Back in 2001, I was a senior in high school in an institution that had a progressive pedagogy and an unusually reactionary student body. There entire school had about 120 students from three to eighteen, and there were never any more than twenty-two students in the entire high school at any given time. This meant that if you didn’t like those twenty odd people, you were pretty much SOL in terms of having a social life. One of those students was a boy I’ll call Z, who was a self-identified redneck, though he came from a well-to-do background. Z liked to wear t-shirts from a company called Dixie Outfitters that often had the Confederate battle emblem on it. I complained about it on more than one occasion, including during the weekly class meeting when these sorts of inter-personal issues were supposed to be hashed out, but Z kept wearing them. When I complained to a (white) teacher for the umpteenth time about it, she said, “You need to stop complaining about Z and his shirts, because he knows more black people than you and they’re okay with it.” I wish I had replied with, “I don’t care if Z is besties with Nelson Mandela, he will never have to live in as a black person in a white society,” but unfortunately, I just became upset and left the room in tears. The main lesson I learned from this experience — other than the fact that my high school was peopled with horrible individuals — is that for many Southern white people, racism is not a problem, but complaining about racism is. This brings me to yesterday’s AME church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.
As you probably know by now, Dylann Roof, a twenty-one year old white man with deep-seated white supremacist tendencies, killed nine blacks at a prayer meeting in Charleston. Roof said point blank that he was there to kill black people “and take back the country.” He was photographed in a jacket with the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa and his car had Confederate flag tags. It wouldn’t surprise me if Roof eventually claims that he was inspired by watching The Birth of a Nation, which despite being a silent film, was used as a recruiting tool by the KKK until the 1970s. Roof was practically shouting his racism, and yet there are still those on the right who claim that the victims were killed because they were Christians, not because they were black:
I suppose that I shouldn’t be too surprised by this, since the right by and large doesn’t believe in racism for the same reason that it doesn’t believe in climate change, as acknowledging the reality of either of these phenomenons would require radically rethinking their political and religious ideologies. The Charleston massacre will be blamed on bad parenting, mental illness, violent video games, and the usual suspect, but conservatives will bend over backwards to avoid using the r-word: racism. There is nothing at all to suggest that Roof was in any way “crazy” or mentally incapacitated when he committed his crime. Like Timothy McVeigh, Roof appears to have been quite methodical and calculating in carrying out his plan. In another similarity with McVeigh, Roof appears to think that his crime will be the opening salvo in another civil war, presumably to “take America back” from those dark skinned others who are ruining it for respectable unemployed pill poppers like himself.
The truth is that Roof’s actions are the logic response to an environment where overt and covert acts of racism are tolerated and encouraged. Roof’s friends and acquaintances have admitted that he used racist language and made racist threats, but though he was “joking.” When people become desensitized to dehumanizing rhetoric towards other groups, is it really that surprising when they feel entitled to treat those others violently? Roof is simply the latest in a long line of thugs operating under the Confederate battle emblem. That two of the “greatest” motion pictures in American history, The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, not only glamorize the antebellum South but physical and legal violence against blacks should be telling. As I write this, the American and South Carolina flags are at half-staff at the South Carolina capitol building, while the Confederate flag is at full-staff, which is a slap in the face to the memory of those who were killed yesterday.
The slain worshipers probably thought that church was the one place that they should have been safe in, but history tells us otherwise. Black churches have never been respected places that whites should honor. When the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed back in 1963, William F. Buckley, the father of modern conservatism, complained that the real victims were not the four girls who were killed or the scores of people who were injured, but the whites of Birmingham:
Let us gently 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.
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.Certainly it now appears that Birmingham’s Negroes will never be content so long as the white population is free to be free.
While Buckley is often praised for purging the conservative movement of anti-Semitic, few people seem to mention the fact that he was an enthusiastic segregationist, and seemingly indifferent to terrorism against black people.
As I’ve said before, the Lost Cause version of history and the black history/Civil Rights Movement narrative are mutually exclusive. You cannot simultaneously believe that the Confederacy was a lost, but noble cause, while also believing that slavery and the subsequent Jim Crow regime was a moral evil. At some point the South is going to have to decide which side of history it’s on, and the rest of the country will have to realize that racism is a cancer that is going to take down this nation unless it is properly addressed.