Gentle Readers, this post includes selections from the work of modern-day hate groups and the Charleston shooter. I don’t post many warnings for historical horrors, but I both understand and share the sentiment that dealing in more contemporary racism makes for harder reading.
Last week, Dylann Roof acted alone. He walked into a historically black church in Charleston and took nine lives. He had no accomplices in the legal sense, so far as we know. He had many in the moral sense. Supporters of his cause, if not his methods, took to the media to call him mentally ill, a lone wolf, and the architect of an isolated incident. They declared his motives a mystery. With every utterance they breathed another cloud of fog to hide the truth from themselves and the rest of us who have the luxury of not knowing. Another day goes by. Another handful of lives end. The machine of white power grinds along. If it more often consumes lives in less dramatic ways, then that serves to quiet our sleepy consciences.
The system that white American built eased Roof toward his murders by taking the subjugation of black Americans as normal and the supremacy of white Americans as the default. We declare black Americans a them, not an us. We proclaim their blackness inherent, fixed, and of paramount import. The white norm constructs and reinforces itself by declaring blackness deviant and deficient, as if these categories descended from the heavens rather than slavery. For some of us, that pedigree proves their ordaining from on high. But the latest white power hero also had more enthusiastic accomplices. We all partake of the system of passively imbibed hatred. Some of us go a step farther.
Very likely by his own admission, Roof grew up in the system. Like the rest of us, he learned his prejudices:
Living in the South, almost every White person has a small amount of racial awareness, simply beause of the numbers of negroes in this part of the country. But it is a superficial awareness.
The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case. I kept hearing and seeing his name, and eventually I decided to look him up. I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was unable to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right.
As a resident of a town well over 90% white, let me assure you that the development of racism does not require the immediate presence of diversity.
Roof insists that he did not grow up racist. But in linking his prior “racial awareness” from before his awakening to hatred with that after, he suggests otherwise. Rather it sounds like he grew up a little bit racist and then did it one better. He did not change sides, but rather seems to have moved from the passive, enabling white supremacy of indifference to injustice through to the active version of defending it. The language Roof uses to describe himself in his superficial phase speaks volumes. “It was obvious” that George Zimmerman rightly murdered Trayvon Martin. He could claim self-defense just from seeing a black boy walking down the street. Such an act seemed so ordinary to Roof that he could not understand any objection to it. Black lives did not matter.
The furor over Zimmerman’s shooting drove Roof to the internet, where he began a more intensive education. Here he met the more active of his accomplices:
The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?
The who? The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the CofCC (Their preferred initialism.) descends directly from the White Citizens’ Councils established as what Thurgood Marshall called an “uptown Klan”. They fought integration just as the Klan did, but put the white hoods in the closet as part of a rebranding. But don’t take the SPLC’s word for it. The CofCC has a website, where they admit in one paragraph that Root acted out of racial hatred, imply drugs fueled his murders, and then top it off with this:
It is unclear what caused Roof to go on the shooting spree. It seems that Roof’s interest in racial politics started only very recently.
The mystery remains. If only Roof had told us in numerous ways just what he intended, like posting a manifesto online. Perhaps there he could give us a genealogy of his beliefs, with concepts or even named organizations that we could follow through about. If he named a website, we could go there and see what it said.
Outside the fantasy world of the CofCC, he did and we can:
(2) We believe the United States is a European country and that Americans are part of the European people. We believe that the United States derives from and is an integral part of European civilization and the European people and that the American people and government should remain European in their composition and character. We therefore oppose the massive immigration of non-European and non-Western peoples into the United States that threatens to transform our nation into a non-European majority in our lifetime. We believe that illegal immigration must be stopped, if necessary by military force and placing troops on our national borders; that illegal aliens must be returned to their own countries; and that legal immigration must be severely restricted or halted through appropriate changes in our laws and policies. We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called “affirmative action” and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races.
The CofCC’s Statement of Principles, written and adopted by its leadership and posted on its website, must have no connection at all to these words of Roof’s manifesto:
Segregation was not a bad thing. It was a defensive measure. Segregation did not exist to hold back negroes. It existed to protect us from them. And I mean that in multiple ways. Not only did it protect us from having to interact with them, and from being physically harmed by them, but it protected us from being brought down to their level. Integration has done nothing but bring Whites down to level of brute animals. The best example of this is obviously our school system.
Nor could the CofCC’s obsession with exaggerated reports of black on white crime, cited by Roof here:
There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong.
have any connection with his murders. These words, we must believe, just came about at random. They have no connection to any deeds performed, perhaps not even to policies preferred. People talk, you understand. That Roof told us at the end of his vile manifesto that he would turn thought into action must constitute another of those inexplicable mysteries:
I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.
In his manifesto, Roof outlines other grievances felt by many whites. Again, we utterly condemn Roof’s despicable killings, but they do not detract in the slightest from the legitimacy of some of the positions he has expressed. *Ignoring legitimate grievances is dangerous*.
It wouldn’t do for the uptown Klan to admit to the consequences of its propaganda. It also wouldn’t do for them to miss the chance to hint that whatever they had to say for public consumption, those who ignored their “legitimate grievances” about such horrors as race mixing courted danger.
In recognizing all of this, we could easily yield to the temptation to quarantine Roof and the CofCC away. If he did not act alone, then he acted in concert with a paradoxical group lone wolves who have nothing to do with the rest of us. But groups like the CofCC and the Klan don’t just happen any more than mass murder just happens. People join them for a reason. Others make excuses for them for a reason. We do not come into the world as members, but rather learn to hate and learn to hide it from ourselves. In doing that, how many of us follow in Roof’s footsteps, taking our “small amount of racial awareness” and upgrading it as necessary?
Most of us will never shoot a person, but that doesn’t make us innocent. Most of us never join the Army either, but plenty of Americans will support most any war offered up. We might even speak ritual condemnations of structural injustice, but then vote for politicians of both parties who endorse, continue, and strengthen the policies that create the injustice. If we take these acts for granted, then we should accept our share of culpability for their outcomes. Enabling denials and indifference do not exist apart from or independent of more active and violent expressions of hate. Rather they go together hand in glove, an organic whole. Every person who fires a gun, hangs a noose, or wields a whip in the service of white domination has an uncounted multitude behind and to the side. These multitudes speak in myriad ways to the gunman and lyncher: You answer a true and great threat. You do our will, what we dare not. You do nobly and right. Each part of that chorus forms an indispensable element of the song. The performance only ends, for now, with a crescendo of blood and bullets.
The CofCC and others form part of that chorus. Others, who insist in more coded terms that each killing presents us with an inscrutable mystery, don’t sing quite so loudly. But they also have an audience that buys the tickets and fills the seats when the curtain rises. Without the audience, no part of the band would long endure. We come together in these places, as we do in churches and other gathering places, to make our communities. We could patronize other artists and form different communities. Taking the flags down at the cost of nine lives, a century and a half after slavery, makes for a miserably small step in that direction.