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A Community-Based Response to Charlottesville

The following piece was originally featured by The Hill on 8/16/17 under the title “Trump’s actions are more telling than his words on Charlottesville.” Heath Brown is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy at John Jay and an opinion contributor to The Hill.

 

There’s been a lot of attention paid to what President Trump has or has not said about the white nationalist march in Charlottesville, VA. Commentators are right to point to the weak statements from the President and White House as it demonstrates an unwillingness to use one of the most important powers of the presidency to confront organized racism, anti-semitism, and violent bigotry.

But a president’s powers don’t end at moral suasion and rhetoric. The President oversees a massive federal bureaucracy that has historically confronted civil rights violations and violent extremism. Just six months into his administration, the President has also failed to use this power to address the rise of the anti-African American, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant crime.

For example, in his initial budget for the Department of Homeland Security, the President cancelled grants to several community organizations focused on fighting hate, preferring to focus on the threat posed by ISIS. This is unfortunate because grants to groups like, Life after Hate, can leverage the numerous ways local organizations address intractable social problems, and for very little money.

This missed opportunity also signals a way forward on difficult racial and ethnic issues facing the country. Community groups already provide so many services to those in need, from education to job training to healthcare. These groups can also provide a voice for those victims of hatred and represent community concerns with public officials.

This is especially important during election time when we decide who will make important decisions about government spending. I’ve found that for organizations serving immigrants, less than half have participated during recent elections. That means too few organizations are helping to register new voters, inform residents about important campaign issues, or mobilize communities on Election Day.

This is another missed opportunity to confront white nationalism and hatred, especially when we consider how effective community-based organizations can be in responding to a rise in racial violence like we’ve seen since last fall. During the 2012 election, organizations such as the Sikh Coalition quickly responded to the murder of Sikh worshippers in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. These groups successfully urged the Department of Justice to classify the murder as a hate crime and commit federal resources to the case.

Elsewhere in the country, even though there is a small percentage of immigrant organizations participating in elections, for those that do, they make a major difference. Since it began registering voters in 2004, the MinKwon Center for Community Action has registered 70,000 new voters in New York City. Similar organizations door-knock and phone-bank in numerous languages to make certain every eligible voter knows where and when to vote.

Various forms of racism are embedded in American society and institutions. A thorough response must be just as comprehensive, reliant on the work of office holders, officials in government, and community groups working together with the citizenry. For community groups to play this role they must be supported, not just from federal grants, but also through state and local sources, philanthropy, and neighborhoods that encourage this type of participation.


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