Sometimes it seems the news media and the political class suffer from the sort of weird brain dysfunction that Oliver Sachs has made a career out of describing. In this case, being surprised over and over again by the same phenomenon.
Like, the peace process in the Middle East isn’t working. Like, people around the world that we purport to be helping , often by exploiting their resources or invading their territory, don’t like us. And last week, like the latest mass shooting of innocent black people.
This time it took place during a prayer meeting in a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina where a white supremacist killed nine. To listen to the news people and quite a few of the Republicans seeking the presidency, (who hope to win the South Carolina primary next spring), you’d have thought this was a completely unprecedented outbreak of crazed racism in, say, Sweden.
Have these people missed the last 400 years of American history? This took place in the state that gave us John C. Calhoun, the premier apologist for slavery and the architect of states’ rights and nullification. It is the state that started a bloody insurrection against the United States of America, putting the preservation of slavery ahead of the preservation of the Union. Today we would call that sedition, treason or terrorism.
For a half century, South Carolina was led by segregationist governor and senator Strom Thurmond. He seceded from the Democratic party in 1948 because of a civil rights plank in the platform and ran for president leading the States’ Rights Party. At the time he said “ all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the army cannot force the negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches…”
Strom remained consistently the paladin of racial discrimination for the next 50 years, filibustering civil rights legislation in 1957, becoming a Republican in the 1960s when the Democrats sought a historic Civil Rights Act and the Republican candidate for president, Barry Goldwater, opposed it. His kind of guy. And by the way, Goldwater carried his home state of Arizona and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
South Carolina still flies the battle flag of the confederacy on the Capitol grounds and in recent polling 72 percent of South Carolinians approved. After the shooting the Governor and Senators finally noticed it might send an unfortunate message.
So do a lot of other things.
In 2012 the state was sanctioned by the Justice Department for a discriminatory law that sought to deny voting rights to black citizens, again. It was cited by the FBI in 2013 for 33 cases of racist hate crimes. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that 19 hate groups are active in South Carolina.
So, is it really surprising that Dylann Roof of South Carolina, should declare it was necessary to kill black people because “you rape our women and you’re taking over our country?” Clearly racial animus and white supremacy have never gone out of style in South Carolina, or in many other places in the United States. Roof seems to have been moved to his terrorist acts in part due to white supremacist websites he frequented on the internet.
Black commentators were asked if they were shocked and amazed by the eruption of nakedly racist violence, and the answers tended to be weary variations on, “What’s new?” White commentators tended to say that we need to have better background checks for gun purchases (Dylann’s dad gave him the money to buy his gun), more comprehensive mental health help, or a conversation about race.
What exactly would such a conversation say? That 49 percent of Americans think blacks are treated fairly in this country by police, the court system, in the job market, restaurants, schools, health care providers and boards of elections, and that roughly 100 percent of blacks know damned well they are not?
How about this for a conversation. Don’t be a racist. Don’t discriminate against people because they are black or Asian or hispanic or poor or Catholic or atheist or Muslim or Jewish. Don’t go around saying this is your country, but not the country of those you think are inferior or somehow not full-fledged Americans. Don’t listen to people who sell this crap on talk radio, Fox News, or the internet.
Eugene Robinson noted that the slain black pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church was named Pinckney. Robinson presumed the Reverend’s ancestors were once the slaves of the family of Charles Pinckney, a signer of the Constitution who helped add the fugitive slave clause to it, so you could assume the murdered man’s roots in this country went back at least as far as those of Dylann Roof’s.
Maybe this should be part of the conversation about race we never get around to having: If you are pretending to be an American, not an insurrectionist Confederate, maybe you should embrace the creed embodied in “All men are created equal,” “Equal Justice under Law,” “with malice toward none with charity for all.” If you are pretending to be a Christian, consider embracing the “do unto others” stuff, the “blessed are the peacemakers” stuff, the “he who is without sin cast the first stone” stuff.
And if you are on TV bloviating about the news, or running for office to lead this county, not a reborn confederacy, try admitting racist murderers may be aided and abetted by lax gun laws and enforcement, by insufficient mental health services, but they are egged on by vile bigots who peddle the warped, ignorant, backward belief system they have embraced.
Such views aren’t aberrant, they are traditional — as American as slavery, segregation, secession, Jim Crow, lynchings, states’ rights, discriminatory laws, discriminatory employers, unions, school boards, and the politicians who troll for votes by failing to speak up.
On this subject you are either an enabler or you aren’t. Those who fly the Confederate Battle Flag or display it on their bumpers are on the side of the Dylann Roofs, but so are those who don’t speak up, who don’t make racism as unpopular and unacceptable as urinating in public or wearing a swastika or joining ISIS.