Making Sense of Charlottesville Through Local Leadership

A vigil in Philadelphia.
A vigil in Philadelphia.

In response to the tragic events in Charlottesville, the National League of Cities is celebrating #InclusionWeek to support diversity, inclusivity, and hope in America’s cities.

This weekend’s horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia were another devastating episode of explicit individual racism in America. Thousands of self-proclaimed white nationalists, neo-Nazis, KKK members, and their allies showed up in the “most charming city in America” to send a violent message that hate and bigotry still exist and in fact never really left.

For those who have been on the front lines fighting for social justice over the last half century, the existence of these white supremacist groups and the individuals who support them is no surprise. But Saturday’s events raise serious new concerns that these groups have become more emboldened — and are willing to be more public and confrontational. That willingness led to the tragic death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, one of a great number of commendable activists who came out to demonstrate opposition to hate and bigotry.

The horrifying images of violence emanating from Charlottesville have raised countless questions — including some around the First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly. But the biggest challenge that confronts us is that of moral leadership. In our current political environment, the example set by our elected officials is as critical as it has ever been.

What is the moral leadership we expect from our local officials? We need leaders who speak out on the false equivalence between those who are opposed to hate and those who ferment hate. We need local elected officials who speak out for those whose conception of American democracy is vibrant and inclusive versus those who imagine it to be narrowed and pinched.

The ideology of white supremacist undercuts American democracy for all of us, but so do its enablers. Those who would, for example, equivocate between Black Lives Matter and white supremacist groups seek to conflate anti-racist frameworks with anti-whiteness only to embolden the latter — and that is why the leadership of local elected officials is so vital.

I applaud the leadership that Charlottesville Mayor Michael Signer demonstrated during these difficult times, and the 600+ cities across this country that spoke in one voice this weekend in showing their solidarity with Charlottesville.

Charlottesville is a city that has placed value on diversity and acceptance. The city’s Office of International Rescue Committee, which takes refugees from all around the world (many of whom are Muslims), its Office of Human Rights, and the Charlottesville Dialogue on Race are examples of how the city has demonstrated its commitment.

As Mayor Signer said, “The dialogue on race started about a year and a half ago to tell the full story of race…telling the truth. What that did was put us on the map with a lot of the forces, all of whom converged this weekend in our city who are trying to destroy that progress and truth telling about our history. If they think that they are going to stop that sort of progress, they picked the wrong city. If anything, we are not just going to pick ourselves up but are going to redouble our progress knowing that diversity and tolerance is equivalent to prosperity.”

The National League of Cities has called on cities to issue a statement or formal resolution affirming their commitment to values of equity, fairness, inclusion and justice. NLC’s Racial Equity and Leadership team partnered with the Center for Social Inclusion and the Government Alliance for Race and Equity to develop sample language that city leaders can use in these statements:

“We believe in and stand for values of inclusion, equity and justice. We condemn Islamophobia, racism, sexism and xenophobia in rhetoric or action.

We welcome all people and recognize the rights of individuals to live their lives with dignity, free of discrimination based on their faith, race, national origin or immigration status.

We will continue our work in making our services and programs accessible and open to all individuals.

We believe in the public sector for the public good. Advancing equity and inclusion is critical to the success of our communities and our nation.”

Stating your community’s shared values is only the start. These values must be reflected across the city’s institutions and requires a commitment to looking beyond the individual acts of racism and bigotry.

Here are some concrete commitments local leaders can take:

  • Talk about racial equity and ask colleagues and other stakeholders about the racialized effects on all city issues
  • Seek out services and support to advance racial equity
  • Ask questions about racialized impacts across their community
  • Make time and space to listen to the lived experiences of people and communities of color in their city
  • Lead and participate in difficult conversations on racism
  • Question openly the status quo
  • Address openly past mistakes and missteps that have promoted injustices
  • Identify opportunities for improvement in their own systems
  • Ensure staff are clearly knowledgeable and taking action on equity
  • Identify where data needs to be collected and disaggregated to see inequities in their procedures and practices

Throughout this weekend, the leadership of Mayor Signer and his colleagues spoke to how cities should start the healing process, by looking beyond the individual acts of racism and commit to the institutional and systemic change needed to heal our cities. That process starts with leaders speaking clearly about their values — defending the diversity, inclusivity, and tolerance that has made America what it is.

Director, Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL)
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