Our ancestors were literally fighting to keep human beings as slaves and to continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will. I am not proud of this heritage.
- S.C. State Senator Paul Thurmond, son of Strom Thurmond,
explaining why he will vote to take down the Confederate flag
This is the beginning of communism.
- Robert Lampley protesting the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol grounds
A young man gets hooked on a volatile political website, obtains a modern weapon, pumps up his sense of vengeful zealotry, latches onto a symbolic target and kills a handful of people. Why does this “radicalized” young man do this? To advance what he feels in his tumultuous, troubled inner life is an important goal, a greater conflagration — all to satisfy his youthful, lone-wolf feelings of dissatisfaction with the status-quo.
In America, if that young man is a Muslim and the website is focused on attacking the globalized, consumer culture of the National Security State — let’s say he sets off a bomb at a public marathon race — it’s terrorism. If the young man is a white American attacking African Americans … well, if you listen to Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, he’s an individual, Godless lunatic and the real problem is “far-left race-hustlers” who hate America and want to destroy it.
Since the first moments following Dylann Storm Roof’s shooting of nine African American Christians in Charleston, I’ve been watching a lot of Fox News and MSNBC. Even before rigor mortis set in on the nine bodies, after expressing his condolences, O’Reilly began flogging the individual maniac line hard. Race problems in America, he insisted over and over, have been solved and any other explanation was far-left race-hustling. MSNBC conceded Roof was likely not mentally well, but it quickly assumed what might be called a social-dysfunction line focused on the persistence of racism in America.
Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer-prize winning, African American columnist at The Washington Post, was the spiritual center of MSNBC’s coverage, since he was raised as a black kid in Charleston; his grandfather had a blacksmith shop near the murder site, the famous AME church known affectionately as Mother Emanuel. Robinson is a moderate, easy-going man, and you felt in his heart he understood only too well what this was all about. He was not shy in calling it race-based, white nationalist terrorism.
So which is it? An individual-based hate crime or a socially-based case of racial terrorism? In our culture, the word terrorism is an extremely loaded political term, and it waits to be seen what the established institutions of law will call the Roof case. The New York Times just ran a story pointing out that, since 9/11, lethal attacks by non-Muslims outnumber attacks by Muslims at a rate of nineteen to seven. Threats from non-Muslims “have been underestimated,” while threat from Muslims “has been overblown,” according to John G. Horgan, who studies terrorism at the University of Massachusetts. The Times also tells of Homeland Security “gutting” staffs as well as “resistance from Republicans” to this kind of research.
Roof was radicalized by material on the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization with direct links to the old Citizens Councils linked to the KKK. The Council of Conservative Citizens has donated funds to a long list of Republican candidates, including some now running for president; several of them have spoken before the Council. Thus, with Roof’s act in mind, we’re not talking about “coded” or “dog whistle” racism; we’re talking the lone-wolf equivalent of a 19th century KKK killing. This may explain the rush to take down the Confederate Battle Flag as political appeasement to distract from the real story about extremely uncomfortable links with what many rightly label right-wing domestic terrorism.
While Robinson understood Roof’s act as having historical roots and real political spin, O’Reilly was at his most intense in demanding that it be seen only as the act of an individual. O’Reilly’s tact seemed to rely on the fact African Americans are 14% of the population. He was assuring his viewers race was no longer a problem. The problem now was individual advancement; American opportunity was there, and if anyone, black or white, was a failure in 2015 it was his or her fault. Empathy for African Americans was “race hustling” — an effort to destroy America.
Lurking in the subtext of all this was the greatest boogie-man word of all: Socialism. The black president was a “socialist” at heart. His remarks following Charleston about gun-control proved it. In fact, anything that diminished the idea of individual responsibility as the root of everything affecting the lives of Americans was beyond the pale. When Kirsten Powers, a popular centrist foil on the O’Reilly show, rigorously defended the idea that institutional racism still existed in American culture, it brought out the notorious O’Reilly Irish bully temper. But she would not be bullied.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a woman of Asian/Indian heritage, at first did not seem up to the political challenge presented by young Roof’s extraordinary act of terror. She fought back tears over the legitimate pain she must have felt as leader of a state with such a troubled racial history. As an Indian-American, she could not personally share a deep attachment to the Confederacy and its battle flag. Many wondered what she would do. Many assumed she would do as she has done: Defend the flag as a political opportunist.
Then the astounding symbolic clarity of young Roof’s act of terror went viral. While many Republicans were running for cover, hiding behind trees and under their beds, Mitt Romney ponied up and tweeted “bring down the flag.” When someone on Fox said Roof’s attack was against Christians, Rick Santorum responded with: “What other rationale could it be?” But even he soon gave up on that line.
