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NAACP President Derrick Johnson Opens Up About Charlottesville and What’s Next

The civil rights group is addressing President Trump’s racism head-on before the 2018 midterms

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 02:  President/CEO of the NAACP Derrick Johnson speaks onstage at the ICON MANN And CAA In Conversation With Derrick Johnson at CAA on August 2, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Earl Gibson III/Getty Images)

President/CEO of the NAACP Derrick Johnson

Earl Gibson III/Getty

This weekend will mark one year since a mob of white nationalists and neo-Nazis took over Charlottesville, Virginia, killing counter-protester Heather Heyer in the process. Despite the solemnity of the occasion, President Trump is likely to say something ignorant or bigoted about the anniversary. Republicans count on his dog whistles to drive voter turnout, but a new poll questions the staying power of that strategy going into the 2018 midterms.

The NAACP recently conducted a survey of 2,045 voters — both people of color and whites — spans 61 Congressional districts. Asked about the emotions that Trump inspires, 75 percent of black respondents said “angry,” “afraid,” “ashamed” and “disrespected.” Regarding that last adjective, 89 percent of black women reported feeling the most disrespected, by far the largest majority. The survey also found that more than 8 out of 10 black, Latino and Asian voters plan to go to the polls in a few months.

Derrick Johnson, the NAACP’s president and CEO, spoke with Rolling Stone this week about the findings and how they may resonate during a week in which America marks one year since a dark stain in its very recent history.

Fifty-four percent of black respondents agreed with the statement that Trump “is a racist who intends to hurt blacks.” Another finding was that a majority of every racial group, including whites, believes that Trump is “setting race relations back.” What is the value in quantifying these observations?
Having any observation quantified is particularly important for a volunteer-operated group like the NAACP. We don’t want to make assumptions. We want to operate with research like public opinion surveys and polling. But, unlike any other president in recent history, [Trump] consolidates the opinions of African Americans through his actions.

Charlottesville, we’re approaching one year since that incident. White supremacists felt comfortable enough to march in the open, en masse. That is not something that we have seen in our recent history. And [Trump] tried to validate their existence by creating a false equivalency with counter-protesters. That changed the tone of intolerance and racial hatred in this country, because it became okay to demonstrate in the public square. They are no longer in hoods, or otherwise hiding their identity. They are out in the open with a level of validation that is germinating from the White House.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, USA - AUGUST 11: Peter Cvjetanovic (C) along with Neo Nazis, Alt-Right, and White Supremacists encircle and chant at counter protestors at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., USA on August 11, 2017. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Peter Cvjetanovic (C) along with Neo-Nazis and white supremacists encircle and chant at counter-protesters at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11th, 2017.

The sequel to the Charlottesville rally is scheduled to take place across the street from the White House, in Lafayette Square, on Saturday. Do you think that Charlottesville numbed Americans?
The reaction to that is in some of the findings we see in the poll. There is heightened anxiety among African Americans and other racial groups. There is higher enthusiasm for trying to defeat hate through voting. Any time that we have public officials sending signals that it’s okay to display racial hatred, xenophobia and intolerance, it is time for people to really stand up and push back against that type of tone.

The poll also looks at intersectional consequences of bigotry, noting that black women feel the most insulted by the Trump presidency. What do you take away from that finding?
In many ways, black women have set the tone for our communities. Not merely with a higher level of empathy, but by sounding the alarm. We’re beginning to see clear indications of that in special elections as far as voter participation.

Sixty-eight percent of black respondents feel that Congress should not confirm a new Supreme Court justice until after the election. (Only 46 percent of white respondents agree.) Does the NAACP have a stance on this?
No Supreme Court justice should be confirmed until after the new Congress is seated. It’s a precedent that was established by Senator McConnell during President Obama’s administration. In addition to that, we are looking at a president that is under investigation for colluding with a foreign nation — and if in fact it is found that he colluded, his [nominee] should be invalidated.

This poll shows white voters in the majority on a lot of liberal positions.
I hope that Americans as a whole can see the same problems that this poll validates. It is the “now what?” moment. The politics of fear and division will tear this democracy apart, and it is something that at the NAACP we are concerned about. We want to act and truly leverage our vote, so that our democracy is protected — and so that we unite as a nation.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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