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In August 2017, groups of free speech protesters took to the streets of Virginia to protest the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. These protesters were met with confrontation by groups of counter-protesters upset with the former groups’ use of Confederate and Nazi flags. It quickly became apparent that the so-called Unite the Right rally was not simply a way for Conservatives to congregate, but also a way for white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members to be heard. Shock and fear spread throughout the country as primarily white men took to the streets with tiki torches and chants such as “Jew will not replace us”. However, the people of color living in Charlottesville, Virginia stated that this event did not surprise them or make them afraid – only those who have not been paying attention, said one local business owner, would be afraid, for racism and white supremacy have been ever-present citizens of Virginia and the United States since the country’s inception (Reeves, 2017). While the media has been focused on President Trump’s lackluster and contradicting statements after the event, citizens have stepped out and spoken against the hatred and bigotry displayed in Virginia (Almasy, 2017; Manchester, 2017). The dominant narrative perpetrated by the media has focused on President Trump, concealing how ingrained racism is inside the culture of the United States. As well-known members of political parties continue to take to Twitter, protesters fighting for free speech and counter-protesters fighting for the end of racism and bigotry continue to take the streets.
The stock story, or dominant narrative, in the media coverage of the Unite the Right turned white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia the weekend of August 12, 2017 is focused on critiquing President Trump’s comments regarding the protests and counter-protests. The rally was advertised as a protest of the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. When protesters arrived at the University of Virginia campus, they arrived with torches, weapons such as sticks, and bigoted chants, including “you will not replace us”, “Jews will not replace us”, “blood and soil”, and “White lives matter” (Reeves, 2017). Via Twitter and in press conferences since the rally which cost counter-protester Heather Heyer her life, President Trump has made a variety of controversial comments (Almasy, 2017). Trump has stated that there is “blame on both sides” for the violence which occurred in Virginia and that not all protesters were Neo-Nazis or white supremacists, while referring to news outlets following the story as fake news. He has used slippery slope fallacies, or suggesting that a small first event will lead to more significant and more improbable events, questioning if the United States will soon take down statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they were slave owners (Walton, 1992; “Full Transcript and Video: Trump’s News Conference in New York”, 2017).
An assortment of public figures have spoken out against Trump’s ambiguous comments and delayed renouncement of racism and bigotry in the United States, including celebrities such as writer J.K. Rowling, who called Trump’s speech an “abomination”, actress Mandy Moore who questioned “How is this man our president?”, and documentarian Michael Moore who disagreed with Trump’s likening of George Washington to Robert E. Lee as seen in Vanity (Rubin, 2017). Prominent members of the Republican party are also speaking out against President Trump, attempting to create a distinction between the Republican party and the Trump Administration and Presidency. For example, House Speaker Paul Ryan stated that “there can be no moral ambiguity” when it comes to racism and Senator Jeff Flake agreed that “we must condemn… White supremacy and acts of domestic terrorism” (Green, 2017). Democratic party leaders concurred with the Republican party, telling the president that “there is a time to choose sides… There is a right side and an immoral one” (Clark 2017).
Shanto Iyengar (n.d.) breaks down the United States’ news cycle in their piece “Race in the News”. Before the 1920s, Americans received their news via newspapers. However, over the past century there has been a shift from print media to broadcast news sources. Major networks in the 1980s created “all news” cable networks such as CNN, Fox News Channel, CNBC, and MSNBC. Therefore, in modern America, the news runs continuously. Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, add to this never-ending stream of news (Iyengar, n.d.). Although there are many sources from which to receive information, one still runs the risk of internalizing bias in the news and becoming misinformed about the facts of a controversial event. White supremacy in media, such as the tendency for television shows and movies to show criminals as Black or immigrants and heroes as White, results in the general population being unable to see the privilege they carry with them in everyday life until a racist event as large as the white supremacist rally in Virginia takes place (McIntosh, 1992).