Witnessing examples of the flash-like explosion of political critical mass is fascinating. It’s like tossing a pebble off the dock into a school of minnows. Pssssst! A mysterious, visceral communication is at work. In this case, Dylann Roof was the pebble. It’s interesting to see such a flash critical mass centered on a powerful symbolic material object like the Confederate battle flag that, it must be noted, has been offensive to African Americans in South Carolina for over a century. Thanks to Roof, we’re learning that the flag was not displayed from the end of the Civil War to 1962, when it was resurrected by people like Strom Thurmond as a symbolic counter to the growing Civil Rights Movement in the South.
At the end of the Civil Rights period, we see the rise of the so-called Southern Strategy of the Nixon years, a politically calculated shift that re-distributed the votes of Dixiecrat Democrats like Thurmond into the Republican column. This is why the Republican Party dominates the South today.
This brings us to the “coded” and “dog-whistle” racism of the Obama era and Michelle Alexander’s notion of “The New Jim Crow,” the title of her important book. Her thesis is about a cultural evolution in which African Americans, especially males, are no longer able to be stigmatized and oppressed as “niggers” or for their color. Crime becomes the new tool of oppression and African American males are stigmatized as “thugs” and “felons.” This relies on a criminal justice system that leans very hard on poor African American males and incarcerates them at an unprecedented rate. Mass incarceration of African Americans coincides perfectly with tough-on-crime legislation featuring heavy funding for police. This movement was led by Senators Joe Biden and Strom Thurmond, both on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Attuned to the Southern Strategy, Thurmond had become a Republican. Biden on his part pushed big crime bills, he has said, as a way for Democrats to get back into the game after the election of Ronald Reagan.
The mass incarceration of African Americans of Alexander’s New Jim Crow thesis is a powerful aspect of the “institutionalized racism” Kirsten Powers insisted under O’Reilly’s bullying was real today. No doubt the rich, white, non-empathetic O’Reilly would reduce Alexander and her thesis to “far-left race-hustling.”
The Backfire and the Run For Cover
The callow Dylann Roof’s stated ambition was to set off a race war. The fact it has so far done the exact opposite is what makes this case such a teachable moment. No one seems to have predicted the scene of Governor Haley surrounded by a cluster of Southern Strategy Republican office holders calling for the Confederate flag to be removed. In her first race for governor, she said the flag “was not something that is racist;” it was “a tradition that people feel proud of.” Suddenly, the flag was “a deeply offensive symbol.” MSNBC’s Robinson called her action an act of courage.
Time will tell whether the flag issue (which has expanded into questions about other examples of Southern iconography) is a convenient distraction allowing business as usual to prevail once the dust clears. But it feels like something important has shifted, and the school of minnows will never return to the same configuration.
Frederick Douglass got it right in 1857 when he said, “This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”
For me it’s a matter of whether, having lived with the outrages of slavery, Jim Crow, today’s mass incarceration and other “measure(s) of injustice,” African Americans are culturally allowed to be angry over their plight in America’s history. I have a theory that Barack Obama was electable as the first black president because he was technically not an African American with all the historic baggage and deep-seated anger that identity justifies. If Bill O’Reilly’s people had been treated like this, you know he would be ranting and raving.
There are historic precedents for getting tough on white-racist terrorism. President Ulysses S. Grant “engineered” the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. According to historian H. W. Brands, “Grant’s campaign put the fear of federal power into the Klan and shattered its sense of impunity. Not for decades would the nightriders exercise such influence again.” By 1872, the Klan had been broken and blacks were expressing newfound voting rights. Grant signed the Civil Rights Act of 1875.
But, then, the election of 1876 was as rotten and confusing as the one we recall in 2000. It resulted in the Compromise of 1877 and President Rutherford B. Hayes. White supremacy began to creep back, and soon the Reconstruction era was over. By 1915, American culture was indulging in things like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, an overtly racist, anti-Reconstruction epic that demeaned and ridiculed blacks, propagating many of the stereotypes young Dylann Roof mouthed 100 years later as he gunned down nine black churchgoers.
I’d like to see this teachable moment raise questions like this: Is it possible for more white Americans to find the courage and empathy to understand why the lightning-rod Reverend Jeremiah Wright — pilloried by the political right — might close a fiery speech on the litany of crimes against black people with “Goddamn America!” In context, it makes sense.
It’s all about complexity and critical thinking. Bill O’Reilly likes to say he’s “a simple man.” He’s right. So one would not expect him and others like him to understand the kind of complexity in which a man can be a decent American and, still, be outraged at things done in the name of “America.” Maybe the Roof incident has really shifted things, and maybe O’Reilly’s ratings have peaked and his type of thinking is headed for the dustbin of media history.
It’s all about The Dream and keeping our eyes on the prize.