By Alan Bean
The slaughter of nine innocent people gathered for prayer at a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina was horrific, deplorable, sickening, cruel and heartless. It was not senseless.
In the mind of Dylann Storm Roof the act made perfect sense. He was trying to spark a race war and he thought killing innocent people in a place of worship linked to the civil rights movement and an ancient slave revolt was a good way, a sensible way, to light the fuse.
If you think like Dylann Roof, his brazen act made perfect sense.
The carnage looks senseless because we don’t think like Dylann Roof. Hardly any of us do.
Perhaps the young man is crazy. But why did his craziness veer in this particular direction?
There is plenty of racism in America, but much of it is so understated (or unstated) that most white Americans can’t see it. The Republican Party, since the days of Richard Nixon, has slowly transformed itself into the Party of White. Republican leaders pulled off this feat not by preaching racial hatred, but by pretending race is no longer an issue worthy of discussion. Sure, we had some issues back in the day; but this is now and that was then.
Does refusing to wrestle with racial animus make you a racist? Not if you’re white. But for people of color the silence is maddening. Which is the single biggest reason few black people, however conservative, vote for Republican candidates. It feels like betrayal.
The Party doesn’t advertise itself as the Party of White and, if you’re white, it doesn’t even look like the Party of White.
This studied inability to speak intelligently and compassionately about racial hatred was on full display today as Republican presidential candidates tried to make sense of the horror befalling “Mother Emmanuel” in Charleston, South Carolina.
Rick Santorum called it an attack on religion, a theme FOX news embraced with unseemly ardor. The killing happened in a Christian church, didn’t it. The shooter clearly had it in for Christians, right?
Wrong. The killer has it in for black people. Particularly strong black people with ties to the civil rights movement. The site was chosen precisely because it served as a refuge for the African American community; a place where the full truth about American religion, American history and American racism could be spoken without fear.
Many have wondered aloud how Dylann Roof could sit through an hour-long Bible study before opening fire on the participants. But it was precisely this linkage between faith and racial justice that makes the blood of the proud white southerner boil. If black civil rights leaders, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Clementa Pinckney, are right about America, white southerners are wrong. Horribly, tragically wrong.
It is the indictment of white America so eloquently enunciated by Martin Luther King Jr. that a solid majority of white Americans refuse to accept. I’m not talking about the “I have a dream” Martin; I’m talking about the Martin who said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
If Martin was right about that; white silence is wrong.
We aren’t wrong about everything, of course. Few white voices are pushing for segregated schools; we prefer charters and vouchers that have the same practical effect.
We have no truck with slavery; but when the interests of corporations and the people they employ collide, we instinctively side with the “makers” while opposing the “takers” they employ.
And we certainly aren’t in favor of racial segregation; we just think that Confederate Battle flag flying bravely at the state capital in South Carolina (and, in slightly altered form, from every flag poll in Mississippi) symbolizes a worthy heritage.
White racism, American style, refuses to admit that race is relevant. Ever. Anyone who believes that racism is the primary force driving American social and political life is written off as a crank or, worse, a race hustler. White racism refuses to talk about race. The Republican Party and FOX news market a product for which there is overwhelming demand. Silence.
But isn’t there an enormous gulf between this race-doesn’t-matter mantra and the lynch mob fantasies of Dylann Roof?
Of course there is. One is implicit; the other explicit. One demands silence; the other fills that silence with vile words and actions.
So, back to my question: supposing Dylann Roof is a nut, why did his nuttiness express itself in this particular way?
The goodly brotherhood of internet racism is part of the explanation. That which is rarely whispered in polite society is shouted from the digital roof tops. Like pornography, vile opinions thrive in this new, exciting and unregulated world.
But is it that simple? This evening, as part of his weekly conversation with E.J. Dionne on PBS, David Brooks made an obvious point. America has a race problem, Brooks admitted, but the sort of racism driving a Dylann Roof isn’t mainstream stuff–the young man is way out there on the lunatic fringe.
This is undoubtedly true; but hardly reassuring.
Roof knows racial resentment decides elections and drives talk radio. He can feel it in the air.
When a young man commits an act he knows will leave him dead or behind bars for the rest of his life, he isn’t messing around. Dylann Roof really believed he could spark a race war by shooting up a black church with roots in slave rebellions and civil rights heroism. He really believed that the species of racism he saw and felt everywhere around him resembles the virulent, ugly, hateful lizard that long ago crept inside his soul.
He was wrong about that. Very wrong. But why, and how?
Was he too crazy to distinguish between mainstream American racism and the lynch mob variety? Maybe, but I think the explanation lies elsewhere.
As we have seen, American racism is a species of silence. Pundits and politicians can’t endorse white supremacy, they merely discredit anyone foolish enough to demand full equality. The racist message lurks between the lines. Hints and insinuation.
Mainstream American racism (to use David Brooks’ phrase) is a void, a cipher, a place holder. You can read anything into it . . . or nothing.
Most white Republicans genuinely don’t understand why so few people of color identify with their party. They are honestly astounded by the phenomenon.
Similarly, most fans of FOX news roll their eyes when their favorite media personality is accused of racial insensitivity. The best antidote to racism, these folks believe, it to act as if race didn’t exist.
But Dylann Roof discerned a message in the silence. He may have gotten the words all wrong, but he nailed the melody.