The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why the upcoming alt-right rally in Charlottesville may be less important than we think

Martese Johnson graduated in 2016 from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in Italian studies. Aryn Frazier graduated from U-Va. this year with a bachelor’s in African American and African studies. In March 2015, Johnson, who is African American, was bloodied during an arrest outside a Charlottesville bar that drew widespread attention amid national debate about race and law enforcement. Frazier was a leader in the U-Va. Black Student Alliance and participated in protests over how Johnson was treated. Here, the two alumni write about a rally expected in Charlottesville on Saturday.

In early July, an estimated 50 members of the Ku Klux Klan marched down the streets of Charlottesville. They were met by the fierce resistance of nearly 1,000 protesters who openly denounced the vitriol and hatred for which the Klan stands. The appearance of Klansmen dressed in white robes shouting epithets in the progressive college town made headlines across the nation.

This week, an even larger contingent of white nationalists will descend on the picturesque city for the Unite the Right Rally. The presence of major alt-right leaders will probably bring even more media spotlight and news coverage than did the rally in July.

But it shouldn’t.

This is not because blatant demonstrations of hate no longer matter in 2017 — the rationale is actually quite the opposite.

The very existence of the KKK, the hatred for which it stands, and the vitriol that its members spew is absolutely important. It is important because it reminds people that, for as far as we’ve come and as many minds as have been changed, we still have quite a long way to go. The Klan’s sustained existence is important because it challenges us to be vigilant in our beliefs and to find inventive, invigorating ways to disseminate our messages about the civil and human rights work this country still has left to do. Its existence keeps us alert to both present and lurking dangers.

However, the diminished Klan itself is not what worries us. Instead, we are concerned about their ideological heirs who hide in plain sight — without the distinguishing hoods and robes — who walk in and out of government buildings, lobbying firms, think tanks and corporations day in and day out.

These are the people at the root of our gravest concerns: disproportionate poverty, gentrification, housing and education inequity, and the killing — and killing and killing — of black and brown people.

During the July rally in Charlottesville, the media coverage centered on the fact that 50 people who marched in support of the Klan were met by opposition from many more people who were, frankly, demonstrating what ought be considered common human decency.

Such ephemeral coverage means that our deeply institutionalized, more pressing concerns cannot have the spotlight that they so desperately need. Instead, sensationalized stories about the re-emergence of the KKK become the primary focus of some of our activists, organizers and influencers who light up social media with impassioned — if misdirected — tweets highlighting how protesters outnumbered the KKK sympathizers.

While this may seem to convey that our recent attempts to combat racial injustice have proven ineffectual, that is far from the truth. The truth is that our newfound ability to create media-fueled grassroots movements has bolstered our likelihood of securing progressive change in this new era. We have gained a key strength from our efforts, and now it is time to properly utilize it.

We know what it takes to get news coverage. And this is where we get to the part the media has to play in this. There is much talk about responsible journalism these days and what exactly it looks like. An easy place to start is in Charlottesville on Saturday. Cover the alt-right march.

But the media should also cover the outcomes of the myriad town halls called to garner solutions to issues of racial injustice that either followed or preceded this most recent display of bigotry. Inform viewers of whether their elected and appointed officials are simply paying lip service to these causes and using time and money to seem as though they are addressing the problems everyday citizens and citizen-activists have brought to their attention, or if they are actually moving policy and practices to be more in line with equality and justice.

Without a major shift in the stories that are covered extensively, we will develop further into a society duped by distraction, rendered immobile by our indignation at the KKK and alt-right in Charlottesville instead of the true villains in our local, state and national politics.

The Ku Klux Klan and the alt-right, for all the individualized danger and trauma they represent and inflict, stands simply as a spawn of that real, quiet, but deadly injustice. By focusing on them, we are allocating our attention and resources to a pawn rather than the true enemy.

And that is not good for us — any of us — in the long run.