Donald Trump has a past

Klan for AmericansGentle Readers, by now you must all know about Donald Trump and the Ku Klux Klan. Trump, frontrunner for the Republican party’s presidential nomination, has the endorsement of the nation’s most famous Klansman, David Duke. Duke infamously ran for Governor of Louisiana back in the early Nineties. Had only whites voted, he would have won. The Grand Wizard joins a veritable klavern of white supremacists on Team Trump. Many politicians court that kind of endorsement, if not necessarily as many words, but few appreciate having the fact noticed. The United States magically ended racism in 2008, 1965, 1865, or some other past date. Failing that, racism didn’t really hurt anyone, or racists’ victims had it coming. White innocence runs from cradle to someone else’s grave. Sunday last, CNN confronted Trump about the endorsement.

The Donald claimed the birthright of every white American and declared that he knew nothing about David Duke or the Ku Klux Klan. The CNN anchor pressed him first on white supremacist groups in general. Trump pleaded ignorance. Even when narrowed down to the Klan, who Trump mentions by name, he dodged the question. I mention this because Trump later complained that he couldn’t hear the anchor. He did very well at naming names for a guy who couldn’t make out the other half of the conversation. In the course of all that, he claimed he needed to research the groups.

Let’s play the sucker for a moment and pretend that Donald Trump needs an education about the Ku Klux Klan. Back in 1872, the Congress published a thirteen-volume report on the work of the Klan and its allies. I must confess that I have not read all, nor even a fair portion of it. I didn’t know it existed until Joshua Rothman tweeted about it. In the course of writing this post, I’ll read more of the report than anybody in the Trump campaign ever will. Should you like to join me in this distinction, you’ve made it if you can get through the title.

After the usual preliminaries, the committee got down to business:

The proceedings and debates in Congress show that, whatever other causes were assigned for disorders in the late insurrectionary States, the execution of the laws and the security of life and property were alleged to be most seriously threatened by the existence and acts of organized bands of armed and disguised men, known as Ku-Klux.

CNN meant the descendants of these people, Donald. One might ask from whence such bands came. The committee found, based on testimony from officers of the United States military

that secret organizations were formed in the insurrectionary States soon after the close of the war, hostile to, and intended to embarrass the Government of the United States and of the States in proper administration of the affairs of the country.

George H. Thomas, son of Virginian planters disowned for his Unionism.

George H. Thomas

The witnesses here included George Gordon Meade and George Thomas, generals both. Thomas, if we believe the traditional story about Robert Lee, had the superpower of political alignment independent of his native state. Some white Virginians could think for themselves after all. Who knew?

Having lost their war to save slavery, the secret organizations latched on to other grievances. According to Nathan Bedford Forrest,

There was a great deal of insecurity felt by the southern people. […] The negroes were holding night meetings; were going about; were becoming very insolent; and the southern people all over the State were very much alarmed. […] Ladies were ravished by some of these negroes

The wanton, roving rapist of minority extraction ought to sound familiar. If he has ever left the American mind fully, I don’t know it. He had a starring turn just last summer:

You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go

Dylann Roof said those words just before he opened fire at the African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Roof committed his murders, assassinations really, on June 17. On June 16, the day before Roof walked into that church, Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign. He had to run, you understand, because America had problems he could fix. Among those problems:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

Trump can, and belatedly did, disavow the Klan. You don’t do these things right in the moment, or the Klan might think you mean them.  Should Trump really want to disavow the Klan and its allied white supremacists, he must begin with something far harder than statements to the media. He must commence with looking in the mirror and denouncing himself. I doubt that Trump would have a formal affiliation to a white power group, or that he would admit to one if he did. He probably doesn’t pay them dues. -He doesn’t even pay into his own charity these days.- But it scarcely takes a sartorial fondness for bedsheets and conical headgear to make you the Klan candidate. Trump, for all his pretense to the contrary, has what it really takes.