Despite the shock conveyed by the dominant narrative, people of color say that this newest showing of racism in the United States is not frightening, but familiar. Virginia residents of color say that they “always knew people were capable” of the violence witnessed at the Unite the Right rally due to being raised by parents who had participated in the civil-rights movement and fought again the Ku Klux Klan’s power in southern states. Charlottesville has a history of being the home to white supremacist leaders such as the Ku Klux Klan and those who wanted to fight against Supreme Court decisions such as Brown v Board. Public schools in the area were closed rather than integrated, and affluent Whites in the area created their own private schooling system in response to Brown v Board (Newkirk, 2017). “This is no surprise… This is Charlottesville”, another resident lamented when discussing the racism that is embedded in her hometown (Reeves, 2017). The history of racism has been concealed in the United States to Whites. However, people of color state that they have understood the realities of prejudice in this country for as long as it has existed. In 1962, James Baldwin wrote to his nephew, “you were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were Black and for no other reason”. People of color in the United States can draw inferences from times of slavery to modern day America to explain their misfortune and current oppression. From slavery, to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration and the school-to-prison-pipeline, communities of color have been and are being institutionally oppressed (Alexander, 2010). However, if the media continues to follow the missteps of President Trump instead of investigating the issues behind the recent white supremacist rally, the United States will be unable to take steps forward to restore communities which have been destroyed by institutional racism and white supremacy.
Despite the media’s focus on President Trump’s press conferences and tweets concerning the initial Unite the Right rally in Virginia, many citizens have decided to focus on directly combatting hate and bigotry in the United States. On August 19, 2017, a free speech rally was permitted to converge on the Boston Commons in Boston, Massachusetts (“Boston ‘free speech’ rally ends after counter-protesters take to streets – live updates”, 2017). The Boston Police Department was prepared, according to Police Commissioner William Evans, to keep both the free speech protesters and the counter-protesters who feared this rally mimicking the white nationalist rally in Virginia separated (Manchester, 2017). The 23-year-old organizer of the free speech event told CBS that his purpose was to end political correctness, bemoaning his inability to discuss religion or race without being criticized by politically left-leaning persons. The free speech rally was quickly overtaken by the nearly 30,000 counter-protesters who marched the streets of Boston while chanting “love your neighbor”, “resist fascism”, and “hate never made U.S. great”. Some individual counter-protesters taunted and attempted to attack Trump supporters at the rally, while other counter-protesters protected the free speech protesters right to assemble and defused any potentially violent situations. In total, 33 arrests were made (“Boston ‘free speech’ rally ends after counter-protesters take to streets – live updates”, 2017). Police Commissioner Evans commended protesters on both sides, saying that “99.9%” were there “for the right reasons… to fight bigotry and hate”. Arrests were made mostly for disorderly conduct, with a smaller percentage arrested for assault and battery of police officers. Evans called the event a success, as no one was hurt, no one was killed, and there was minimal property damage to the city of Boston (Manchester, 2017).
Both the free speech protesters and counter-protesters showed the dominant media that resistance is needed in more than words alone. The majority of both groups remained peaceful and respectful for the duration of the rally. Although the counter-protesters did not reveal the concealed story of the history of racism and bigotry in the United States, they were able to show that those against hate speech and ethnic cleansing are able to stand up for their beliefs without violence and that many Americans, at least those in the Massachusetts area, will not stand for hate and bigotry on their streets.
The dominant narrative has focused on President Trump’s lack of leadership during this trying time, criticizing his response to white nationalists and Heather Heyer’s death. However, in the shadows, people of color say that they have been fighting the fight against hatred, bigotry, and racism their whole lives. The amount of ignorance surrounding racism and racial issues in the United States is shocking. While researching the foundational beliefs of both protesters and counter-protesters, I was dismayed to find the amount of incorrect and false information circulating throughout both groups. Through this project I have also begun to further understand the bias of the media. Though people of color have been protesting police brutality, institutional racism, and economic disadvantage in organized ways through groups such as Black Lives Matter, it seemed that the general public did not care about these injustices until Neo-Nazis and white supremacists took to the streets, newly embolden by the Trump Administration and his campaign promise to “Make America Great Again” (Reeves, 2017).
The National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics states that the main mission of social workers is to “enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people… in the form of… community organizing… administration, advocacy, social and political action… [and] education” (“Code of Ethics”, n.d.). It is my personal vision for racial justice in the United States to have a better educated public. It is important that citizens have unbiased and complete information upon which to base their opinions. As a social worker who intends to work with children and families, I will begin educating people at a young age while helping families understand how racial injustice may add to their privilege or oppression, as well as what they can do to fight against white supremacy.
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