TOPICS > Nation

Scenes from Charlottesville invoke racist legacy in the present day

August 15, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
The violent events in Charlottesville, where white supremacist groups came out of the shadows, seem to have brought rising American tensions over race and racism to a head. Hari Sreenivasan gets perspectives from Leonard Pitts Jr. of The Miami Herald, Carol Anderson of Emory University and Mark Potok, a former senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

HARI SREENIVASAN: We return now to the fallout from the violent events in Charlottesville and the rise of racial tensions that came to a head there.

I’m joined now by Mark Potok, a former senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Carol Anderson, she’s chair of African-American studies at Emory University and author of “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.” And Leonard Pitts Jr., he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with The Miami Herald.

Carol, I want to start with you.

I wanted to start on the events of Friday night, but the comments of the president today put that in a different dimension. The images that you saw on Friday night of people walking with torches on the UVA campus vs. the one perhaps the president saw seem to be a different picture. What came to your mind?

CAROL ANDERSON, Emory University: What came to my mind when I saw the torches and the marching was, it reminded me so much of, like, Klan marches in the ’20s.

It reminded me of the marches that happened in Montgomery as the Klan was trying to force African-Americans to get back on those Jim Crow buses, to get back in their place.

It was a signal of white power and of trying to create black fear. As I thought about it, it was as well a way of seeing how this toxin of racism and white supremacy has reemerged in a very virulent form in American society. And it’s been aided and abetted by the kind of politics of dog whistles that have now led to the rise of Donald Trump.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Leonard Pitts Jr., it seems today, when the president was asked about those events, what he saw was peaceful protests on Friday night, even though there were some violent incidents that were caught on tape as well.

His world view, whatever it’s shaped by, sees something very different than we do.

LEONARD PITTS JR., The Miami Herald: Well, I think it’s hardly surprising that someone who is not part of a group who has a collective memory of Klan marches and of people marching with torches with a design to inflict political and actual violence on you, I think it’s no surprise that someone who doesn’t have that collective memory would see that in a completely different way.

We have a history in this country, frankly, of seeing white people, and, frankly, white violence and white threats of violence as more benign than we do people of color. So, in that regard, there’s nothing really surprising about him seeing things that way. He’s just — he’s being who he is and where he’s from.

And, frankly, he lacks the imagination to possibly see or even to wonder how these things might be perceived by those who have a memory of having been, you know, threatened by this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mark Potok, I remember seeing video of an elderly Klansman several years ago saying, this is going to be the last generation of people who actually are like me.

And he was lamenting it, but the pictures that we saw on Friday night, these were young men in polo shirts, with cropped hair.

MARK POTOK, Former Senior Fellow, Southern Poverty Law Center: Yes. I think that’s absolutely true.

I think that this is a new generation of racists who, as Carol and Leonard both have suggested, were in large part created by Donald Trump and others like Donald Trump, people who are in the public eye, who have been normalizing and mainstreaming the ideas of white nationalism in a way that really is unprecedented going back some 50 years in terms of coming from people in high political office and so on.

It really has been something to behold. And, you know, today when Trump decided that — once again doubled down on the idea that the left was just as bad as the right, I just see that as absolutely, 100 percent not credible.

I mean, the man has no authority, no credibility whatsoever. It was simply Trump once again pivoting back to the Klansmen, the neo-Nazis, the white nationalists and others who support him. He’s absolutely loathe to alienate them.

We have seen that so much through his candidacy and through his presidency, his absolutely false claims, for instance, that he didn’t know who David Duke was and therefore couldn’t condemn him. So, it’s — as Carol said, it’s the dog whistle game all over again, although it is barely veiled.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Carol Anderson, one of the things that he did today was use the fallacy of the slippery slope to say, well, today, it’s the Confederate monuments. Tomorrow, why not George Washington, why not Thomas Jefferson, who were slave owners themselves?