The Klan knows it. I don’t know how many Americans have voted for Donald Trump yet, but I doubt they’re all fools. They know the score. We ought to consider that before congratulating ourselves on the waning of white supremacy. Neither law of nature nor moral arc of history, however long, ensures that it will continue to wane. It may have a comeback in mind, as it has before. Trump might not win the nomination, though that seems unlikely now. He might lose in November. Win or lose, his supporters will not courteously evaporate. If any had forgotten, Donald Trump reminded a generation of politicians and aspirant politicians that you could ride brutish white supremacy to fame and considerable success. They will not soon forget. Expect them for as long as people who imagine themselves white understand that they can steal blood and treasure from people they deem black. They’ve won elections on that platform before, and not just in the nineteenth century.

Monuments and the Civil War Trust

The Confederate memorial on the grounds of the Alabama capitol

The Confederate memorial on the grounds of the Alabama capitol

A few times a year, ever since I subscribed to the Civil War Monitor, I get mail from the Civil War Trust. They raise money to acquire battlefield land for preservation. Ideally they then hand it over to the National Park Service or some other dependable group to manage. As one might gather from the name, they focus on Civil War battlefields, but they’ve lately branched out into the Revolution and War of 1812. About as often as I get mail from them, I think about sending them money. (I haven’t yet, but may still in the future.) I hear good things about their work from people I trust.

The Civil War Trust also did a piece of less than good work. It stood to reason that they would have something to say eventually about the growing challenge to Confederate monuments in the wake of the Charleston murders. They came out with a petition defending the monuments, about which Kevin Levin and Al Mackey have already written. I think it deserves examination, even if I tread over some of the same ground that they have.

After briefly laying out the circumstances, as these things do, the Trust tells its readers

It is our privilege as a free people to debate our history. However, we must remember that such freedoms come at a tremendous cost, paid for in the blood of brave Americans in uniform who sacrificed all to forge the country we are today. We owe these men and women a debt that can never be repaid.

I don’t care for talk about debts owed to soldiers as I think it easily shades over into glorification of the military and warfare in itself, if it ever meant anything else. But I know that most people feel differently. Accepting the premise for the sake of argument, we come to an immediate problem. The monuments to the Confederate military and leadership could only commemorate the bloody price paid for freedom and to forge the modern United States if those Confederates paid the blood dues out of the bodies of members of the United States military. This reading, however perverse, has the apparently esoteric virtue of comporting with history. I say esoteric because having identified the monuments under threat by implication, the Trust’s petition then tries to distract us from them:

Recognizing this debt, generations of Americans up to this day have built memorials honoring those who served in the military and have fallen in battle. These monuments are silent sentinels recognizing the soldiers who crossed the frozen Delaware River with Washington, fought amid the boulder-strewn hillsides of Gettysburg, served in the trenches of Vicksburg and Petersburg, landed on the beaches of Normandy and the islands of the Pacific, and most recently served in the deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Leaving aside my pacifism, I understand the debt that people feel to those who died fighting the good fight. Surely this debt arises from their participation under the banner of a just cause and in service to noble aims. Those aims might not fit with a clear understanding of preserving American freedoms, of course. My grandfather fought on islands in the Pacific against an enemy that did not in any meaningful sense threaten American freedoms. Neither the Japanese, nor the Germans, nor the Italians, proposed to launch grand invasions of American soil, conquer it, overthrow the American government, and replace it with one created in their own image. But we all know the monstrous crimes of Nazi Germany. The Japanese did similarly horrific, if less industrialized, things in China and the Pacific. Defeating them served the cause of freedom generally.

If all of that holds true, then how must we read the references to Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Petersburg? The Trust doesn’t go into specifics; it means for us to take the dead of those battles indiscriminately, the United States Colored Troops who died in the Crater as much martyrs to freedom as the men in gray who killed them. Somehow, both slavery’s soldiers and the solders who ultimately fought to destroy slavery had equally noble causes. We owe this debt alike to both parties. Only one freedom concerned the Confederacy and the Confederates: the freedom to enslave. If this counts as a nobility, then I propose we cultivate meaner virtues.

