I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races –that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people, and I will say in addition to this that there is physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together, there must be the position of superior and inferior. I, as much as any other man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.
Abraham Lincoln, 4th Lincoln – Douglas Debate, September 18, 1858
To know that a seemingly normal, ordinary American is capable of such brutality implies making a judgment about the nature and quality of our everyday American experiences which most Americans simply cannot do. For, to admit that our individual experiences are of so low a quality in nature as to preclude the deep, organic satisfactions necessary for civilized, peaceful living, is to condemn the system that provides those experiences.
Richard Wright, 1945
The massacre of nine women and men at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last week has laid bare some ugly realities lurking in the underbelly of our great nation. Once again, we are confronted with the murder of innocent people in a society that holds guns to be an inalienable right. Again, we are reminded that for African Americans, race can be a ticket to poverty, imprisonment, and all too often, death. And perhaps for the first time, a modern American subculture, forged in hatred, embracing a haunting, enduring memory of the slave-holding Confederacy, has been exposed for all the world to see.
Over the weekend we learned that the killer, Dylann Roof, left behind a collection of racist selfies and a racist manifesto explaining his actions. They were found on the website LastRhodesian.com. The manifesto has not yet been authenticated. But the photos, at least should clear up a few things.
- – Roof was purely and completely driven by racism.
- – He was inspired by other racist hate groups and philosophies.
- – He was rational, articulate, and knew who he was and who he wanted to kill.
Yet what is most astounding to me – and I imagine much of the civilized world – is the great lengths that some Americans will go to deny that racism is alive and well in the United States, which like a barely detectable metastasized cancer, gnaws at our innards and pollutes our souls.
Some notable examples:
- Rick Perry, running for the GOP nomination, called the massacre an “accident” possibly caused by the overuse of prescription drugs.
- A Fox News panel said it was a war on Christians.
- Many pundits said Roof is mentally ill; so sad, we should do something about mental illness.
- Erik Erickson, a right-wing but widely followed pundit, blamed Roof’s murders on Bruce Jenner’s gender reassignment.
- Better have more guns in churches!
The problem is not the idiocy of these comments in the wake of a truly baffling human tragedy. It is the ongoing denial of racism that underpins the ethos and rhetoric of today’s America, with Fox News serving as indoctrinator in chief.
Eric Boehlert cites a few priceless gems in a great piece, “Guns, Race, and Fox News’ Pathological Denial” http://bit.ly/1CogYsW:
Bill O’Reilly: “We are not a racist nation. Fair-minded Americans should be deeply offended, deeply offended that their country is being smeared with the bigotry brush.”
Steve Doocy: “I don’t know that Barack Obama could have been elected president if he was living in a racist nation.”
Eric Bolling: It’s getting tiring. We have a black president, we have black senators, we have black heads of captains of business, companies. We have black entertainment channels. Where – is there racism? I don’t think there’s racism. The only people perpetuating racism are people like this gentleman from the NAACP, are the Al Sharptons of the world. Let’s move on. Let’s move on.
Let’s move on, indeed, beyond slavery, beyond Jim Crow, beyond the ghettoization of a people due to redlining and restrictive real estate covenants. Let’s move beyond Ferguson. And Charleston.
But isn’t there something hypocritical about, on the one hand, moving on, and on the other hand, sordidly venerating the Confederate flag, a so-called symbol of bravery and honor?
South Carolina U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham – another “visionary” running for president – said that he didn’t think the Confederate flag was a big problem. “It’s who we are,” he said, presumably meaning South Carolinians and southerners in general. Seeing that his remarks were not quite in tune with the zeitgeist of our country, he did a hasty retreat, not long before South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who has defended the Confederate flag in the past, said she will ask the legislature to finally take it down.
What they don’t seem to realize is that the Confederate flag IS hate. It’s been used that way for more than 50 years. It was put up to celebrate the centennial of the Civil War in 1961, and stayed up as a protest to school desegregation throughout the south, and as a tool to intimidate people during the Civil Rights movement. It became the symbol of white supremacy. Georgia and Mississippi incorporated the Confederate flag into their state flags, and they’re still flying at the statehouses, although with the momentum from South Carolina there is renewed pressure to change them.
By flying the flag for so long, the white powers of the state are saying that their pride and power means more than black pain and frustration. And other white South Carolinians who’d prefer to keep the flag up as a symbol of southern “history” have been willfully ignorant at best. It’s not about race, they’ll say. It’s historical.