CAROL ANDERSON: I don’t even know how to really respond to that, except to say his inability to understand the difference between people who fought to create the United States of America and people who fought to destroy the United States of America, so that they could hold, rape, breed, and sell human beings, shows his inability to think, his inability to have any kind of a sense of American history.

And it shows again that kind of dog whistling, so that what you do is you create a false narrative, which is what he’s doing to create fear that, what this left is doing, this so-called left that he’s talking about, is trying to destroy America, when, in fact, what you’re seeing are the people who are out protesting against the Nazis, against the Klan, they are fighting for America, they are fighting for the recognition of our humanity, all of our humanity.

That is so fundamentally different, and you would think that the president of the United States would be able to understand that. But Donald Trump doesn’t.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Leonard Pitts, this weekend, you wrote in a column that part of this is because we choose to lie to ourselves about the racial divide that exists in the country. What did you mean?

LEONARD PITTS JR.: What I meant is that a lot of my white fellow countrymen have chosen a path of intellectual dishonesty, I guess would be the best way to put it, to deal with what’s going on with regard to race right now.

And I think reason they do that is because it’s a lot easier on them emotionally and intellectually, frankly, than to actually confront what’s actually going on in the country these days and what’s going on with African-Americans.

So, instead of dealing with that, if you want the think of yourself as a good person, you do not want to therefore want to think of yourself as part of some sort of racist system, because, then, if you’re a good person, you’re obligated to do something about it and to stand up.

So, the alternative to doing that is to say, well, it’s all these people’s imaginations or it’s — the alternative is to adopt these really spurious claims.

One of my favorite is — and Donald Trump sort of, I think, leads toward this — one of my favorite is, well, there’s racism on both sides, which is one of the — which is hugely false, and for obvious reasons. When people who are white talk about the — quote, unquote — “racism” they experience at the hands of black people, they’re talking about somebody called me a bad racial name.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.

LEONARD PITTS JR.: When I talk about the racism that I fear from white people in this society, I’m talking about the fear that one of my sons will be shot and killed by police and then thing-afied and thug-afied on cable news.

When they talk about racism, they’re talking about something that affects the quality of their day. When we as African-Americans talk about racism, we’re talking about something that affects the quality of our lives.

And this has been said very clearly for many years, and yet, for whatever — and this and other things. But, for whatever reason, too many of our white fellow countrymen have — profess to have difficulty in understanding this. This is what I mean when I say intellectual dishonesty.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Mark Potok, you spent decades tracking this. Is this actually increasing, or is our perception of it increasing because everything is so much more visible these days?

MARK POTOK: No, I think it is increasing.

I think there are many things going on in the world today that are helping to foment this movement. Many of them, I have mentioned already, cable TV, radio talk show hosts, people like Donald Trump and some of the really loathsome characters within his administration.

But, beyond that, I think this country, like much of Western Europe, has gone through enormous changes. The most obvious is demographic change, the idea that whites will be a minority by about 2050 — 2043, pardon me, according to the Census Bureau, but also huge economic changes that are hurting people, very many of them white, who in the past were fairly privileged, had very good factory jobs, made a lot of money, and are now in trouble, certainly not in as much trouble as black people or other minorities, but are feeling the hurt.

And also cultural changes. I think the most obvious example of that is the idea of same-sex marriage, which seemed unimaginable a mere 15 or 20 years ago, and today is the law of the land in all 50 states. So, I think something real is happening out there. There are huge changes occurring.

Obviously, quite a few white people out there feel that somehow the country their white forefathers created for their white offspring is not the place that they grew up in anymore. So, you know, I think you add to that very volatile mix, that very real mix of what’s happening in the world a character like Donald Trump, who I think has done just enormous damage to the country in terms of mainstreaming and normalizing these ideas, these very violent ideas, and you find yourself, as we find ourselves today, in a very scary and dangerous situation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right.

Mark Potok, Carol Anderson, Leonard Pitts Jr., thank you all.

LEONARD PITTS JR.: Thank you.

MARK POTOK: Thank you.

CAROL ANDERSON: Thank you.

SHARE VIA TEXT