Charlottesville one year on: Cauldron of racism is still seething

On the first anniversary of the deadly ‘Unite the Right’ rally, Trump continues to fan the flames of American racism.

Charlottesville anniversary op-ed photo Reuters
White nationalists are met by a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, US, August 12, 2017 [Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

One year has passed since the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which Nazis, neo-Confederates, Ku Klux Klansmen and others engaged in acts of violence, resulting in a man ramming his car into a crowd of antiracist protesters, killing one woman. The gathering of white supremacists, however shocking, was a reminder of the ubiquity and normalisation of racism in the US. The proliferation of right-wing domestic terrorists, acts of racial violence and the promulgation of government policies intended to harm racial, ethnic and religious minorities are evidence that the US has failed to come to terms with its original sin of slavery and genocide.

The tiki-torch-wielding white nationalists in Charlottesville were unabashed in their extremist hate, as they chanted such curious and offensive slogans as “You Will Not Replace Us”, “Jews Will Not Replace Us”, “Blood and Soil” and “Russia is Our Friend”. President Donald Trump, who refused to condemn the hate groups and their violence, made false equivalencies between the Nazi demonstrators and the antifascist counter-demonstrators. He defended the white supremacists – who happen to be the greatest domestic terror threat in the country – and claimed, “You had some very fine people on both sides”. Since the election of a man who incited racial violence in his campaign rallies, Islamophobic, anti-Latinx and other hate crimes have increased.

Trump, who has pandered to white supremacists, enjoyed their support in the 2016 election and received Nazi salutes upon his victory, and has kept their donations for the 2020 race, has constructed a government for the benefit of white Americans. The red baseball caps inscribed with the Trumpian motto “Make America Great Again” are akin to “this generation’s Ku Klux Klan hood”, as rapper Pusha-T has suggested. “When was America so great anyways? Name that time period?” he said.

After Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, the US experienced a white racial backlash against the browning of the nation, a revanchist yearning for the pre-1960s glory days when white men reigned supreme and black people knew their place and had no rights – paving the way for Trump. And the barnstorming reality-show swindler has weaponised his inflammatory rhetoric and offensive tweets, using his executive power over the government to codify white supremacist sentiments into law.

In a nation of “white fragility”, white people who are thin-skinned and insulated from discomfort on racial issues shudder when confronted with their racism. The US has always been a nation in which racism and white-skin privilege are normalised. However, in recent years white racists have been empowered, made to feel comfortable with open displays of racial hostility and toxic behaviour. Meanwhile, a segment of the white US is aggrieved, believing they are “victims of genocide” through immigration, sanctuary cities, civil rights and programs of diversity and inclusion.

Trump dehumanised Latin American and black immigrants by characterising them as criminals, people from “sh***ole countries” who are sending “not their best people”. The separation of migrant children from their parents at the border and placement in internment camps is a prime example of the Trump administration’s foray into fascism and genocide. Some of these children may never be reunited with their families and will forever be traumatised, which apparently was the point of the measure.

Using the courts as a tool to promote a whites-only nation, Trump has sought nearly exclusively white conservative men for the judiciary. The nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court has led more than 100 organisations to write a letter to senators opposing his confirmation due to his hostility towards civil and human rights. Civil rights groups also rejected the US Department of Justice religious liberty taskforce, which critics condemn as white Christian nationalism and a civil liberties violation, with Islamophobia and anti-LGBTQ discrimination disguised as protections for people of faith.

The Republican Party, which benefited for five decades from a Southern Strategy of attracting southern white voters by scapegoating black people and government programmes, has become the party of white skin solidarity. Subtle appeals to racism have given way to a bullhorn of extremism. A record number of neo-Nazis and people with ties to white extremists groups are running for elected office as Republicans, and Republican legislators have introduced a bill to criminalise antifascist protest with a penalty of 15 years imprisonment.

Support for Trump among his core base of supporters remains high, even as he pursues economic and trade policies that will not benefit the white people he claims to champion. With a dwindling base of support and a minority party that nonetheless, for now, controls the levers of government, the Republicans place their faith in gaming the electoral system. Conservatives employ schemes of racial disenfranchisement such as voter identification requirements and voter purges that disproportionately impact millions of people of colour, and a citizenship question on the 2020 census designed to bungle the government survey, undercount immigrant populations in Democratic strongholds and reduce their representation in Congress.

Trump has spared no expense in tapping into the pestilence of American racism. He threw paper towels to the thousands who died of governmental neglect in hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico. He vilified black football players as unpatriotic for refusing to stand for the national anthem and preferring to take a knee in protest of racism and police violence, and pressured team owners to force players to stand like obedient slaves. NFL players Colin Kaepernick – who initiated the protests – and Eric Reid – one of the most visible kneeling athletes – remain unemployed and are suing the league for collusion. NBA star and philanthropist Lebron James, who said he “would never sit across from” Trump, laments that the president has used sports to divide people. This, as some white NFL owners and fans detest protesters more than the racial injustice they protest.

Charlottesville was a wakeup call for those whose heads were in the sand over the sad state of America. Although Trump himself did not make the US a racially violent place, he tossed coals under an already burning cauldron and fanned the flames, all for personal political gain and to please his base.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.