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New York Times columnist discusses division in America during forum held at U.Va.

Topics of discussion ranged from racial inequality to white supremacy

<p>New York Times opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof gave a talk about division in America Monday night in Nau Hall.</p>

New York Times opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof gave a talk about division in America Monday night in Nau Hall.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof delivered a talk at Nau Hall Monday to a crowded lecture hall, where he discussed the events of Aug. 11 and 12 in relation to the topic of division and inequality in the United States. 

The event — titled “Sanctuary and Belonging: Reflections after August 11 & 12” — was hosted by the Miller Center, the Center for German Studies and the Religious Studies Department and moderated by Douglas Blackmon, director of public programs at the Miller Center and the executive producer of American Forum.

Before Kristof began his discussion, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer addressed the attendees on the ability of Charlottesville to move forward in the aftermath of the events of Aug. 11 and 12 and defeat white supremacy. 

“I would say that one of the living histories that's happening right now is of the movement in response to these horrors, the country rising up,” Signer said. “Through our own values, we are going to defeat these threats against us.”

“We have the love, the compassion, the energy for social justice, a fierce dedication to equality of opportunity,” Signer added. 

During the talk, Kristof discussed his view of the nature of division and inequality in the United States, how white supremacy has developed and potential solutions to addressing those issues. 

Kristof attributed much of the recent racial division in the country to a decreasing availability of economic opportunity and prosperity for white Americans. 

“There are a lot of folks, particularly whites, who don't have any confidence that they are doing better than their parents or that their kids will do any better and are feeling, as a result much, much less inclusive,” Kristof said. “That’s one factor in some of the animosity and scapegoating that we see across a whole range of groups, this tendency to otherize people based on race or religion or immigration status.”

Kristof also offered his thoughts on what the core of the matter is regarding divisions in America.

“I think that at the broadest level, if we want to build a more inclusive country, if we want to other-ize less, then we have to address some of these issues of inequality in the country,” Kristof added. 

In relation to the white nationalists demonstrations of Aug. 11 and 12, Kristof said such events tend to distract from underlying racial inequality and division in American society. 

“If you look at evidence, it is abundantly clear that in employment and so many other areas, discrimination remains and it's a fundamental problem that we have,” Kristof said. “I think there is a misperception about the nature [of discrimination] and I think maybe what happened in Charlottesville also effectuates that.”

Kristof further stated that traditional racism in the form of vocal white supremacy is not the the most pressing form of discrimination in the U.S. but that of “unconscious bias.” 

“The big problem we have in 2017, in terms of discrimination, is not with traditional racists who believe in discrimination, traditional white supremacists who consciously believe that whites are superior,” Kristof said. “I think the much bigger problem is of well-meaning people who consciously believe in equality and yet, because of unconscious bias they are completely unaware of, act in ways that perpetuate that inequality.”

On dealing with issues of division and inequality in the U.S., Kristof said that small actions are able to enact larger changes over time. 

“[We have] the sense that these problems are just so vast that anything we do is going to be a drop in the bucket,” Kristof said. “So in a sense, what we do does end up being a drop in the bucket, but I’ve become a great believer in drops in the bucket as a way of building change.”

Kristof also said that journalists should be focusing on stories that humanize people instead of numbing them with big numbers. 

“These problems are complicated and huge and in that sense, what we do may indeed be drops in the bucket but that is how we can fill buckets, humanize these problems and make a difference on a scale that is transformative for many,” Kristof added. 

On the issue of removing Confederate monuments in the U.S., Kristof said he supported their removal but felt that there are better ways to tangibly address racial inequality. 

Statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson have been a source of controversy in Charlottesville. City Council originally voted to remove the Lee statue in February and that of Jackson in September. Opposition against the the decision to remove the Lee statue was one of the stated aims of the “Unite the Right” rally Aug. 12. The city has been unable to remove the statues due to pending litigation. 

“I find so many of these historical markers and monuments not only an embarrassment of the past, but also it bothers me that they were put there to send a message about inequality [and] think that is is important to take them down,” Kristof said. “There are so many issues that need to be addressed, one has to figure out what the priorities are … I wish we could have more of these conversations about issues of substance to actually make some progress.”

During a question and answer session held after Kristof’s remarks, attendees questioned Kristof about the right of white supremacists to express free speech and his stance on Confederate monuments. 

“I was interested to see if you thought white supremacy might just be too extreme, and is it protected by the First Amendment or should it be?” an attendee asked Kristof. 

“I think that it should be,” Kristof said. “I think that this is an area where the evidence is so clear that debates with white supremacists are ones that they are going to lose so dramatically based on the evidence. It may be that people like Richard Spencer force whites to have some difficult conversations about race and racism and racial bias.”

Another attendee, who identified as a University student, questioned Kristof’s view on the removal of Confederate monuments in the U.S. 

“I was surprised at how you addressed monuments and how you said there is a need to focus on issues of national substance as opposed to lesser, symbolic issues of monuments,” the speaker said. “I think that, especially in this community, it just felt like a very real, tangible issue. How do we tackle national substance … without discounting local issues of substance?”

In his answer Kristof recognized the ways monuments could affect people who have to walk by them every day.

“I don't mean to come across as dismissive of these issues,” Kristof said. “I take your point that, especially in these communities where they [monuments] have become salient, that there’s a big weight on people daily in ways that perpetuate these actions [of racism].”