The Trust tells us

It is important to remember that many of these memorials are historic in their own right some more than 200 years old. In countless instances, these monuments were erected by the veterans themselves, who wanted to remember their leaders, their units and their fallen comrades. Many of these memorials were also paid for not with public money but through small dollar donations made by survivors and local citizens, determined to give of their limited means to honor the military.

No Civil War monument has yet had its two hundredth birthday. Once again the Trust considers every monument alike, as if all faced the same criticism. It rightly sees the monuments as artifacts in their own right, but then flees from considering anything but the most superficial reading of them. The authors do not, beside appeal to bad math, consider when the monuments went up or under what circumstances. Nor does it look to their content. The Trust doesn’t care if they lie about the Confederacy’s cause or if veterans put them up to celebrate the defeat of Reconstruction. It chooses not to inquire about monuments erected as protests against the civil rights, nor how many of these monuments served as rallying points for the resistance of the same. It even lumps together Confederate monuments built with public money on public land and those elsewhere, as though no difference existed between a kitsch statue of Lee in one’s backyard and one bearing the unquestionable imprimatur of the state.

The Trust asks for understanding and nuance while systematically eschewing the same. They say it outright:

we have a sacred duty to protect these war memorials, from all of America’s conflicts, whether they rest on the battlefield, in national cemeteries, or on town squares.

The Trust then calls on Congress to preserve and protect the lot, presumably even including those on private property that the owner would want removed and those on public property that the community wants gone.

Given my past iconoclasm, I can surprise no one by declaring myself unpersuaded. I remain convinced that the worst outcome involves the monuments, as a whole, remaining as they now stand. Simple battlefield markers noting where a unit stood and what it did can remain untroubled, of course. They serve a perfectly good educational purpose, provided their inscriptions get the facts right. Nor do I propose removing individual grave markers in cemeteries, though I do think the nation should get out of the business of erecting tombstones for dead Confederates. Memorials celebrating the Confederacy and/or lying about its cause present a different problem, especially when on public land and far from battlefields. Leaving them as-is continues the endorsement of their message, informing any who see them of untruths and exhorting them to mourn slavery’s end.

These monuments require correction or removal. If the Trust wants to have them as museum pieces, then I’d be happy to see them relocated somewhere and presented as ways the memory of the Civil War served, and still serves, the cause of white supremacy. Removal without that presentation comes next. If some private group wants to have the things and no corrective seems likely, then best have them out from under the smiling gaze of state buildings. If the owners simply wish to destroy the monuments, I consider that a missed opportunity for education but still superior to leaving them undisturbed.

If the monuments must remain in their present locations, then I think correctives must go beyond a simple plaque or a contrary monument elsewhere on the grounds. At the very least any companion monument should stand in a position of similar or greater prominence, easily visible from the original, and accompanied by interpretative materials that situation the two together. Though the best outcome, this one seems the least likely to me. Just as the original monuments had a clear, unambiguous message, so must any new pieces clearly counter it. I don’t foresee many plaques appearing with words like “the people who erected this other monument lied, and here’s how” with illustrative quotations and statistics. This would risk turning heritage sites designed to give one a bland, patriotic feeling of a sanitized past with all the messiness and conflict of actual history. Someone could learn something.

I have come down hard on the Civil War Trust today, but I think no harder than the petition deserves. I still think they do good work. They have among their officers competent historians. They produce good educational content, some of which I’ve highlighted before. But with this petition they fell prey to the inherent tension between their real estate business, and the fact that Lost Cause cash spends as well as the rest, and the educational mission which informs that business. They did this bad thing, but it does not undo the good they have done and I trust will continue to do.

We are still burning churches

Confederate flags came down, or will soon come down, from above state buildings. The Supreme Court upheld human rights thrice over. Saturday, Bree Newsome climbed up a flagpole on the South Carolina capitol grounds and so beat those working within to the chase.

We have some cause to celebrate, even if some of our late victories came at dreadful cost. But every silver lining comes equipped with clouds. In the past week, at least six primarily-black churches have burned at the hands of persons unknown.

