This weekend marks the one-year anniversary since the violence in Charlottesville, Va., when white supremacists rallied, and counter-protesters confronted them, leading to the death of one person and the injury of at least 30 others. The moment lives in infamy — not just because James Alex Fields Jr., with his apparent fondness for all things Nazi and a hatred of African Americans and Jews, now faces trial on charges that he rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer at the “Unite the Right” rally, but especially because of President Donald Trump’s tepid response to it all.
In his first public comments regarding the tragedy, the president failed to explicitly condemn white nationalists shouting Nazi slogans like “blood and soil” or “Sieg Heil” but instead observed that there were “very fine people on both sides” and that there was “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides.”
That failure (finding moral equivalency between white supremacists and those who would protest their presence in the footsteps of Thomas Jefferson) turned out not to be a slip of the tongue so much as a critical insight into the Trump racial doctrine. Time and time again before Charlottesville and since, the president has sought to pick fights with people of color and condemn them in some of the most dehumanizing ways possible. Most recently, the president’s ire was turned on a CNN anchor and NBA star LeBron James, after the 33-year-old basketball player and benefactor dared to suggest last week that President Trump has “used sports to divide us” and that he wouldn’t care to sit across from him.
And Mr. Trump’s response? To tweet that anchor Don Lemon, who is African American, was the “dumbest man on television” and that he had made the ballplayer “look smart which isn’t easy to do.” It’s the taunt of a 5th grader, perhaps, but there’s also a pattern here. The president has described others, even places and things, as dumb or “stupid,” too, but in recent months he’s used such expressions most commonly to describe Rep. Maxine Waters, the African American congresswoman from California who has called for more public protests of the president and his staff. He’s also offered harsh assessments of NFL football players who dared to kneel during the national anthem in protest of unfair treatment of blacks by police and others.
If race relations in the United States were fraught before Mr. Trump took office, there’s simply no question that the division has widened. And the best indicator of that are the opinion polls that show just how divided the nation has become under the 45th president. A poll released this week by Politico found that a majority of Americans perceive race relations as having worsened over the last 18 months (55 percent), but a majority of Republicans don’t. By a 35-25 percent margin, more GOP respondents to the Politico poll said race relations have gotten better under President Trump than those who say it’s gotten worse. Democrats and independents obviously don’t share that view — by healthy margins.
Say what you will about the Trump economy and employment opportunities for African Americans (a downward trend in black unemployment having started in 2010 and continuing apace during the Trump presidency), but it’s awfully difficult to see how race relations have improved.
In Baltimore, local leaders have paid attention to the issue of racial animus and disparity, but beyond Mayor Catherine Pugh’s quick removal of a handful of Confederate statues in the wake of Charlottesville, actual progress is hard to spot. The City Council has focused on racial disparity (in health and housing and capital spending), and Mayor Pugh says she’ll sign a charter amendment that would require the city to create a “racial equity fund” to address examples of institutional racism such as city agencies spending more to fix problems in affluent white neighborhoods than low-income black ones. And the federally mandated effort to reform the Baltimore Police Department after Freddie Gray’s death grinds on in a process that will take years. Meanwhile, though, we’ve seen elected leaders in both Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties pushing to curtail mass transit service. The racial overtones of those supposed efforts to boost public safety are unmistakable, particularly given this region’s legacy of segregation.
Improving race relations was hard enough at times when presidents made explicit efforts to help. Now, though, we have a president with a long and clear pattern of exploiting racial and ethnic division for his political gain. It permeated his campaign — recall his description of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals, his attack on Gold Star parents who are Muslim and his claim that a judge was biased in the Trump University litigation because “he’s a Mexican.” And it has continued during his administration with policies like a ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries to the inhumane family separations at the southern border. With those incidents and many more in mind, It gets harder and harder to understand how Trump supporters somehow see the U.S. on a better race relations path than during the Barack Obama years.
Here’s the crucial question: Do white supremacists in this country feel under siege or emboldened? This weekend will bring another surge in protests from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., to Charlottesville and beyond. Communities are bracing for further ugliness. In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam has already declared an emergency in Charlottesville and parts of Northern Virginia, and, in addition to activating some 700 state police, he’s prepared to call in in the National Guard. The precautions are likely justified. The continued anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of the past 12 months suggest white nationalism prospers in this country. Bigots everywhere know they have a friend in the White House who regularly signals them, often without bothering to be subtle, that he shares their core beliefs.