More than 20 city leaders participated on a conference call last week to share their experiences and to express their commitment to stand against hate and bigotry. These local elected officials were joined by national experts, who provided helpful insights and resources.
We Stand with Charlottesville
Councilmember Kristin Szakos from the city of Charlottesville described the “raw emotions” the city is still experiencing but also reinforced the commitment in the city to continue its dialogue and actions to advance racial equity. From Charlotte (Councilmember LaWana Mayfield) to Wichita (Councilmember LaVonta Williams), the city leaders affirmed their commitment to stand with Charlottesville.
Councilmember Szakos: “Before our city was besieged by hordes of hateful men, we were already engaging in difficult dialogues and trying to figure out how to fix the problems of racial equity, LGBTQ rights, etc. This is an imperfect and difficult process, but in spite of what just transpired, it is process we are determined to press through and create positive change for all of our citizens. We will not let hate deter us.”
Cities Need to be Ready
City leaders recognized that this could have happened in any city. And there was an acknowledgement that this may just be the beginning. Cities need to be ready. Being ready includes the need to examine the public safety measures that cities put in place to prevent violent confrontation.
Councilmember James McDonald (Village of Pinecrest, FL): “We need to focus on public safety… given that we know that this type of demonstration is going to happen again, we need to deny the white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis the opportunity to engage in violence, because these folks are looking for trouble…they are modeling their behavior from German Nazis.”
Engage in Meaningful Dialogue
City leaders also discussed the importance of engaging with their community to have meaningful and sustained dialogue on race in their cities.
Councilmember Deverick Williams (Gadsden, AL): “One of the efforts we have made is to craft a message on the historical oversight of southern states to reach out to communities of color and understand the significance and symbolism the confederate monuments represent to these communities. There does not seem to be a middle ground on engaging the pro-confederate heritage community and the African American community who many find these monuments disgraceful and disrespectful.”
Councilmember Lavonta Williams (Wichita, KS): “We started a dialogue that presents a unified message on how to fight against bigotry and hate. Our communities are waiting for us as leaders to take action and engage in meaningful dialogue. We’re looking to provide a unified message with which our constituents can engage.”
Don’t Let Monuments Be a Distraction from the REAL Issues
Both the city leaders and the national experts raised concerns that the narrative about bringing down certain monuments could be a distraction of words focused solely on confederate statues and not a conversation about dismantling a culture of white supremacy and its accompanying iterations of individual, institutional, and structural racism.
Tim Wise (Antiracism Educator, Author and a member of the REAL Board of Advisors): “What happened in Charlottesville was not about southern heritage, history, culture, or the memory of great grandfathers who fought in the civil war. We must be cautious of the danger in becoming distracted by efforts to make this about memorials and statues and that is what the fascists want people to believe that this is about statues. If we discuss what just happened or make our efforts about the confederate memorials, we’re going to miss the opportunity to discuss the fact that this movement is about the rise of white nationalism, whose intensions are to scrub this country of its racial and ethnic minority and others that do not look like them by violent means. We must make this movement irrefutably stigmatized as a neo-Nazi, white supremacist movement in order to get buy-in from those reluctant to distance themselves from confederate culture. We must separate the neo-Nazis, fascists, and their sympathizers from anything decent. We must draw the dividing line.”
Julie Nelson (Director of the Government Alliance for Race and Equity and a member of the REAL Board of Advisors): “In order to steer this country towards a true inclusive and just democracy, we must clearly recognize the abhorrence of white supremacy and the essential task of proactively advancing racial equity. Our multi-racial movement must include white people who are not only opposed to the Klan, but who are also working to dismantle institutional and structural racism. While removing confederate statues may be an important part of acknowledging and apologizing for our history, our continued actions are the truest reflection of our commitment to heal and make whole.”
Step Up, Show Up, Speak Up
This is a critical moment. What city leaders commit to stand for is vital to maximizing this moment in our country’s history.
Angela Glover Blackwell (CEO of PolicyLink and member of the REAL Board of Advisors): “City leaders must ask themselves how they will step into the inflection points…city leaders will be surprised by how many will stand with them when they stand boldly at the front of this issue in this time where we need leadership. We need to help white people understand that they must step up to fight white supremacy, by showing up for justice, speaking up against injustices, voting for justice, and engaging at levels that are appropriate for them. Striking the right tone is the heart of the narrative… We will lose some folks, but we are cutting a path in which we lead, and the majority of our membership wants to be led in the moral, just and equitable direction.”
Frank Farrow (President of the Center for the Study of Social Policy and member of the REAL Board of Advisors) challenged city leaders and national organizations to recognize the awareness that needs to happen within each of our institutions first. “The more our national organizations can combine our voices with a common theme to create an echo chamber, the better people can hear this information in the way that resonates with them.”
The National League of Cities, through its Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) initiative accepts that challenge. NLC aims to support our local leaders to provide them tools and resources to keep city leaders focused on what is important and pressing now more than ever. We will not allow ourselves to be distracted. It is imperative we present a unified front through a common statement, common thread, and future opportunities to host joint events or leadership trainings.
Step up. Show up. Speak up.
About the Author: Leon T. Andrews, Jr., is the Director of the Race, Equity And Leadership (REAL) initiative at the National League of Cities.
Bernadette Onyenaka is a program manager for the Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL) initiative at the National League of Cities.