Charlottesville and Racial Tension in Trump’s America

How President Trump is affecting unity in the face of tragedy

by Alex Hentschel

The word at the forefront of the national discussion on race relations is “Charlottesville.”

A “Unite the Right” rally was held in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Several other groups showed up to protest the event, including the anti-fascist political group Antifa, clerical ministers and members of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests turned violent, resulting in several casualties on both sides and the death of one woman when a speeding car rammed through a crowd of counter-protesters.

Political leaders were quick to condemn the white supremacist groups. Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe demanded that the alt-right protesters “go home,” and, in a later comment, went so far as to state they should “leave America … because they are not Americans.”

President Donald Trump was criticized for his vague and equivocating response to the violence, namely for his statement that there was blame to be had on “both sides” and that “not all of [the alt-right protesters] were white supremacists.” He criticized the alt-left, calling them “very, very violent.”

[Infographic designed by Nathan Overlock]

Trump stood mostly alone in his rebuke of the counter-protesters. His fellow Republicans scurried away from hisgeneralization. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, tweeted that the white nationalists were “100% to blame.” Even members of the military spoke out against their commander in chief: Gen. Robert Neller of the Marine Corps tweeted that there is “no place for racial hatred or extremism in @USMC.”

Dr. Marc Clauson, professor of history and law at Cedarville University, said he believes the president was factually correct but could have been more diplomatic in his approach.

“He was correct to condemn ‘both sides,’ now that we know more of the facts,” Clauson said. “I think there was a certain group in the media who immediately saw an opportunity to jump on him for that wording.”

Dr. Mark Caleb Smith, associate professor of political science and the director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville, said he believes Trump is unique among presidents in that he did not condemn the white nationalists strongly.

“We’ve never had a president who’s even sent mixed signals about this sort of behavior for a long, long time,” Smith said. “At minimum, we want a president who tries to alleviate racial tension, and I think you’d have to say that Donald Trump doesn’t do that. I wouldn’t blame the increased violence all on Donald Trump, but the way that he’s handled these events has not been par for the course.”

Inextricably tied to the Charlottesville issue is the debate on the Confederate monuments, as the “Unite the Right” rally originally planned to protest taking down the statue of Robert E. Lee. Debate has raged across the country as to whether the monuments have historical value or merely propagate hatred. Trump spoke against their removal, saying, “This week, it is Robert E. Lee. … I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?”

Clauson postulated that the increase in racial discussion promoted by the media and by different sects of the alt-left and the alt-right may have something to do with the monuments gaining national attention.

“The statues weren’t an issue just a few months ago,” Clauson said. “It really makes you wonder: What’s precipitating the sudden interest? I think this new attitude has been forced by certain subgroups of each side of the population, who are better-organized than the average voter.”

Though we are still in the early days of Trump’s presidency, there is value to be had in discussing whether our president has had a positive or negative effect on racial tension in America. Smith said racial tension has been a source of major media coverage since the early days of Trump’s campaign. Trump was lambasted for his inflammatory remarks about certain ethnic groups and for his hesitancy to reject Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke’s endorsement.

According to PBS, crimes have spiked violently since the 2016 election. Within 10 days of Trump’s election, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) catalogued 900 bias-related crimes against minorities. According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents rose by 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017. 

Smith said he believes increasing racial violence is less a result of the Trump presidency but rather a trend nationwide.

“If we’re fair, there was a fair bit of racial-based violence during the tail end of the Obama administration: Ferguson happened and Baltimore happened,” he said. “As awful as it is, this is a trend within American history. However, I don’t say that to minimize or negate Trump’s influence — there’s certainly been an increase in coverage and an increase in sensitivity.”

Clauson said it is difficult to tell whether there has been a significant effect on racial tension in America since the election of Trump.

“We’ve definitely seen an increased media focus over the past few weeks because of what happened in Charlottesville,” Clauson said. “The election did a lot to dredge [racial tension] up, and Trump became a bit of a lightning rod for that. I don’t see as much clash among the population as a whole as I do among certain fringe groups.”

Whether incidents of racial violence will continue to increase in the next years of the presidency remains to be seen. What is clear is that Trump’s attitude toward racial tension is without historical precedent and that his inflammatory campaign may have resulted in an increase in racial tension.

Smith and Clauson concur that Christians should carefully consider how to proceed in this tense atmosphere, encouraging Christians to be uniters, not dividers.

“When we interact with people politically, we need to remember that we are interacting with a child of God,” Smith said. “Our interaction has to start at that level —the personal, spiritual level, not the political or ideological level. You’re dealing with a person who is potentially in need of God’s grace. In a sense then, Christians can be one of those groups that can bring sides together — that can build with people, not just immediately tear them down.”

Alexandria Hentschel is a sophomore International Studies and Spanish double major and the Off-Campus news editor for Cedars. She enjoys old books, strong coffee, and honest debate.

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