If American racism were a thing of the past, nine men and women who went to church last Wednesday evening would be alive.
What happened in Charleston is not unfathomable or even ambiguous. It’s a story much older than the nation, a story that began when the first Africans were brought to Jamestown in 1619: the brutalizing and killing of black people because of the color of their skin.
The weekend displays of multiracial unity throughout the saddened city were inspiring, but they cannot be taken as a sign that the country has moved beyond its troubled racial past. The young man who so coldly killed those innocent worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church did not exist in a vacuum. He inhaled deeply of the race hatred that constantly bubbles up like foul gas from a sewer.
The alleged assassin, Dylann Roof, left behind a manifesto that said he drew inspiration from the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a prominent white supremacist group. The organization’s proudly racist “statement of principles” declares that “the American people and government should remain European in their composition and character” and opposes “all efforts to mix the races of mankind.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, describes the council as a modern-day incarnation of the “White Citizens Councils” throughout the South that fought so tenaciously against desegregation during the civil rights era.
The council’s membership is thought to be small, but its reach is vast, thanks to the Internet. Like hateful jihadists, white supremacists use cyberspace as a bulletin board and a meeting place. Come on in, young Mr. Roof, and let us tell you how those black people and those brown people are responsible for everything that’s going wrong in your life.
Some conservatives have been quick to absolve society of blame by pointing out that the Charleston shooter was mentally disturbed. But of course he was mentally disturbed; normal, well-adjusted individuals do not commit mass murder. And the fact is that the Charleston killings were intended to advance a specific cause. To look past Roof’s racism would be like ignoring the fact that the Tsarnaev brothers, who committed the Boston Marathon bombing, believed in a violent, twisted version of Islam.
“You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country,” Roof reportedly said to his victims before opening fire. This sick narrative comes straight from the Council of Conservative Citizens website, which inflates isolated incidents of black-on-white crime into some kind of race war and portrays the nation’s “European heritage” as being in dire peril.
President Obama chose an unusual forum — a podcast with comedian Marc Maron — to deliver his most candid remarks to date since the Charleston massacre. Race relations have clearly improved in our lifetimes, he said, but “we are not cured” of racism “and it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public.” Slavery and Jim Crow discrimination cast “a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”
Obama’s election in 2008 undoubtedly marked a milestone, one I never dreamed I’d live to see. I wrote at the time that it felt like morning in America.
What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was the extent to which the mere fact of a black family living in the White House would, at least in the short term, heighten racial anxieties and conflicts. I didn’t see that the spectacle of African-Americans in power would apparently lead some whites to feel powerless, aggrieved and victimized.
In the long run, I’m an optimist. But a post-racial future will not just appear. There is urgent work to do.
By all means, South Carolina, get rid of the Confederate flag, which has become an emblem of the white supremacist movement. The flag first flew over the statehouse in Columbia in 1961, not 1861; it was essentially an act of defiance, a raised middle finger toward a federal government that was forcing the end of Jim Crow.
But we need to go beyond speeches and symbols. Law enforcement should subject white racist organizations to the same surveillance and scrutiny as groups devoted to jihad. Governments at all levels should enforce fair housing and employment laws as vigorously as they enforce the Patriot Act. Police departments and court systems must be compelled to administer justice equally — with African-Americans, too, considered innocent until proven guilty.
Our society will end racism when it stops being racist. Not a minute sooner.