Tony Harris is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, a veteran of CNN and Al-Jazeera, and the coolest uncle you always wish you had. Harris, a native of Baltimore, is the kind of guy that will go from regaling you with stories about world travel to lecturing you on treating your momma right, and then slip front-row seats to the Knicks game into your pocket before dropping you off at college.
He is the consummate storyteller of the black experience and has something to say about the terrorist attacks in Charlottesville, Va.
Harris created and hosts the Investigation Discovery docuseries Hate in America, which covers stories of white nationalist crimes across America over the last 30 years. The episodes are disturbing, violent and frighteningly prescient for what is happening in the country since Trump got elected. Since he’s been knee-deep in the racist muck for years, The Root asked Harris for his thoughts about the Charlottesville terror attacks.
The Root: What happens next? After Charlottesville a lot of people are going to act shocked and surprised, but from your Facebook posts you obviously are not. What do you think will be the next step in what is happening in this rise of white nationalism in America?
Tony Harris: To my mind, this moment presents black folks with as clear a canvas as we’ve had since the civil rights movement to make a big leap in terms of progress. It didn’t happen the way many of us thought it might under [President Barack] Obama. That leap forward can happen with this administration in place.
Whites have and will continue to fight and die alongside blacks and other oppressed people in demanding that this country live the words of its creed. Charlottesville demonstrated that and I’ve seen it time and time again in reporting the Hate in America series for Discovery ID.
But my experience in making those films also says to me that there is a gut-level, visceral understanding necessary of what it really means to be black in America, to be hated because of the color of your skin, and the extent to which relentless self-determination is needed in the face of this scourge.
Let’s deal with self-determination. I’ve come away from these four hours on hate with the bedrock belief that the collective acquisition of assets and wealth, the challenging of the status quo, the bum-rushing of the political class in this country for a truly progressive agenda, is the only effective fight back against political, economic and media cultures that value minorities principally for the dollars to be extracted from their communities. Sorry to be so blunt, but that’s what years of talking to dedicated racists has led me to conclude.
TR: There have always been white-identity white nationalist terrorist groups in America, but there seems to be a rise in their boldness and violence since Trump took office. What specific ways do you think his administration has activated these groups, or do you think it was the inevitable backlash to Obama’s eight years in office?
TH: This rot will just metastasize under the current administration. This president simply moved the rock and gave light and air to all the nasty, grubby things underneath.
Think about it: Only as an extreme negative reaction to the country’s first black president could such a deeply flawed character rise to the highest office in the land. We will need a lot of time on the therapist’s couch when this is over!
TR: The sense among many African Americans is that since Trump got elected, it’s not just the white nationalist groups; there has been an overall increase in hostility from nonwhites. Having seen the hurt, violence and occasional resolutions you’ve seen in Hate in America, what are some steps you’d suggest for the African-American community going forward? Get guns? Vote? Avoid large crowds of white people with torches? Or all of the above?
TH: If we are willing to vote in all elections in robust numbers, numbers that require politicians to talk to us in a real way, then we gain ground. If we don’t, we don’t stand our ground, we lose ground. So my vote is for ballots, not bullets.
Also, let’s create a directory of local black-owned businesses for cities big and small around the country and post that on our social media sites. And if it already exists, let’s circulate that information widely. Then let’s go the extra mile when necessary to patronize those businesses.
And let’s have more of this, Jason. Let’s have more of what you do with your various platforms, your panel-moderating opportunities, your work at Morgan State University and your role at The Root. Let’s hear from people with interesting perspectives to share, people who bring more light than heat. I hope we’re doing that with our Hate in America programs.