Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Persistence of Racial Hatred

The last year or so has been rough. Paying attention to the world and caring about fellow humans is truly exhausting. For many people, ignoring racism and discrimination in the world is easy because it doesn't directly affect them in negative ways. If I really wanted to, I could choose to shut it out, ignore it, because I benefit from white privilege. I can choose to not get involved, to not talk about the effects of centuries of institutional racism. I can even choose to believe a problem doesn't exist. I can choose to believe that all the horrible events occurring all over the country are isolated incidents.

It's comforting to think that the horrors of the world have been dealt with and left in the past, but the hate has never left. Hate and racism are embedded deep within the fabric of our country, and although we have progressed greatly, the hate and racism have not vanquished. People are better at hiding or disguising it now. And the best way to disguise it is to convince others it does not exist.

And like's gone.

Over the past 2 weeks, many people have been looking for any other reason than racism for the murder of 9 black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white man known for his love of the Confederacy and segregation. Instead of focusing on the racial hatred he harbored and why he did so, instead of looking at his family and friends who must have stoked these fires, instead of investigating any organizations he belonged to or looked up to, instead of questioning roommates and friends about why they thought it was acceptable for someone to make plans for a civil war, we jump to the typical, tired talking points:

There's too many/not enough guns in this country.
Yes, guns are a big issue. I'm clearly on the side of having less weapons, but many people I respect disagree. The real issue is that people who don't value all human lives are always the loudest, making it impossible to have a reasonable discussion by blaming the victims for not having guns. Dylann Roof got a gun as a gift from his father. In most states you don't need any background check for private sales or gifts. That's a problem.

It's mental illness. 
Also a big problem, but not in this case. Racism is not a mental illness. It is a learned behavior. It is ignorance and hate. Most people with mental illnesses don't act out violently. Granted, most racists don't act out violently on their racism either. Nowadays, many racist acts are very subtle; casual racism is the dominant form. Something as simple as sharing a meme or liking a post on Facebook can be an act of racism. As President Obama himself said, it doesn't take saying "nigger" to be racist, despite what Georgia high school principals would have you believe. When racism is blatant and acted upon, it may look like crazy behavior to non-racists or even latent-racists, but it is not a mental illness.

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It's a hateful, learned behavior with deep, horrific roots.

It's the drugs we use to treat mental illness. 
Ok, this theory is only coming from Rick Perry, and I normally wouldn't entertain anything he says, but the man was elected governor of a very populous state several times, and he has decent support for his Presidential campaign, so his ideas are not isolated to his puny armadillo brain.

Guns and mental illness, more specifically our ridiculous access to guns and our piss-poor treatment of mental illness in this country, are definitely problems that need solutions. But the issue here is race. We have never honestly dealt with race in this country. I don't know if we ever will, but this one time it would be great it we tried. I'm going to anyway.

Another white male to the rescue!

I believe in the power of symbols. When people (or entire states) glorify a symbol that is historically associated with hate, I associate those people with hate.

The license plate, not the Hyundai symbol. Then again...damn it, I need a new car now. 

I believe in the power of words. When somebody says hateful things, I believe that person to be hateful.

The roommate is also quoted as saying that Dylann didn't often make racist statements, but he told a lot of racist jokes. Pro-tip: If a person constantly makes racist jokes, they are probably racist. Oh, also, if they say they want to kill black people and start a civil war, THEY ARE PROBABLY RACIST!

The immediate descriptions of Dylann included "quiet" and "shy," the mandatory words used for white mass murderers. That and "mentally ill" of course. It took Twitter and independent media outlets to finally get the discussion focused more on his blatant racism. The fact that photos like this surfaced definitely helped:

Because he surrounded himself with the Confederate flag, and because of the power and importance of symbols, the discussion then focused on why the Confederate flag still flies in so many states. That's an important discussion to have, and thankfully, it seems as if the flag flying at the South Carolina Capitol building might finally come down soon. Not soon enough.

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This is the casket of Rev. Pinckney, murdered by Roof. This is shameful.

The conversation about the traitorous, hateful flag is necessary, but it also allowed mainstream media to avoid talking about the more complex realities of systemic racism.

Then again, it led to this image...

Systemic racism is ingrained into the foundations of our society and we see its effects played out in the real estate market, the justice system, education, and basically every major institution in America. That is what people are referring to when they say "whiteness" or "white privilege." It doesn't mean that white people don't have our own struggles and nothing shitty happens to us, it just means we get the benefit of the doubt in many situations that affect our chances to succeed. We are more likely to get a job with a "white" name. We are more likely to get a fine or community service rather than prison time. And on and on.

It's possible (and common) to not even be aware of the benefits of whiteness and systemic racism and still receive those benefits. Individual racism is a little easier to spot. Systemic racism fuels individual racism; people absorb racist views from the society in which they live. Family, friends, teachers, classmates, neighbors, the media, music, sports. All of it informs our views. What was Roof learning at home? We know that his father gave him a gun as a present. Did his parents know about his affection for the Confederate flag? What was he learning from his friends? We know many people heard him talk openly about his ideas of segregation and killing blacks and didn't think much of it. What was the community teaching him? Well, we know that South Carolina has a bit of a...sordid relationship with race.

