Reporters, pundits, lawyers discuss race in the time of Trump

Harvard’s Hutchins Center hosts lively post-Charlottesville conversation at the Old Whaling Church.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., left, introduces panelists, from left, Leah Wright, Asma Khalid, Charles Blow, Alan Dershowitz, April Ryan, Armstrong Williams, Lawrence Bobo, and moderator Charlayne Hunter-Gault. — Stacey Rupolo

“My head is spinning,” said Charlayne Hunter-Gault, host of the 2017 Hutchins Forum “Race and Racism in the Age of Trump,” to a packed audience at Old Whaling Church in Edgartown on Thursday. “And it has been for so many days, I can’t even count them all.”

Ms. Hunter-Gault moderated the insightful and, at times, passionate discussion between New York Times columnist Charles Blow, WBUR reporter Asma Khalid, Harvard Kennedy School professor Leah Wright Rigueur, White House correspondent April Ryan, political commentator Armstrong Williams, and lawyer Alan Dershowitz. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. hosted the evening and closing remarks were made by Lawrence D. Bobo.

The conversation ranged from the constitutional limits of the First Amendment in censoring bigotry to a debate about removing Confederate statues from public spaces. The panelists expressed collective sadness, anger, and shame over Charlottesville, a topic which dominated most of the discussion, and generally agreed that Republican party leadership should censure President Donald Trump, especially in the wake of his reaction to recent violence from white supremacists.

The community reacts to Charlottesville

As the discussion got under way, Mr. Williams, a Republican and Trump supporter, was called on to react to the president’s comments on Charlottesville. “When you know the history of the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacy, it’s just common sense that any American would come together and condemn that in the harshest of terms,” he said. “I speak as a human being, not a conservative, not as a liberal. It was embarrassing. It was not leadership…The president needs to grow up and lead.”

“He is not a moral leader in any sense of the word,” Ms. Ryan agreed.

Mr. Dershowitz was critical of President Trump’s response, saying it served to incite and pander to his base. “This was not the time for the president of the United States to be talking about the left.” he said. “This was the time for him to be talking about the Neo-Nazis and the Klan. Why? Because they purport to speak in his name. When bigots speak in your name, you have a special obligation to condemn them.”

The violence in Charlottesville, which resulted in the death of one woman, was precipitated by a larger movement across the South to remove Confederate Civil War memorials. Many of these statues were erected during the reconstruction of the South, as slaves gained freedom, or during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, as legislative reforms such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. For some panelists, the argument that these statues are important pieces of history is a tenuous one, as they celebrate men who wanted to enslave their ancestors.

The panel was nearly harmonious in how to address the issue of Confederate statues — that they must come down. But what to do with them once they’re removed? Some said that the statues force people to come to terms with our nation’s sordid history, while others said they give bigots permission to espouse hateful views. Others were in favor of moving them to museums, where they could be viewed in context with informational plaques, rather than being put on a pedestal, literally, in spaces like public parks.

“Until recently, I was a little ambivalent about the tearing down of statues, but as soon as the president introduced the term ‘culture,’ I became a strong supporter of getting rid of statues,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “I was ambivalent because I don’t like rewriting history. I went to Berlin and I saw that some of the Nazi symbols are maintained with statements underneath them from the horrors of Nazism and can serve a useful purpose. It seems to me that now the purpose is very clear. You take the statues down from places where the Confederacy is being glorified, and you move them to historical museums where they can be seen in context.”

Facing the larger issue of everyday racism

Although the panelists concurred that President Trump’s statement about Charlottesville were indefensible, Ms. Kahlid noted that they are merely a symptom of a larger issue. Mr. Blow, along with other panelists, called out Republican party leadership for failing to censure Trump for harboring bigotry.

When asked to address the president’s statement that “both sides are at fault,” Ms. Ryan sighed. “It was code,” she said, “[like] ‘Make America Great Again’. When was America great? Give me the timeline so we can understand. He kept saying these code words.”

“To any of us reporters who covered the campaign and spoke with voters, it is very clear what he meant,” Ms. Khalid said. She drew on her experience covering the 2016 election to point out that racism was alive and well in this country before Mr. Trump was elected. “He tapped into a pre-existing condition. Did he exacerbate it? I think you could make that argument. But did he create it? No. By putting the burden fully on the president it becomes an easy way to excuse some of the larger societal problems.”

Ms. Kahlid recounted her experience covering the campaign, including several uncomfortable incidents with Trump supporters. “I showed up at a pumpkin patch and I remember people physically recoiling when I was asking them questions,” she said. While shadowing the Hillary Clinton campaign doing door-to-door interviews, a woman shouted at Ms. Kahlid to get off her porch, upset that there was a Muslim on her property.

But this was not Ms. Kahlid’s first experience with racist language. She remembered when the Ku Klux Klan came to her hometown when she was eight. “Very uncomfortable racist language was used with me and that pre-dates Trump,” she said. “The best way I could tell how a county would vote…was how people would respond to me.”

Mr. Blow referenced pre-election polls that indicated connections between a white identity and support for Mr. Trump. “There was one poll by YouGov during the primaries and 20 percent of the people who voted for Trump said they opposed the Emancipation Proclamation; that is the ending of slavery,” Mr. Blow said.

Ms. Ryan, who also reported on the Trump campaign and administration, noted that while many balked at Mr. Trump’s campaign rhetoric as disingenuous, it tipped her off to his true moral temperament.

“I am of the opinion that he was very clear from the start about who he was” said Ms. Wright Rigueur. “He launched his campaign saying Mexico was sending its worst. He should have been disqualified on that very basis, yet here we are. This is the same man who cut his teeth on birtherism. This is not something Trump has been shy about.”

Mr. Blow questioned the Republican party reaction to President Trump’s comments, suggesting they were too little, too late. As a candidate he lambasted Mexicans, people of color, Muslims, women, and the disabled. “Why was this not sufficient enough to be a problem for them?” Mr. Blow said. “You can’t accommodate bigotry and then say you’re not a part of bigotry.”

Again addressing Republican party leadership, Mr. Blow said, “You’ve been accommodating white supremacists and racists for decades, and you just want them to be quiet and go vote, you don’t want them to say anything. You don’t want them to commit vehicular homicide, but anything short of that, you’re fine with.”

As the conversation wound to a close, audience members lined up to ask questions. The first question out of the gate was, what do we do now?

Answers ranged from the political, such as pressuring Republicans to condemn President Trump’s message, to the personal, organize and act within your local community.

“This is a moment for moral integrity, where people should be thinking about where they stand, what they represent, what they want our country to represent,” said Ms. Wright Rigueur.