Charlottesville Mayor: Biden’s Call for Unity Won’t Fix Systemic Racism

We spoke to Nikuyah Walker, the mayor of Charlottesville, about what it’s like to govern during a racial reckoning.
February 10, 2021, 7:22pm
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The people fighting to end systemic inequality have been talking to VICE for years. Now we're catching up with them to find out what's changed.

Just months after the white supremacist rally hit Charlottesville in 2017, its City Council voted in the town's first Black female mayor, Nikuyah Walker.

The deadly Unite The Right rally and the racial uproar it unleashed is now known as the “summer of hate” by Charlottesville residents.

Home to the University of Virginia, the town has increasingly grappled with its Confederate past and, particularly through Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, its ties to slavery. In 2019, the city council agreed to stop recognizing Jefferson’s birthday as a holiday. 

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From housing to education, racial disparities are rife in the college town. Almost 30 percent of African Americans live in poverty. According to a ProPublica/New York Times analysis, Black students are more than four times as likely as their white peers to be held back a grade.

“I have nothing but the truth for how we dismantle this system,” Walker said. Running on a platform of inclusion and social justice, Walker was the first independent candidate elected to the City Council since the 1940s. The mother of three was reelected in January 2020, but it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing.

Walker reports getting pushback within local political circles, including the City Council. “I say things that people don't want to hear, even though they label me as aggressive, even though they try to tell me I would be more successful and meet the needs of ‘my people’ if I was just a little bit more agreeable.”

VICE News first spoke to Mayor Walker in 2018 and recently caught up with her about what it’s been like governing during a racial reckoning.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

VICE News: Now when people hear Charlottesville, one of the first things they think of is the Unite the Right rally in 2017. How has that impacted the city?

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Walker: If you really understand your history, you know that the University of Virginia would not exist if it hadn't been for the enslavement of Black people. So that history has often been overlooked, and we seem to consistently need events to take us back to just the founding of this country and everything that has happened since its founding has been problematic. But in terms of the Unite the Right—that summer of hate, as we call it here—that was for a brief moment, a time period where white people say, ‘Oh my gosh, really? Not in Charlottesville.’ But these problems have been here and have persisted for generations. And so most of us showed up to the table [saying], ‘Yeah. So this has been our lives.’ This is how we've had to figure out how to survive on this plantation that is Charlottesville. And it did not start from August 2017.

VICE News: What would you say have been some of the most difficult reforms that you've tried to get through?

Walker: We have to talk about how difficult it is to change things when the people who are in power do not have the same mindset and thought process that you have. We're in a form of government where anything I attempt to create, because we're a council manager form of government, it takes three votes.

I'm often told you have to be the mayor for everyone. And I ask them, ‘What does that mean to you? Because are you telling me that your trash pickup schedule deserves the same attention from me as someone who's unhoused? Are you saying that your discomfort with conversations regarding race means that I allow people to remain in devastating poverty because you are uncomfortable with talking about how we arrived there?’ These are the conversations we are still having today, and they've gone to great lengths in 2020 to attempt to silence me, discredit me.

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The majority of our staff tell me that there is a slower pace, that if I went at that slower pace, people would be more comfortable, that if I change my tone, people would hear me more clearly. I don't have to worry about the people who stormed the Capitol, the 70-plus million people who voted for Donald Trump attempting to destroy me, the liberal progressive, primarily white members of this community are the ones that I have to watch out for the most. They are the individuals who have upheld this system of white supremacy, institutional racism in a covert way that is usually excused. 

VICE News: The conversation of reparations resurfaces often, especially around Black History Month. In the wake of last year’s BLM protests, mayors across the country called for a federal reparations process. Where do you stand on that? 

Walker: If I'm being realistic, you're talking about white people who are usually in control of where money would flow from. Do I think that they are going to pay trillions of dollars in reparations, billions of dollars in reparations, millions of dollars in reparations? I don't. Do we deserve it? Yes. Why do we deserve it? Because it would not exist without us.

So [the University of Virginia] with its billion dollar endowment, who may give us a few hundred thousand dollars or a couple million for housing units? It's not theirs. So when you're talking about reparations, they are owed, but they are already ours. Someone else just has the power to determine whether we receive what is ours. So, I am not interested in having conversations or wasting my time about whether people in those positions of power understand that they are in charge of stolen goods. Stolen wealth is not yours.

VICE News: When Biden announced he was going to run for president, he specifically mentioned Charlottesville as the wake up call that inspired him to run. And now he's emphasizing a message of healing and unity. Do you think that's the way forward? 

Walker: No. President Biden, I don't think your calls for reaching across the aisles are going to resolve our issues. If I sat down with him, my question would be, ‘How do you propose reaching across the aisle for over 70 million people who would still have me in chains if they could? What does that look like? Why is your proposal that the people being able to liberate themselves means that you have to negotiate with terrorists?” I don't understand that.

But we have to negotiate with terrorists as we are reckoning with the history of enslavement and that part of our liberation 10-point plan means that they have to be on board with it? We are not going to get there, we’ll never get there. So our children and our children's children, our children's children's children's children's children will still be having these same conversations that we are having, and that should be unacceptable to all of us.