In Charlotte, N.C., authorities say a June 24 fire at Briar Creek Baptist Church was the result of arson and is being investigated as a possible hate crime. NBC News reported that more than 75 firefighters were needed to extinguish the three-alarm fire, and an hour passed before the blaze was under control. Two firefighters received medical treatment for heat-related injuries. The church sustained $250,000 in damage, including a collapsed ceiling and significant damage to a space used for a children’s summer camp. The sanctuary was spared, sustaining smoke damage along with the gymnasium.

A June 23 fire at God’s Power Church of Christ, a predominantly Black church in Macon, Ga., has been ruled as arson, although there is no indication it was a hate crime. As was reported in theMacon Telegraph, the front doors of the church were locked and wired shut when authorities arrived, but a side door was unlocked. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives was called, as is the case with church fires, and authorities also noted that electronics and other air conditioning equipment had been stolen from the church in two burglaries. A $10,000 reward is available through the Georgia Arson Hotline for information leading to the arrest of an arsonist.

We don’t have all the information yet to count each of the six as an act of white terrorism against one of the few institutions that white Americans have permitted to black Americans. With numbers so small, almost anything could come down to a coincidental combination of fires. The investigations have not yet ruled every burning an arson. People do burn buildings out of simple youthful stupidity. I would like for it to work out that way and for none of these arsons to come as responses to the late move against celebration of the Confederacy. I hope we all would.

The world rarely bends to our hopes. The arc of history only bends toward justice if we bend it. However much I would love to have it all wrong, I expect we will soon learn that at least some set these fires as acts of terror. If we do, I have no doubt that the usual suspects will ascribe each to mental illness and lone wolves. That we just had a calamitous attack launched in defense of white supremacy will fall out of memory as such things usually do. We might even have a rendition of one of the classics of that genre.

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

Victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

On September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan left at least fifteen sticks of dynamite, and a timer, under the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama . They did this on a Sunday and put the dynamite beneath the front steps. Four girls died. Twenty-two others came away wounded. We can only guess their motives, just as we can only guess what drove Dylann Roof to his own isolated incident indicative of mental illness. William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review, which fancied itself a journal of respectable conservative opinion as much then as now, had this to say:

The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur – of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away from the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?). And let it be said that the convulsions that go on, and are bound to continue, have resulted from revolutionary assaults on the status quo, and a contempt for the law, which are traceable to the Supreme Court’s manifest contempt for the settled traditions of Constitutional practice.

Damn the bombers; they harmed the cause of white power. But since no decent, conservative white person would do something so horrifying as that, the guilty parties must come in the color of skin we most associate with criminality. By linking the bombing with communism, the Review further implied that its “crazed Negro” worked on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement. The American Right had long understood it as a communist outfit, after all. But failing all of those, Buckley fell back on the tried and true insistence that the victims had it coming. Whether they themselves stood against the white-imposed, white-dominated status quo or took their cues as past generations imagined rebellious slaves had from the perfidious white reformers, they had brought the violence down on their own heads. Everything worked just fine until Earl Warren integrated the schools.


John C. Calhoun

Five years earlier, Buckley penned this editorial, parts of which could have come from Calhoun’s own pen:

In some parts of the South, the White community merely intends to prevail-that is all. It means to prevail on any issue on which there is corporate disagreement between Negro and White. The White community will take whatever measures are necessary to make certain that it has its way.


The central question that emerges-and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal-is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes -the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race . It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro : but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists . The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.

Confronted on the subject in 1989, Buckley affirmed that he believed it as much right then as in the 1950s. His publication continues on in that proud tradition even without him:

Countless people were heartbroken by the news of Wednesday’s massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, but conservative writer Mona Charen seems to have been doubly upset. Writing in National Review, she complained that the prospect that the tragedy could be politically exploited by Democrats was “even more depressing” than the actions of the killer. “The heinousness of a person who can sit for an hour studying the Bible and then open fire is unfathomable,” Charen wrote. “Even more depressing, if that’s possible, is my suspicion—and I truly hope I’m wrong—that this event will play a role in the 2016 presidential campaign.”

