Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man who had bought his freedom with lottery winnings, planned an uprising in Charleston, South Carolina. He and a small band of co-conspirators would quickly seize arms and then distribute them to Charleston’s slave majority. Together they would kill the whites who owned Vesey’s wife and children, who had owned him, and who did own others. Freedom would come on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, later rescheduled to midnight of June 16 thus setting the fight for June 17. A preacher as well as a carpenter, Vesey had used his ministry as well as family and other social ties to recruit for his insurrection. Someone talked and Charleston’s whites called out their militia. Vesey and thirty-four others met their ends not in the heat of battle, except in the way that all black Americans endured it day to day. Nor did they sail off to Haiti as they might have hoped. Instead they expired hanging from Charleston’s gallows. Charleston’s once panicked, but now somewhat reassured, white citizens trampled another enslaved person in their enthusiasm. By seeing the failed revolutionaries, who probably included a fair number of people who knew nothing about any plots, hang from the neck until dead they could begin to satisfy themselves that the just order of the universe still endured.
Vesey helped found the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. In white churches, masters could force the enslaved to hear parables about how they must faithfully serve and submit and steer them clear of anything that might give them ideas about freedom. A white church entailed white control. A black church did not. There enslaved and free black Americans alike could worship as they pleased, educate themselves, organize their communities, and carve out at least small spaces for self-determination in lives so often circumscribed by the maledictions of white supremacy. To have a black church, to go there and worship, served as an act of resistance. The whites of Charleston knew that all too well. They closed its doors in 1818, 1819, and 1820. With Vesey on their minds, they burned the building down.
The parishioners did not disperse. They rebuilt and continued until South Carolina outlawed black churches entirely in 1834. That drove them underground until after the Civil War. Vesey’s son designed the new church building. It served as a place for organization, activism, and self-improvement through Reconstruction and the dark years of Jim Crow. That earned many churches attacks and burning at the hands of white terrorists. They knew where black Americans most fully expressed their freedom and sought to better their lives and acted accordingly. Some white Americans still do.
On the evening of June 17, 2015, the AME church had Bible study. Thirteen people attended. After about an hour, one of them drew a gun. He left behind eight dead: Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman Singleton, and Myra Thompson. Another, Daniel Simmons, died from his wounds later.
Before the night ended, I read the first denials. The assassin, a white man, did not “really” look white. The racial experts, so far as I can tell, determined this by the proven method of silently assuming white skin made one righteous. The assassin did what they must, in public at least, call unrighteous. They must also declare it an isolated incident. They must cast the assassin as a lone wolf, presumably with mental health problems. Thus quarantined and then pathologized, they can shrug off nine lives. It has nothing to do with them or with our politics. Racism, they tell us, mysteriously died somewhere in the 1960s. We drew the curtain on that.
I don’t know if the assassin struggled with mental illness or not. Most mentally ill people don’t indulge in violence any more than anybody else. More likely they will receive it than deal it out. Nor, if it transpires that the assassin does have a history of mental illness, does it mean that he chose his deeds because of that and to the exclusion of all other concerns. I do know that if he simply cracked and went on a rampage, then he picked a staggeringly unlikely target. He could have shot up a Walmart or a gas station. He could have beat a dog. Instead he picked the AME church and situated himself in one of white America’s most ancient and hallowed traditions: destroying the lives of black Americans. If he had that motive, and I don’t know how one denies it, then he chose his targets and his methods as sensibly as anybody else.
But we don’t have to speculate about this. The assassin proudly posed bearing not just the conventional flag of American white supremacy, the Confederate Battle Flag, but also the kind of emblem for which one has to go looking. He wore the flag of Apartheid South Africa. I’ve seen enough displays to know that just about anywhere with Civil War history and a gift shop sells Confederate flags. Given this all happened in Charleston, I’m sure the assassin did not have to look long to find his. But a South African flag more than twenty years out of use? That took some hunting; he had to go out of his way. To it he added the flag of white Rhodesia, which had a regime similar to South Africa’s. That takes us far into the weeds of white supremacy.
According to witnesses, the assassin declared his purpose while inside the church:
You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go
Words like those blessed every lynching. Between his choice of targets, his choice of symbols, and his own declaration at the event no reasonable, honest person can deny that the assassin acted inspired by and for the furtherance of white supremacy. The same people asking us to pretend otherwise now had no difficulty indicting a billion Muslims not that long ago. They flinch not an instant from indicting millions of black Americans whenever the police shoot one. They ask us again and again to take long, hard looks at the communities that produce such people. Something has gone wrong, culturally, that explains all of this. These pleas would elicit only laughter at their absurdity if not for the hatred behind them.
Someone took the assassin’s pictures. Someone else sold him the flags. Still other people named the street the church stands on after John C. Calhoun, knowing full well his most famous work:
I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good-a positive good.
Calhoun didn’t get the street named after him despite that; he earned his street because of it. Still others named the streets of South Carolina, dozens of Confederate roads to a mere handful of black Americans.
