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Rocked By Rally, Charlottesville Mayor Wants Conversations About Race


The mayor of Charlottesville, Va., Nikuyah Walker, has no problem talking openly about racial disparities in her city, even if that makes some people uncomfortable.

NIKUYAH WALKER: If they show me some other facts, I will stop having these kind of conversations. But until I see those, we are going to have these conversations because it's impacting families that can't take care of themselves and advocate for themselves because they have been beat down generationally since the creation of this city.

KING: Walker has lived in Charlottesville her whole life. She's the first African-American woman to hold the office of mayor. She was elected just a few months after last year's Unite the Right rally. That event was organized by white nationalists to protest the removal of statues of Confederate generals. It turned violent, and one person was killed.

All this week, we're taking a look back at what happened in Charlottesville a year ago, how the town and the country were affected and where we stand now as a second rally is planned for this weekend in Washington, D.C. Charlottesville Mayor Walker told me the Unite the Right rally helped expose what lies beneath her city's quaint, well-to-do, college-town exterior.

WALKER: Charlottesville's a tough place. You know, I tell people often that if you survive it, we have a lot of the same major issues that you hear about in inner cities, and if you survive it, you're doing really well.

KING: It's interesting because I don't think tough place are the words that many people who don't know the city or maybe who have visited as tourists would instantly think of when they think about Charlottesville, Va.

WALKER: No, not at all. You know, I was in a meeting, a retreat, a few years back, and one of the ladies had been here for maybe six or seven years. And she said it was about five years before she noticed that there was a major disparity. If you're not looking for it and if you are not working in fields where, as a parent, you know, social services, non-profit, school settings, criminal justice, you would miss it. And my opinion - it's been, you know, created that way. So you can live in a little bubble even though, you know, maybe one block separates income levels.

KING: For listeners who don't know the city, what does the racial disparity in Charlottesville look like on a day-to-day basis?

WALKER: We have disparities in every area - I mean, health, wealth, education, incarceration. So all the things that we're talking about at a national level, the debates about how, you know, to heal the disparities, someone could come in, study us and have a, you know, small-town American city to use as the basis for those reports.

KING: I want to ask you about the Unite the Right rally. Why do you think this group of people picked the city of Charlottesville to hold this rally?

WALKER: So one thing, you know, we have to make sure that we understand that the two organizers of the rally were two UVA alumni.

KING: Graduates of the University of Virginia.

WALKER: Yes. So that's No. 1. So this narrative that they were outsiders who descended upon us and wreaked havoc and left, that's a false narrative. And it's the narrative that people in positions of power, primarily people who are white and privileged, wanted to tell to get back to the business as usual, the return to their normal, because these were, you know, people from outside our 10.3 square miles.

KING: Tell me, how has Charlottesville's changed since the rally? Do you think more people have had their eyes opened?

WALKER: Definitely. You know, before - I announced my campaign March of 2017.

KING: Before the rally, it's worth noting.

WALKER: Yeah, way before (laughter). My campaign slogan was unmasking the illusion.

KING: Unmasking the illusion. What was the illusion?

WALKER: The illusion that we are a town that everybody can thrive in, the illusion of perfection - right? - when we have a lot of people in positions of power who are facilitating the illusion. So I immediately wanted people to ask, what's the illusion? And then I would go into the illusion is that everyone can thrive. So the unmasking illusion was to have this very open and direct conversation about what Charlottesville really is like.

KING: But then, in some ways, did this awful rally, as devastating to the city as it was and we should note that a young counter-protester lost her life, did this rally, in some ways, move the needle forward for you toward getting people to acknowledge?

WALKER: So before, people would ask me, what do you mean by the illusion? After the rally, they stopped asking me that question. This whole notion that we are a post-racial society and everybody can thrive in Charlottesville - they had to stop and ask themselves why Charlottesville? Why us? Why now? And, you know, people want to talk just about statues. But it's deeper than the statues.

You're talking about two white men who felt threatened enough to have people come to an area, assemble in an area to protest the symbolism, not just the statue. If you talk about when those statues came about, the history of white supremacy in this country and then you start taking down those symbols, dismantling those lies, what are you left with?

KING: What happened to the statues?

WALKER: They're still there.

KING: Why?

WALKER: Because we are a Dillon Rule state (laughter) which means that we have to go through the General Assembly. And there has to be, you know, a commitment from them for us to change certain laws that are in place. And removal of the statue is one of those that we are currently battling with. I think we have a judge who's on the, you know, wrong side of history.

Judge Moore, in this case, seems to be working very hard to make sure the statues remain. And for something like this to work, you would need a judge who can see a vision of where, you know, there could possibly be some truth to the fact that these memorials that were put up in the '20s, that it has more to do with race relation and dominance and white supremacy than war memorials - right? - which is the challenge that we're facing.

KING: You don't sound like you think those memorials are going anywhere.

WALKER: We have some time. We definitely have to work through it. If we had done something like New Orleans did and took them down at night and the debate would've been (laughter) put them back up or not and whether - I think we would've had a fighting chance. But the fact that they're still standing and we have our judicial system working, I feel, against us and Richmond, then we have a major battle in front of us.


KING: That was Charlottesville, Va.'s mayor, Nikuyah Walker. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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