Black Voices on Turmoil in Charlottesville: ‘The World We Live In’

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“I’m not surprised,” said Harold Harris, 41, a barber in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood in Atlanta. “This is the world we live in; this is the country that we live in. We have a lot of racism embedded in our country, in our history.”

Sitting in a barber’s chair, London Balbosa, 22, a college student, said he did not feel he faced as much racism growing up as previous generations of African-Americans. But he said he has recently noticed a rise in acts of racism, and saw fear among whites that blacks were coming into their own and into power in America.

“Instead of waiting until something happens to want to talk about the issue, I think we should be focusing on publicizing ways to speak out,” Mr. Balbosa said.

Just around the corner at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, Erika Williams had just finished touring the center honoring the civil rights leader. She said the week’s events made her feel as if the nation were suddenly reliving the 1950s and 1960s.

She recalled her grandmother, who was born in Mississippi in 1912 and left as a teenager for a Chicago promising more opportunities than what she was afforded in the Jim Crow-era South.

“To think that I am reliving some of the rhetoric that my grandmother heard,” Ms. Williams said. “If my grandmother was here today, she would be in disbelief that we are having the same conversations.”

In South Florida, Adym Christopher said he was most surprised by the boldness, not the message, of the protesters.

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“You had these white nationalists that were emboldened, walking the streets unmasked and with torches. They looked proud to be there,” Mr. Christopher said. “What it told me about America is that we have work to do.”

Like many African-Americans interviewed, Brenda Summerville, a Chicagoan, said she was troubled by Mr. Trump’s statements. She had long considered him to be a racist, beliefs rooted in his long-ago questions about President Barack Obama’s origins and birth records. “I honestly believe that he just does not care about people of color,” she said. “So I do not find this surprising or strange — he just said what I already thought he thought.”

Ms. Summerville, 47, said she was concerned about what may be ahead for the nation. She said she has been contemplating the possibility of more clashes and more retaliation.

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“I am worried about the state of the country,” she said. “I think that here in the U.S. we really need to have an honest, open conversation about race because black people see it one way and white people see it another way, and we’re not on the same page.”

Jay Martin said he voted for Mr. Trump, in part because he was tired of all the Democratic leaders who, he said, came into office and made little difference. He said he admired the president’s independence and demands for change on issues including the violence and gang problems in Chicago.

Mr. Martin, 65, who is retired and living in a Chicago suburb, said he understood Mr. Trump’s points about how some protesters of white supremacists also appeared violent. He also wondered about the motivation behind tearing down historical statues and where it might end.

Mr. Martin, who considers himself an independent, voted for Mr. Obama and acknowledged that he has argued with black friends and family members over his support for Mr. Trump. Mr. Martin said he believed the president is not a racist, and that he is doing a good job so far. “He promised to do things his way, not the way they’ve always been done,” he said.

Ultimately, Mr. Martin said, he believes the events that have played out will force the nation to solve its lingering issues around race.

“The place was divided even when Obama was in — we just didn’t talk about it,” he said. “You can look at it as being a good thing. We’re going to have to all come together. We all are living here. We need to talk about race, and this is bringing it out.”

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Don Benson, 45, a black Republican and small-business owner who lives in suburban Chicago, said he did not support Mr. Trump “at all,” but did not take issue with the president’s assertion that both sides shared blame for Charlottesville.

“Without both sides, it probably would have never happened,” Mr. Benson said, adding he expects more racially charged protests in the weeks ahead.

“As the world changes, it’s going to come out,” Mr. Benson said. “People are scared of what they don’t understand.”

In Philadelphia, the local newspapers carried stories of a Philadelphia firefighter who posted an image of himself, wearing a Confederate hat and carrying a torch, and tagged an African American co-worker. The firefighter has since apologized for the posting, which carried the caption, “Headed to Virginia.”

The episode was on Natalie Solomon’s mind on Wednesday as she went shopping. She said Mr. Trump has given license to such hateful displays.

“Before it was under cover, they didn’t really exploit it the way they are doing now,” said Ms. Solomon, 60. “It’s like he’s allowing them to show all their prejudice now. We all live here and we should be able to live without fear.”

And a few blocks from the White House in Washington, Todd Anderson, 49, a real estate manager who was waiting in line for lunch at a food truck in Farragut Square, said Mr. Trump had “absolutely mishandled” the Charlottesville episode by failing to unite the country.

“The office dictates that you act before your own principles, your own beliefs, and you act on behalf of the nation,” Mr. Anderson said, “and I don’t think Trump did that at all.”


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