A First-Year’s Take on August 12 and a Review of CJR’s Race, Racism and the News Panel

When a “Unite the White” rally shook Charlottesville to its core on August 12, 2017, the already-scarred community fell subject to unbelievable acts of hatred. Throngs of tiki-torch wielding white supremacists banded together to protest the removal of Lee Park’s Robert E. Lee Statue. It immediately became clear that Charlottesville was under siege, and the situation was heating up quickly. The white supremacists were resorting to violence, injuring many and killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, one of the many who decided to stand up and fight for her city.

But we know this story -- we understand the nitty-gritty details of August 12. We have all heard a variation of the above summary ten times over, if not more. Nowadays, news absorption is inevitable, and this time it is our city circulating national headlines. Articles entitled, “Charlottesville: 'Unite the Right' Rally, State of Emergency,” “Charlottesville attack: What, where and who?” and “Have the White Supremacists Left Charlottesville” clutter the internet and defame the community. Everyone is conjecturing, questioning, and demanding answers to impossible questions concerning Charlottesville’s role in the bigger picture of America’s racial climate.

On August 12, I was out to lunch with a friend when my dad called to share the horrifying news. I was stunned, dismayed, confused. UVa was under attack, and I was not there to defend my future home. When I arrived on Grounds the following week, the brokenness was still palpable. Evidence of the incident was unavoidable -- fallen faces juxtaposed against encouraging signs on the doors of the Lawn rooms, old candle wax from countless vigils suspended in motion, forming drip-streaks down the base of the Thomas Jefferson statue on the steps of the Rotunda…

Suddenly, I was curious. I wanted to know how the city was recovering. On my first day of class, I caught wind of the Columbia Journalism Review’s Race, Racism and the News panel. A friend and I signed up immediately.

Monday, September 18, the day of the panel, was uncharacteristically brisk. The evening sun illuminated the stained glass in The Haven, casting a church-like glow on the hundred or so people gathered to face the sobering situation. All eagerly awaited the commencement of the panel, chatting over donuts and warm cider.

Each panelist approached the prompts and questions with a different perspective and professionally discussed the role of journalism in today’s racial climate. Five of the six panelists painted a vivid picture of their a personal connection to Charlottesville. The conversation was taken in three key directions:

False Impressions

All the panelists agreed to some extent that local news coverage of the siege was impressive and solid, which immediately caught my attention. I was never exposed to any local coverage of the events, and would never have considered local news as a frontline source. Jordy Yager, a freelance journalist, pointed out that though the local coverage was notable, national news did not attempt to “recognize” its feats. He went on to say it was rare to see local and national news working hand-in-hand, an unfortunate truth of the industry.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship, added to the conversation about national news coverage, stating that Charlottesville was “frozen in the trick of follow-up reporting,” and then left in trauma and disorder. The crowd emitted a universal sigh, I looked up to see people nodding along in agreement.

This moment was enlightening -- the hordes of media mongers and hate groups were long gone, leaving Charlottesville to mop up the mess of tension, remorse and misconception. National news covered the story, then dropped the city, lending the nation a false impression of closure. Yager explained how dangerous this ignorance could be. He claimed that the “conversation [did] not remain on important topics,” like “education, wealth and race.” The media broadcasted the breaking news, not the repercussions or origins of the tensions. There are many deeper issues rooted in slavery and race that must be exposed and contextualized to avoid future conflict.

Blinding Beauty

Before August 12, Charlottesville was better recognized as a small-town destination -- Travelocity deemed Charlottesville One of America's Best Small Cities for Foodies in 2016, the New York Post gave Charlottesville a spot in its 2016 Fifteen Best Places to Live in the U.S. list, and Health Line awarded Charlottesville the honor of Healthiest Small Town in America. Clearly, Charlottesville has a lot to be proud of.

After looking at these recognitions, it seems natural that people were shocked when they heard the news. Jenna Wortham, staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and UVa graduate, elaborated on this exact point. She took note of the confusion shared by many upon hearing the news on August 12. She then reflected on some of her own experiences with racial tension on Grounds. Wortham referenced previous run-ins with blackface, as well as a racially charged assault on Grounds before simply stating that August 12 did not come as a surprise.

Jamelle Bouie, Slate’s chief political correspondent, nodded along with Wortham, articulating that “the beauty of a city can become an illusion.” As a fellow UVa graduate, she understands Wortham’s concern. Grounds has a dark history -- The Academical Village was built by slaves. One of the reasons Old Cabell Hall was built just across the Lawn from the Rotunda was to obscure a black neighborhood from view. Unmarked slave graves were discovered on the South Lawn. This history should be discussed as general knowledge, because, as Wortham points out, as soon as the media pretends to be surprised by such an event occurring in a place like Charlottesville, “[we] lose context.”

The American people should be exposed to the good and the bad of the Charlottesvilles of America. Without including context, the topic of race becomes uncomfortable, and people do not link previous examples of racial tension to the present. There must be an open dialogue about America’s rocky racial history if we ever hope to see growth.

Language Permitting Racism

Towards the end of the conversation, the spotlight turned to the taboo term, “white supremacy.” The panelists were bothered that even the best coverage of the Charlottesville event treated white supremacism as something alien or out-of-the-blue. Vaidhyanathan agreed with this point, adding that there was an obvious “spike in the use of the word white supremacy” after the incident. Before it became an arsenal phrase for journalists and reporters, there was a lack of recognition and ownership surrounding the meaning of the term.

To many Americans, white supremacism seems to be unrelatable, or something out of a history book with Hitler’s face on it. But this is not the case. The panelists agree we need to define white supremacism as a nation, and call it out when it rears its ugly head. Bouie supports this, drawing attention to the fact that “journalists are having a rough time clearly labeling things for what they are.”

The panelists also acknowledged the opposite side of the debate. Overuse of the term “white supremacism” could provide a scapegoat for those who make racist comments or exhibit prejudice in their daily lives. Everyday racists can fall back on the following justification -- “I am not a white supremacist because I do not stand for what those people who marched on the Lawn stood for.” Just because one is not actively aware of their racism does not mean their behavior should be ignored or praised. Oftentimes, instead of focusing on the actions of white supremacists or everyday racists, we regress to a conversation defining terms that should not need defining. Yager summarizes this sentiment, stating that the “events of August 12 allow focus to be taken away from smaller, more personal details, as people position themselves as better than hateful white people,” which allows them to brush off their own biases as less offensive.

Americans today are obligated to promote an open racial narrative in which discomfort does not lead to increasing tensions, but instead to understanding between different parties. The nation needs to comprehend and own the fact that white supremacism is alive and it has attacked, and journalists have a duty to report that reality.

This panel truly was a step in the right direction. The people of Charlottesville are working to ensure the pain that lingers will not be swept under the rug as it has been in the past, but will be analyzed and acknowledged. Charlottesville is not alone. There are many cities with similar origins in slavery and systematic oppression. Our nation and its journalists should heed Charlottesville’s warning. Stop ignoring history, start reporting on the deeper tensions that threaten to uproot our nation, and take initiative to show that the presence of white supremacism in America is no longer an opinion, but a fact.

Panelists:

  • Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent for Slate

  • Kelley Libby, creator and producer, UnMonumental

  • Collier Meyerson, fellow at the Nation Institute

  • Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at UVA

  • Jenna Wortham, staff writer at the New York Times Magazine

  • Jordy Yager, freelance journalist and winner of Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2017 award for race reporting