Later, when the crassness of the phrase “even more depressing” in this context was pointed out to her, Charen amended the sentence. But her article’s flaws run much deeper. Charen takes a curiously blinkered view of how atrocities are politically exploited, citing examples of political haymaking that pale in comparison to those who respond to racist murders by downplaying the role of bigotry.

Mona Charen had it in her to write this in 2015. In 2015, a white man can walk into a black church and murder the people gathered there. In 2015, we still burn churches. None of these deeds requires a white hood to complete, though men in hoods have done their share of burning, shooting, and lynching. All speak to the persistence of the ancient faith of the men who once wore them or who come to work in expensive suits, as well as the men with whips and chains before them. It remains one of the chief issues in our politics. Pretending otherwise will not make it go away.

Where Should the Present Iconoclasm End?

The Confederate memorial on the grounds of the Alabama capitol

The Confederate memorial on the grounds of the Alabama capitol

I set out to further explore Dylann Roof’s inspirations today. I might still do that, but others have written what I might have and probably done a better job of it than I would. For a deeper look at the mechanics of the system of white domination in Rhodesia, this UNESCO document came to my attention via Liam Hogan on twitter.

Instead of that, I’d like to consider a question posed by a fellow blogger. Over at Cenantua, Robert Moore asks, with Confederate flags going down and leaving stores, what falls next? He has a list of continuations on the theme:

We have discussions for the removal of Confederate statuary, that, though without the Confederate flag anywhere thereon.

We have vandalism (I think I’ve seen stories about 3 or 4 monuments so far) on Confederate statuary.

We have discussions about removing the names of Confederate generals from our military bases. (strange I haven’t heard about another base, which is named for a former member, and officer of the national organization of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Give it time, I suppose).

We have vandalism on non-Confederate statuary… the John C. Calhoun statue in Charleston. Though Calhoun died in 1850, he was a defender of slavery. Obviously, the “protests” have moved outside the Civil War and Confederate symbolism.

Then, last night, I saw, in the New York Post, a call for removing the film Gone With the Wind, from sales, etc.

I don’t know that Robert would agree with me, but I think most of those sound like really good ideas. Of the list, object to only two and only with qualifications.

Though I see essentially zero risk of it, I would oppose any kind of legal ban on the sale of Gone with the Wind or other such works. I don’t think this requires much explanation, so suffice it to say that I hold to the school that the answer to bad speech comes best in the form of more and better speech. However, if retailers choose to adopt policies of not selling the book, Confederate flags, and so forth then I have no objection at all. Indeed, I approve of their doing so insofar as their private bans don’t entail also such a broad net as to sweep in serious and respectable works which have the flag on their covers. I don’t mind at all if they relegate Confederate propaganda and other species of dressed-up racism to the less reputable outfits where they belong.

That leaves vandalism. I’ve read of several cases where statues have had pro-equality slogans and criticism spray painted on their pedestals. I object, but very weakly so. Cleaning the statues will cost money that could go to other things, as Al Mackey points out. The message would be as well expressed by a sign left at the site, and more durably so by getting a market put up beside them. A good message deserves better methods.

A corrective marker could begin by noting that the celebrated individuals won their accolades, including their statues and monuments, for deeds we now find reprehensible and go on to detail their human costs. I quite like the idea of accompanying every statue of Robert E. Lee with a sign reading something to the effect of “This man fought for slavery. For that, in the eyes of past generations, he earned this statue.” The marker could go on to detail Lee’s slave whipping exploit and his personal commitment to the institution’s perpetuity. Make it big and impossible to miss. I don’t expect these markers to spring up very quickly. The latter-day admirers of the Confederacy’s cause will fight them tooth and nail. It took us nine lives on top of fifty years, at least, of activism to take down some flags. The exponents of racial hatred have that much power.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

Failing augmentation with corrective markers, I don’t see why we have to keep these monuments at all. I have no objection to their removal to private property or their destruction by the bodies which own them. I would prefer either to their remaining in situ and unaccompanied by correctives. The roads and buildings all can and should have their names changed easily enough. In the place of Confederates and other proslavery men, I would use the names of those who resisted slavery and fought to end it. Ideally, these should come from the history of the area or the area of the person formally honored, and with a preference for enslaved people. Calhoun Street can become Vesey Street. (Though dead ten years too early to become a Confederate, Calhoun won his fame defending slavery just as they did.) For Lee, we can substitute Nat Turner or Gabriel Prosser.

