacist ideologies as merely the most recent visible affirmation of deeply entrenched racist ideologies that have always existed in the country.
These are not necessarily contradictory; they demonstrate the depth and complexity of the problem. A recent poll found a narrow majority (52%) believes the President’s response was not strong enough, while over a quarter (27%) believe it was. This is an indication of the strikingly different perceptions Americans hold and, consequently, the urgent work before us to understand our past and educate ourselves about the racism and structural injustice in our society.
Peacebuilders in the U.S. are hard at work for a more just and peaceful society. From the national Black Lives Matters movement to local community peace groups in towns across America, many people are striving to confront and undo racist ideologies through nonviolent protest, transformative dialogue, and social change initiatives. Peace Direct has begun mapping local peace and justice groups in the U.S. for our Insight on Conflict website and will publish more on these groups in the months to come.
By failing to condemn the white supremacist groups and their racist ideologies that were behind the rally in Charlottesville, opting instead to spread blame on “all sides”, President Trump ignored both the facts of the day and the realities of racism, exclusion, and violence against communities of color that remains an entrenched part of U.S. history and society. Contradictory remarks over the course of the past days contrast notably with the reactions by other recent U.S. Presidents – both Republican and Democrat.
In a joint statement, George W. Bush and his father George H.W. Bush urged, “America must always reject racial bigotry, anti-Semitism, and hatred in all forms.” Barak Obama, the first black U.S. president, quoted Nelson Mandela:
As an international peacebuilding organization, Peace Direct rejects violence on all sides of every conflict, but we also need to speak out against violent and racist ideologies in our own backyard. It takes work to undo the roots of injustice. It takes dialogue among our family and friends to question the ways we perpetuate division. In a similar way that countries emerging from violent conflict undertake truth, justice and reconciliation processes, the United States needs to begin the long-neglected work of dealing with its past, rectifying injustice, and attempting reconciliation among all its citizens.
Events like Charlottesville and the equivocal responses from leadership may shock us, but the important thing is to ensure this has impact beyond its temporary ‘CNN effect’ or an opportunity to score political points, and rather to fully understand the need for processes of dialogue, social action, and transformation and to diligently commit to them. If the majority of Americans unite in condemning hatred and violence and commit to facing and addressing the long-standing racism and injustice they can be a force for peace and the right kind of power in our society.
Notably, a clear majority (67%) of American surveyed recently believe that the violence in Charlottesville should be investigated as an act of domestic terrorism. This contrasts with the policy trend under the Trump Administration in relation to acts of violent and extremist ideology. Under previous Administrations, the U.S. government approached its policies and programs related to “violent extremism” to include not only foreign extremist movements like ISIS, but also white supremacist groups in the U.S.
Earlier this year, Peace Direct consulted with over 100 local groups around the world, including in the U.S., who deal with violent extremism, about their perspectives and strategies. During the consultation, we asked groups their thoughts on the Trump Administration’s shift to more narrowly define violent extremism in terms of Islamic extremism. Their response was resounding. A great number opposed the shift, emphasizing the need to focus on white supremacist and other extremist groups in the U.S. The events of Charlottesville suggest they are right.
Until President Trump condemns White Supremacist Groups with action, other extremist groups may well continue to grow. The work doesn’t just lie on the shoulders of the Trump Administration, Black Lives Matter, and other local peace and justice organizations. The work starts within ourselves, in our homes, among our friends. Those hard and uncomfortable conversations about race, privilege, and prejudices are prerequisites before any long-term change can be made. The events of Charlottesville force us to pay attention to groups that have attacked minorities for decades. We can no longer look away.