Fools said I, You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows.
The slaughter of nine innocent people gathered for prayer at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., 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, it seems. 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 as Republican presidential hopefuls struggled to make sense of the horror befalling “Mother Emanuel” in Charleston.
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? So the shooter had it in for Christians, right?
Wrong. The killer has it in for black people. Particularly black people with strong ties to the civil rights movement who represented a stinging rebuke to everything Dylann Roof believed about his country. The church they call Mother Emanuel symbolized the black church’s struggle against slavery, Jim Crow and the racial injustice of this present moment. 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 neo-confederate boil If black civil rights leaders, from Fannie Lou Hamer to Clementa Pinckney, are right about America, white southerners have been wrong. Horribly and tragically wrong.
And our wrongness will continue so long as we refuse to talk about race, racism or racial justice. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
And we have been silent about the things that matter for a long time.
We aren’t wrong about everything, of course. Few white voices are pushing for segregated schools; but we champion charter schools and voucher programs 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 condemning the “takers” they employ.
And we certainly aren’t in favor of racial segregation; we just think that a Confederate battle flag flying bravely at the state capitol in South Carolina (and, in slightly altered form, from every flag pole in Mississippi) symbolizes a goodly heritage. The symbolism cannot be questioned; but the heritage has never been noble and it’s time to say so.
White racism, American style, refuses to admit that race matters. 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 mention race.The Republican Party and FOX news peddle a product for which there is overwhelming demand, and that product is 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? Last week, 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 the civil rights heroism. He really believed that the species of racism he saw and felt everywhere around him was 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.
Time was, of course, when the Democratic Party bought votes with the hard coin of racial hatred; but the moment the Democrats gave up that game, the Republicans picked it up.
How wonderful it would be if neither of America’s great parties made subtle appeals to white racial resentment. I pray we are moving, albeit at a glacial pace, in that direction. Mitt Romney recently told South Carolina to take down the stars and bars, and he said much the same thing when primary votes were in the balance.
And Russell Moore, the moral voice of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently seconded Mr. Romney’s motion. Both men showed great courage and real leadership by speaking up. Religious and political leaders who remain silent about the things that matter most cannot wash their hands of the blood Dylann Storm Roof spilled in Mother Emanuel.
Fans of FOX news roll their eyes when their favorite media personality is accused of racial insensitivity. The best antidote to racism, they say, is to act as if race didn’t exist.
I am not saying that every FOX personality appeals to racial resentment, but if you are associated with FOX, as a consumer or a producer, you are complicit. Nothing will change until FOX viewers start voting with their feet or their tweets.
But race does exist. In fact, race has dictated the course of American history from our earliest days. To pretend race doesn’t matter is to imply that slavery wasn’t so bad after all, that racial segregation was part of the Southern way of life, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is un-American.
No one says these things, of course. But our silence is eloquent and the unspoken message is ugly.
Dylann Roof discerned the message behind the silence. He really believed that most white Americans were waiting for a brave leader to translate simmering hatred into action. Dylann got it terribly wrong. But his gross misreading of white America is not surprising. So long as that flag flies in Charleston; so long as white America refuses to address racial injustice; so long as dog whistle references to white supremacy are tolerated in mainstream media, the horror will never stop.