This does not constitute an erasure of history. By renaming buildings, relocating or removing monuments we do not wipe away the past or deny what happened any more than we do by adding correctives. We do, however, change our relationship with the pasts they represent. We don’t name streets, buildings, or erect statues and monuments to people we revile. We do this for people we honor and celebrate. By doing it in a public space, we declare that our communities should take them as exemplars. The people who did the naming and dedicated the statues understood that. They established for themselves and future generations a civic safe space to express their admiration for the literally murderous exponents of white supremacy and slavery above all other concerns. In reversing that, we do the same and carve out a safe, or at least safer, space for black Americans and others who have had the burdens of the nation forced upon them and extracted from their lives often enough.

Where, then, could monuments and memorials to those who fought in the name of slavery and earned their fame in doing so remain? I oppose the removal of educational markers at historical sites. Something like a stone saying this unit fought here serves an obvious use and does not, to my mind, suggest in itself any form of celebration. I would also oppose removing markers from the actual graves of Confederates in cemeteries. Marking a grave doesn’t necessitate making a political statement and replacing all the CSA headstones seems both impractical and unnecessary, though I might support some kind of grant program to descendants who wanted changes made.

Memorials to Confederate soldiers or Confederate dead, on the other hand, do just that. They function just as monuments to individual Confederates do. Whatever element of mourning went into them died with their next of kin and belonged more properly at individual graves regardless. They serve now as calls to celebrate and honor a group of people united solely in their defense of slavery. I class their unaltered, unaugmented maintenance as one of many ways in which we still affirm their cause. If we choose to do that, as we have so often done in the past, then we should expect others to understand us not as making a neutral acknowledgement of our past. Even if we could manage such a thing, we couldn’t do it with celebratory markers.

I hope that, as with the Confederate Battle Flag, when we see such acts we think not of some nebulous and presumed neutral or positive “heritage” but rather of the real price that our attachment to white supremacy has exacted. When we see them we should think, among other things, of scenes like this:

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

A hand with a whip in it, slicing out great ribbons of black flesh from the back of Peter Gordon.

Margaret Garner with tears in her eyes as she draws her three-year old daughter close and opens her throat with a knife to spare her a lifetime of rape and torture, then desperately reaching for a coal shovel to spare her three sons. She couldn’t save them in time.

The crowd at a lynching, coming up to the not yet dead bodies of a Luther Holbart and woman they thought his wife, carving off plugs of flesh for souvenirs, once their fingers ran out. They then burned the victims alive. The mob, men, women, and children partook of deviled eggs, lemonade, whiskey, and made a picnic of it.

The headline from the New Orleans States: 3,000 WILL BURN NEGRO. The police turned John Hartfield over to the mob at the scheduled time, four in the afternoon, all very proper and orderly. They burned him alive.

If we still feel like celebrating after that, then we deserve what others think of us. The real erasure and denial of history comes in pretending that we do not celebrate what we do, that the Confederates and their antecedents did not fight for what they did, and that their ideas about race do not have a powerful resonance for far too many Americans today. We all have unfortunate, often horrifying ancestors. It does us no harm to admit to that and may do much good. They had their lives and we have our own. If we insist that judgment of them constitutes judgment of us, then we should also accept that we do so because we want to share in their record rather than depart from it.

Dylann Roof, the Council of Conservative Citizens, and the Rest of Us

Roof's victims, via the BBC

Roof’s victims, via the BBC

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?

Dylann Roof

Dylann Roof

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.

Council of Conservative CitizensWhat on earth could that possibly mean? The CofCC condemns Roof’s murders, as one would expect, but goes on to say that

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.