If we’re going to hang our hats on the mantle of history, let’s get our facts straight. First of all, unlike every other non-indigenous group of people in our past, Africans did not immigrate to America. They were brought here in chains. Perhaps Molefi Kete Asante, the renowned scholar of African American studies, best describes the insidious trans-Atlantic voyage:
Often when a person was captured, she was marched to the coast and held the dungeon until the ship was available for transporting Africans to the Americas and the Caribbean. Once on the ship, she was chained on the deck, made to bend over, and branded with the red hot iron in the form of letters or signs stilted and oily preparation and pressed against the naked flesh to burn the deep and in a fixable scar. The brand was for identification. Every African taken aboard a ship had to undergo the same treatment. Those who screamed were lashed in the face, breast, thighs, and back with cat-o’-nine-tails wielded by white sailors. These blows brought the returning lash pieces of grieving and agonizing flesh. It is easy to see how our African ancestors must have felt abandoned when they saw mothers with babies branded, lashed, and scarred. What could be in the 338 tormentors’ minds and who would measure out to them the doom they richly deserved for the abuse of men, women, and children?
Asante is pretty graphic – I get chills just sitting at my keyboard typing the words. Maybe a less colorful approach will better appeal to our modern sensibilities. Like the description of African American slavery by historians John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr.:
Slaves had no standing in the courts: they could not be a party to a lawsuit; they could not offer testimony, except against another slave or free black; and their irresponsibility meant that their oaths were not binding. Thus, they could make no contracts. The ownership of property was generally forbidden them, though some states permitted slaves to have certain types of personal property. A slave could not strike a white person, even in self-defense; but the killing of a slave, however malicious the act, was rarely regarded as murder. The rape of a female slave was regarded as a crime but only because it involved trespassing.
That was a long time ago. How could the descendants of slaveholders possibly be held accountable for the sins of their ancestors? Then again, how do some southerners see fit to take credit for the alleged glory of those who fought a battle one hundred and fifty years ago?
It’s pretty clear that Dylann Roof chose to live in an even more precarious bubble than that inhabited by Fox News, a bubble where supremacist beliefs are nurtured. He told others he wanted to start a civil war. His hateful views on race, including, but not limited to Blacks, was not something he arrived at on is own. These views were encouraged and amplified by other young and older white men who nursed grudges against something and then found white supremacy to be a nice ideological bucket with which to toss all of their rage. Go to one of the supremacist sites where Roof is said to have been active, if you can stand to.
And these views were nurtured just a bit by the larger society he lived in and the symbols that society projects. It’s no coincidence that in almost all of Roof’s selfies, he’s pictured with the Confederate flag. The same flag that flies just outside the South Carolina state house, at least for now.
What does flying this flag in South Carolina really mean when so many African Americans have said so clearly that it hurts them to see it? Let me be blunt. Germany does not now adorn its public buildings with swastikas to celebrate its special “history.”
Symbols matter. And removing the Confederate flag is the least that the state can do. But the conversation must not stop there. Assuming the South Carolina legislature follows Governor Haley’s lead and does take it down, we must not let them do a victory lap and be happy that all this nasty race business is finally done with.
Rather, I pose another question. Is not the “colorblindness” of Fox News, and millions of Americans who deny the pervasiveness of racism, a form of racism itself, as have argued sociologists such as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Lawrence Bobo? Don’t events of the last year – Charleston being the most repulsive example – convince us that racism is alive and well in America?
What’s encouraging is how quickly this movement to ban the flag has spread. Politicians who defended it before are stumbling over themselves saying it’s time to take it down. There has been anger and resentment over the flag for decades but it took one gunman to end the practice – assuming it will end. So, if that happens then at least one positive thing will come out of this.
Embrace our history, yes. Let’s heed the words of philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Or the warnings of W.E.B. Dubois concerning “the negro problem,” written well over a hundred years ago:
It is these problems that we are today somewhat helplessly—not to say carelessly—facing, forgetful that they are living, growing social questions whose progeny will survive to curse the nation, unless we grapple with them manfully and intelligently.
May the memory of the nine people lost in Charleston awaken us from our slumber. May this tragedy force us to realize that the legacies of slavery and racism live on. Until we collectively grapple with this issue, cursed we may very well be.