Trump under fire for Charlottesville response

Flower power: A memorial to the 32-year-old victim, Heather Heyer, in Charlottesville. © Getty

In the wake of Saturday’s deadly terrorist attack, it took Donald Trump 48 hours to call out the racist beliefs that apparently caused it. His reaction has added fuel to the weekend’s fire.

On a normal day, Charlottesville, VA is a quiet college town of some 46,000 people. But this week, leading white supremacist Richard Spencer spoke of it as “the centre of the universe”.

What happened?

Put simply: a protest against the planned removal of a Confederate statue turned into clashes between white supremacists and counter-protesters. The violence peaked when a man drove a car into a crowd of the latter, killing one and injuring 19. This is being investigated as an act of terrorism.

President Trump’s response added to the chaos. On Saturday afternoon he condemned “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides”, repeating the last three words for emphasis. “It’s been going on for a long time in our country,” he added.

Trump’s statement was widely criticised, including by Republicans, for implying that both sides bore equal responsibility for the violence. He was also slammed for not condemning the white supremacists by name.

For a president who has often been accused of inflaming racial tensions, this was seen as a significant omission.

Yesterday, after 48 hours of immense pressure, he finally made a statement condemning the violence of “criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups.”

Of course, he is right that such conflict has a long history. Slavery was the ultimate expression of white supremacy. After abolition, this ideology lived on in Jim Crow laws, but also in groups like the KKK that formed to deny minorities their rights.

Ever since, white supremacist violence has flared up at times of radical social change. Take the 1920s, when the modern KKK came to prominence after decades of mass immigration, or the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Many fear that now is another such moment. Trump often speaks of the threats posed by immigration. He has never endorsed white supremacists, but they back him; the Charlottesville rally was their most high-profile event in a long time. How much responsibility does he carry?

The white house?

Calm down, say some. Trump’s initial statement was vague, but he is clearly no ally of white supremacists — and now he has explicitly said so. The tensions we saw this weekend run deep in American society; they can only be healed through gradual cultural change. It is unfair to blame them on one man.

Nonsense, reply others. Trump knows that the fight against racism and terrorism starts with strong leadership: he accused Barack Obama of assisting “radical Islamic terrorism” by failing to call it by that name. For years, he has subtly encouraged white supremacists through dog-whistle politics. This is not just irresponsible — it is dangerous.

You Decide

  1. What do you think of Trump’s response? (You can listen to a part of his first statement in Become An Expert.)
  2. To what extent is Trump responsible for the activities of white supremacists in the past two years?

Activities

  1. Design a poster for an anti-racism march in your area.
  2. Imagine you are Trump’s speechwriter. Write the statement that you think he should have given on Saturday.

Some People Say...

“All forms of violence are equally wrong.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old white man from Ohio, has been arrested and accused of driving the car into the crowd. Various charges have been brought against him, including second-degree murder. Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the attack as an act of terrorism, and said that it is being investigated at a federal level.
What do we not know?
Exactly what drove Fields to commit this atrocity. According to his former history teacher, he held neo-Nazi views. He apparently marched alongside white supremacists hours before the attack. However, we still know little of his personal history. Assuming he holds extremely racist views, what pushed him to kill a woman is another question. The New York Times’s article in Become An Expert may have some answers.

Word Watch

A Confederate statue
The statue was of the Confederacy’s top general, Robert E. Lee. In February the city council voted to remove it, but others sued, arguing that the council does not have the authority to do so. The case is ongoing; the statue still stands.
White supremacists
Those who believe that white people are innately superior to other races. This ideology is distinct from white nationalism, which holds that whiteness is crucial to a country’s identity — but there is much overlap.
Injuring 19
At least 15 others were injured in the clashes. Two police officers also died in a helicopter crash.
The modern KKK
The original Ku Klux Klan existed only for a few years after the civil war. It was relaunched in 1915 and has existed ever since, although its influence has diminished.
They back him
Among those who expressed support for Trump during his campaign was former KKK leader David Duke. Trump rejected his endorsement.
Dog-whistle politics
A type of political message that contains a cryptic meaning for a specific group. See CNN Money’s article in Become An Expert for examples.

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