One year after Charlottesville, has America learned to reckon with its racist history?
By Brennan Hoban
Continuing racial tension in the United States was highlighted by the violent white supremacist rally, and the responding counter demonstrations, that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11-12 of 2017. One year later, the underlying causes of these tensions still persist and their consequences are, in many ways, even more visible. Brookings scholars discuss the history of race relations and racism in the United States, analyze what happened in Charlottesville one year ago, and make recommendations on how to move forward.
Racial tensions are not new
Camille Busette, director of the Race, Prosperity, and Inclusion Initiative, and Vanessa Williamson, fellow in the Governance Studies program, explain that “the protests that took place in Charlottesville stand as part of a long legacy of racist violence in the United States.” They argue that, while there have been some significant actions to address race-related problems in the U.S., the public gatherings of white supremacists in Charlottesville and elsewhere demonstrate that we are now experiencing a period of reaction to the possibility of racial progress. Williamson explains, “We are in a period of racial reaction now. It’s very clear that for a set of white conservative people, the election of a black president was very frightening.”
William Frey, senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program, calls this reaction “white anxiety.” He explains how the changing racial demographics in America, especially the declining size of the white population, contribute to the combative racial rhetoric we hear from pundits and white nationalist groups.
These groups, called the “alt-right,” have become well-known in American culture. In his recent book, “The Rise of the Alt-Right,” Thomas Main discusses the root of the alt-right movement’s ideology, and the social, political, and technological changes that helped crystallize the movement’s place in American culture. He concludes that “the Alt-Right is far more radical and dangerous than the right-wing extremism of past decades. For it is the underlying ideology of the Alt-Right, rather than its controversial policy positions, which merits concern.”
Charlottesville at the epicenter
In a recent episode of the Brookings Cafeteria Podcast, “Charlottesville: One Year Later,” Camille Busette explains that “at its crux, what the Charlottesville protest symbolized was the fact that we as a nation have done absolutely nothing to acknowledge the brutality, the torture, the kind of terrorism that a system based on a racially-stratified society has led to.”
Even more, the white supremacists present at the Charlottesville protests felt comfortable enough to show their faces. Chris Meserole, fellow in Foreign policy, remarks, “What was most surprising to me about Charlottesville was the willingness of the protesters to be unmasked …What it suggests is that they feel like they have a certain amount of immunity [and the] political backing potentially of our own government.”
How to move forward
The Charlottesville protests sparked a national debate over whether or not to remove Confederate statues from cities across the country. However, there are many laws and policies that are even more harmful to racial tensions than these statues. Andre Perry, David M. Rubenstein fellow in the Metropolitan policy program, says that “After Charlottesville, I want people to focus on the statues of policy that are just as permanent or impermanent as many of the Confederate statues.”
Cities like Charlottesville can play a large role in changing the policies that are driving social and racial inequality. While many cities have removed confederate statues, condemned the rally, and espoused the importance of diversity in their communities in the year since the rally, Brookings’ Rachel Barker and Alan Berube, senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program, explain that there is still a lot of work to be done. For example, the effects of exclusionary real estate practices from the past still hurt African-American communities today. And, African-Americans remain disproportionately concentrated in poor neighborhoods and resigned to lower-paying occupations.
Nicol Turner-Lee, fellow in Governance Studies, argues that it’s time for a new Kerner Commission report. The Kerner Commission report, originally commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, revealed “how racial inequality led to disparate funding to local institutions within the black community (e.g., schools). The report addressed how elevated levels of segregation experienced after the Civil Rights Movement led to overly concentrated black poverty and social isolation. The Kerner Report also explicitly laid out the role of white attitudes toward blacks in maintaining these power structures.”
Turner-Lee explains that “the reason these white supremacist supporters feel validated to commemorate one of America’s darkest days is largely due to the administration’s apparent disinterest in redressing racial discord and Congress’ hesitation to mitigate racial inequality.” She calls for Congress to take action and establish a new Commission on race relations to make up for the lack of action by the Trump administration.
Read more Brookings content on Charlottesville: One Year Later.