Was Dylann Roof wrong about America?

By Alan Bean
Nine Dead After Church Shooting In Charleston
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.

7 thoughts on “Was Dylann Roof wrong about America?

  1. All the heads on Rushmore and US Currency are white and male. All others are therefore lesser creatures.

  2. Alan, I hope you will read your column again and allow yourself to consider how it condems Republicans as racists. That fans the flames of division and hate. Is Ben Carson a racist? Is Walter Williams a racist? Is Thomas Sowell a raciist? A common thread of attitude among Republicans I know is belief that we will be better people and our country a better society if people accept personal responsibility for their lives and live by civilized standards of behavior. Even Juan Williams, a black Democrat, subscribes to and advocates those ideals. It is unbecoming of you to grab this tragic event to promote your political party and doctrine.

  3. Gene,the Republican Party made a conscious decision to court disaffected white Democrats and that meant imposing a ban on race talk. The Republicans don’t like being seen as the party of white and are thrilled when a handful of black people show up. In fact, there are rich rewards for black people willing to absolve white Republicans of responsibility for the lack of black participation in their party. That doesn’t mean African Americans or Latinos are thrilled with the Democrats. Most white Democrats fail to appreciate the kind of deep spirituality we have witnessed in the forgiveness extended by family members of the victims in Charleston. White Democrats tend to be spiritually Tobe deaf and unapologetically secular. That too is a problem for many people of color. Still,they support the blue team because the problem I identify in my post is real. Most Republicans, black and white, are uncomfortable talking about race and their leaders follow suit. That’s why so many Republican presidential candidates didn’t know how to respond to the Roof killings. They don’t want to admit that racism remains a huge problem in America. John McCain supported the Confederate Battle flag when he ran against George W Bush because he feared opposing it would hurt his campaign. It would have. Bush embraced the flag with enthusiasm and won the primary going away. I am not saying Republicans are racists;I am saying that the majority of white Americans are racially tone deaf and the Republican Party made a conscious choice to capitalize on that fact. That is an historical fact. The Democrats repented of their historic appeal to racism, albeit grudgingly, and this created an opportunity for Republicans.

  4. All racists deny that they are “racist”.
    If you could quantify the number of Americans who are demonstrably racist, it’s about the same number as those who reflexively vote Republican.

  5. Racism is an ugly side of ALL humans. Did you get that? “ALL” humans despite color. But humanity is so simple minded that it can only focus on one side of that equation. It’s easy. The white man, granted those who live 150 years ago, dealt in slavery so it’s easy to pin slavery on the white man. But we leave out the fact of Africans buying and selling their own race in African countries. Nah, that is skimmed over because that is not part of the narrative. We in this country cannot celebrate the progress that we have made because progress covers up the role of victim. No matter if this is P.C. or not, this role of victim is a crutch used by the black race and any others who can latch on. Those in power such as Obama, Sharpton, Jackson have made a living feeding into this victimization. Racism is ignorance and so is living off of it. Until we all face up to the fact that we all are racists in some way and that it is ugly every which way you look at it, no progress will be made. Continually attacking white people, who by the way were not around 150 years ago and most likely not 50 years ago, is not progress. The ignorance of people to believe that racists can be summed up by the groups Republicans, Southerners, Tea Party, etc. shows how lazy people are. You have drank the media Kool-Aid. Racism is worldwide! Name a race and they are racist towards another. Bringing down a flag in South Carolina, changing a mascot at the University of Mississippi, or the name of the Washington Redskins will not solve bigotry. It is at the core of humanity. ALL humanity.

  6. Are you saying, “Well, nobody’s perfect, so it doesn’t matter what I do” ..?
    If I flog my children in public in front of a police officer, there’s a good chance he’ll intervene, and I may even lose custody of the children.
    Would it be a worthwhile argument to say, “But my parents flogged me”? or “Other cultures allow public flogging of their children”, to that cop or the judge?

    When certain Republicans, Southerners, and Tea Party types are demanding the continuation of institutionalized regressive behavior, yes they are the problem.

    When you say, “but others have done as bad”, you too are the problem. You may come over to the right side of history at any time.

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