Charlottesville: Long US history of racial strife surfaces again

Donald Trump’s comments about the violence in Charlottesville has brought decades-old questions to the surface of American political discourse.

But the Establishment recoiling at the US President’s remarks is only one part of the story.

Identity politics is on the rise and there are different strains of resentment.

The alt-right has been stereotyped as a baying mob of disaffected white working-class rednecks.

But the neo-Nazi movement is also driven by middle-class people with a good education.

They feel left behind by immigration and globalisation. Others resent a political elite they believe is ignoring them.

Those grievances didn’t start with Mr Trump and racial conflict long predates him.

Charlottesville, like many southern towns in America, has grappled with its Confederate legacy and past decisions to honour men who fought to keep the institution of slavery alive.

The country’s past is indelibly scored with racial strife.

Richard Cohen, the head of the Southern Poverty Law Centre, which tracks the activities of extremist groups, says the Charlottesville rally was the largest white supremacist gathering in more than 40 years.

As a group they remain an outnumbered fringe. But the difference is they are now getting the attention they crave.

A hundred years ago, Ku Klux Klan members felt they had to hide their identities beneath white hoods.

In Charlottesville, they were comfortable enough to march without masks.

Rescue workers move victims on stretchers after car plowed through a crowd of counter-demonstrators

Video:What happened in Charlottesville?

Cultural and political lines, that once seemed sharply drawn to a lot of Americans, simply aren’t anymore.

Groups like Black Lives Matter seem just as radical as the Klan to some.

While the prospects for black Americans may be materially worse, there is a portion of white working-class voters who resent what they see as their relative decline in the US.

The nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, was a potent symbol of that for some.

Mr Trump’s response to Charlottesville was viewed by many in his Republican party as tepid and flat-footed, despite the fact he did condemn hate groups and violence.

But he is not the first to wrestle with a reaction to an explosive debate.

The President was in combative mood with reporters

Video:Trump says ‘both sides’ to blame for race riot violence

There is a long history of US presidents proving reluctant to take strong stands in response to racial violence.

Both the Republicans and Democrats have had leaders seemingly unwilling to address the abuses of the racially-segregated South.

When certain presidents did take more aggressive action on racial issues, they often did so under pressure.

In 1957, Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock and enforced a court decision mandating the racial integration of schools.

He only made that move after three weeks of crisis and criticism.

 George W. Bush looks out over devastation from Hurricane Katrina
Image:George W. Bush looks out over devastation from Hurricane Katrina – an event his slow response sparked outrage over

In recent years, modern presidents have also often struggled to respond to racially-charged moments.

In 2005, George W Bush sparked outrage with his slow response to Hurricane Katrina and the devastation it brought to black areas of New Orleans.

Presidents are the product of their time. They rarely make bold political statements on race.

Many have tried to balance competing groups and their concerns.

Like previous leaders, Mr Trump’s cautious statements may be driven in part by a reluctance to alienate a key group of his supporters.

His condemnation of violence on “both sides” has strong currency with his base.

Anti-fascist counter-protesters wait outside Lee Park to hurl insluts as white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the 'alt-right' are forced out
Image:‘Antifa’ members were among counter-protesters in Charlottesville

Members of “antifa” were among the counter-protesters clashing with white nationalists on the streets of Charlottesville.

It is a group made up of anarchists, who focus on direct action against the alt-right.

As white nationalists flourish, they too are growing.

They’ve been criticised for forcing venues to cancel right-wing speakers and denying First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.

The result of that tension is violent clashes, the likes of which have not been seen since the civil rights marches of the 1960s.

There are likely to be more and the stakes will only get higher.