And, of course, South Carolina put the Confederate flag up over its capital to protest integration. The compromise that moved it elsewhere on the grounds also ensured it would prove almost impossible to move again by requiring a 2/3 majority vote of both houses of the legislature for any changes. The South Carolina of 1820 only required a majority of both houses to approve the manumission of a slave.
This attack does not present us with a mystery. The assassin told us with words and action precisely what he intended to do. The people who tell us otherwise could not have chosen a more obvious lie. He acted alone and isolated only in the narrowest, most literal sense that he did not gather together a conspiracy to help him. He had accomplices, morally at least, all around him. The people who named the streets, who raised the flag, who smiled off camera and took his picture, all played their part. They told the assassin that people who prosecuted the case for white supremacy, to the very point of war, deserved recognition and celebration. We don’t name streets after people we consider villains. We don’t fly flags we view as odious.
The assassin has other accomplices who now pretend that the shooting had nothing to do with the persistence of white supremacy in the United States. They might deplore his methods, but by obscuring his ideology they enable it. Whether they cloak their cries of white power in the language of anti-anti-racism, as if one prefix did not negate the other, or say nothing because they dare not alienate what they correctly understand as a key voting constituency, they attend the shooting with more than indifference and less than the abhorrence it deserves. They know full well that if the assassin had different skin color or a different presumed religion, they would have no such scruples. How does one explain any of that, unless the excusers and obscurers are themselves white supremacists? If that doesn’t amount to racism, then nothing does.
This denial affords the sophisticated white supremacist many advantages. By concealing race, even narrowly, his or her ideals can appeal to people who have unacknowledged prejudices. A South Carolinian, not all that long ago, articulated just that strategy:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
It worked for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush. They oversaw the great political realignment of living memory, transforming the white South from a Democratic stronghold into one just as committed to what was once the Party of Lincoln. I don’t mean to say here that every white conservative, or even every white Republican considers a sheet with eye holes cut out the most fashionable species of haberdashery. Nor do I mean to excuse white liberals all in favor of integration until it comes to their suburbs or demands their children sit next to black children. Likewise I indict our white suburbs and white neighborhoods of the North and West as much as anywhere in the old slave states.
This sickness comes not just from one group of political partisans, but from the air we breathe. American law defines domestic terrorism this way:
(5) the term “domestic terrorism” means activities that—
(A) involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State;
(B) appear to be intended—
(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;
(ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or
(iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; and
(C) occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.
Yet the director of Barack Obama’s Federal Bureau of Investigation can’t find it in himself
to call the attack terrorism. So far as I know, he does not dispute the location. Does he not count black Americans as citizens? As civilians? Does shooting them dead not constitute a danger to human life or a violation of the law? Must we believe, after hearing what the assassin said, that he did not intend to intimidate or coerce others? At least his boss disagrees
. Digging further back, Bill Clinton had Confederate flag campaign materials when he ran for president in 1992. We do not depart from the norm or default state of affairs to indulge in white supremacy. We uphold it as the default condition.
White America has this problem. White America made it in making white America and could unmake it the same way. We could react the same way to white terrorists like Dylann Roof and Timothy McVeigh as we do to bearded men with unfamiliar names or, one hopes, react to both in a way far less destructive. Their domestic terrorism has claimed far more of the latter than any people with foreign-sounding names could have dreamed. We grant ourselves the luxuries of our denial, paid for in the lives of others. White people get to claim perfect innocence. We let ourselves not know the long history of our own misdeeds. We let ourselves ignore how we made the ghetto. We pat ourselves on the back for ending slavery and pretend that we didn’t reinstate much of it and, indeed, continue some of it today through mass incarceration. We take our numerous privileges for granted and deem anybody who questions them a troublemaker. We have done this since the seventeenth century. But we could stop it. It wouldn’t come easy. It would make us uncomfortable.
We have it in us to do better if we want to. We have organized the entire system to ensure we may do as we please. Having done so, we must take the outcomes we observe as those we actually accept, whatever we may preach when convenient. We could do better tomorrow. We could have done better last Wednesday night. If we really wanted to make the assassination into an isolated incident, tragic but not speaking to broader realities, we could have started then. We didn’t. This is the world that white America made and that most white Americans at least tolerate, if not embrace. Probably more of us go that extra mile, at least if we put the assassin in the right uniform or give him slightly more sophisticated slogans, than we would care to admit.
Will this finally be the turning point? I know no more of the future than anybody else, but our sorry performance to date points at best to more of the same. That means that the nine lives claimed last week constitute less the last and deadliest individual attack on black Americans since Reconstruction, but simply the latest and deadliest for now. The arc of history only bends invariably toward justice in our aspirations. Reversion to horrifying past norms happens just as often as permanently foreclosing them. Making those into reality requires action that I feel fairly confident white America will not so much as contemplate. We don’t want it to be over. We have a tradition to maintain for as long as the right people pay the price for us.
Don’t take my word or John Stewart’s word for it. Consider what the most prominent of the Sunday morning talk shows opted to air on its first episode after the shooting.