Racial Terrorism in the Trump Era

By Connor Maxwell

On Saturday, thousands of white nationalists, Klansmen, and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, purportedly to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The heavily armed mob marched through the streets, chanting messages of hate, and attacking city residents and university students.

In the chaos, one white nationalist intentionally crashed a speeding car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring dozens more. While we may never know what was going through his mind, it seems clear that the attacker meant to kill, maim, and spread fear; to deprive residents of their right to speech and peaceful assembly. In other words, he meant commit an act of domestic terrorism. The nation gasped in horror as the events unfolded, but nobody should be surprised by the outcome.

Racial terrorism is not new to Charlottesville, the Commonwealth of Virginia, or the United States. Between 1880 and 1926, white Virginians lynched more than 90 people — mostly African Americans and mostly to intimidate black communities. In 1898, a mob seized John Henry James of Charlottesville, hanged him from a tree, shot him 40 times, and cut away pieces of his clothing and body parts to keep as souvenirs. In 1926, a mob seized World War I veteran Raymond Bird of Wytheville, Virginia, shot him, tied his lifeless body to the back of a truck, dragged him for nine miles, then hanged him from a tree. More than 4,000 more lynchings occurred across the United States in the same era. When the countless assassinations, bombings, and other hate-inspired attacks are considered, it becomes clear that this country has a long and sordid history of racial terror. Last weekend’s attack was simply a resurgence of historical precedent — and it certainly did not happen in a vacuum.

For months, then-candidate Donald Trump used racist and xenophobic rhetoric to appeal to those with deep-seated feelings of hatred and bigotry. He encouraged violence at his campaign rallies and fondly recalled the old days, when a protestor would be “carried out on a stretcher”. He earned the support of Ku Klux Klan leaders and white nationalist organizations. Intentional or not, his language empowered and invigorated those groups to remove their masks, take to the streets, and spread terror in our communities. And even after last weekend’s attack, President Trump continues to defend the alt-right and blames the counter protestors for the violence.

President Trump has no trouble recognizing and denouncing terror attacks when they are committed by people of color. It is time for the President to address the return of racial terrorism in America . It is time for him to remove white nationalist icons from his administration. It is time for him to denounce hatred and bigotry and decry those who espouse such beliefs. This was not an isolated incident and without strong leadership, future acts of violence committed by white nationalists are tragically inevitable .

While the President must speak out, it is equally essential that we all take time to self-reflect. Less than one century ago, hundreds of Charlottesville’s leading business and professional men dressed in white robes and hoods and burned a cross outside of Thomas Jefferson’s tomb at Monticello. Last Friday, torch-bearing white nationalists again gathered in Charlottesville, this time rallying at a statue of Jefferson on the University of Virginia campus. These fiery symbols of hate are intentionally reminiscent of a time not far gone, designed to conjure up the very same yesteryear fear. For far too many, this serves as a wake-up call or reminder that white supremacy is a part of our history and our present.

Americans tend to acknowledge racism only in moments like this, but these individuals and groups have always existed among us. Last weekend was not a one-off event, it was not new, and it will continue so long as we refuse to collectively recognize our nation’s racial history and reality, stand up to hatred, and fight to free ourselves from its timeworn grip.

Connor Maxwell is a research associate at the Center for American Progress. He is also a two-time graduate of the University of Virginia.

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