In addition to the horrifying fact that some of their recent politicians have ties with the Klan (or its PC reincarnation, the Council of Conservative Citizens) there is also the fact that South Carolina has 16 certified white supremacist groups. We know this because they all came out to denounce the actions of Roof. According to them, they had absolutely no connection to, or responsibility for, the crazed gunman; however, they want everybody to know he had some really cool ideas and legit grievances.

That's the community in which Dylann Roof was raised. He comes from a place where a racist judge remains on the bench and starts a hearing with a plea for the well-being of the killer's family.

He comes from a community where a black church that was once burned down after a slave tried to revolt stands on a street named after staunch defender of slavery.


He comes from a country where at least 5 black churches have burned down since the shooting.

Roof comes from a community where a white police officer shot a man in the back 8 times and would have gotten away with it if not for a random cell phone video uploaded to the internet. That same police officer is currently in the cell next to Roof.

That's right. The cop who shot Walter Scott in the back is in the cell next to the Charleston terrorist.

This is South Carolina. This is America.

The history is ugly, and painful, and it's all coming to the surface because we have never properly dealt with it. (I should add here that plenty of people have talked about it, more brilliantly than I could hope to, but as a society we refuse to adequately address these issues.) Instead, we attempt to ignore the problem, while naming streets and erecting statues to honor Confederate soldiers, claiming its to honor the heritage of the South. Unfortunately, that particular heritage is racist and hateful. There are many things the South should be proud of, the Confederacy is not one of those things. The statue of John C Calhoun, pro-slavery politician and all around horrible person, stands in the heart of the city. It was erected during the Jim Crow era, so blacks in the city could do nothing to prevent it. Meanwhile, proposed memorials to slaves have always been met with massive resistance. Odd that they are so willing to honor one side of their heritage and not the other.

Similarly, the Confederate flag, which was largely retired to museums after the Civil War (because they lost and most of the actual soldiers accepted it) regained popularity in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a symbol of opposition to the rising Civil Rights Movement. It was a sign of open defiance to the idea that all people are equal. So no matter how you personally want to define the flag, it represents hate.

The group that helped revive the flag, the States' Rights Democratic party, was led by Strom Thurmond, who ran for President in 1948. "States' rights" is often code for wanting to legally treat minority groups like shit. Politicians are already reverting to the states' rights argument to defend the use of the flag; watch how many use the same argument to deny gay people their rights now that the Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal.

Ironically, South Carolina State Senator and Strom Thurmond's own son wants to take the flag down. When Strom Thurmond's kin can no longer defend the flag, it's time to remove it.

Yet that is only one small step to the larger goal of equality for all. When prominent white voices proclaim angrily that racism doesn't even exist anymore, it is clear just how difficult that goal will be to reach.

It's a popular theory that the younger generations will be automatically less hateful. Dylann Roof put an end to that myth. There is still a need to actively educate the youth about past and existing inequalities in order to battle the misconceptions and misinformation passed down from older generations and currently being spewed on major media outlets. Roof became radicalized and obsessed with the idea that black people are ruining America and need to be taken out after the Trayvon Martin case. The death of a black 18 year old at the hands of a white/hispanic man and the complete acquittal of said white/hispanic man convinced a young white man that blacks are dangerous and need to be "put down."

That is the psychosis of white supremacy. The very idea that a young black man's life mattered enough to be in the news and in social media for an extended period of time, and the fact that he was occasionally portrayed sympathetically, was enough to threaten his sense of superiority. This is the same mentality that led to the increase in the number of domestic terrorist groups and white supremacist groups (often the same thing) immediately after Obama's election. Any progression towards equality is perceived as a threat from those who benefit from the status quo. It's a mentality that believes brown skin foreigners are a bigger threat to the US than white US citizens when the exact opposite is true. It's a mentality that accuses Obama and liberals of taking away guns while ownership and sales have steadily risen since Obama took office.

There is a theory that a black kid started dating a girl Dylann Roof liked and that set him down the path of hatred. His feelings of rejection mixed with inferiority made him search out a villain. In America, there's no more typical villain than black men. Trayvon had recently become a powerful symbol of an unjust justice system, but Roof knew he was really just a thug who got what he deserved. The black guy who took his girl was probably just like Trayvon. Once he gave credence to those feelings, there were plenty of people willing to encourage him.

Everybody needs to come to terms with their own identity. Some people accept their heritage, some people reject it. As white people in America, even if we never personally oppressed anyone and our ancestors never owned slaves, we have benefited from white privilege. We need to understand and accept that. It's nothing to feel guilty about, it's just a matter of life in America. Benefiting from white privilege doesn't make you racist, but denying it does. Unfortunately, some white people are defensive about the idea that they benefit from anything, which leads to this idea that they are the ones being persecuted whenever the idea is brought up. Giving up the status quo is a scary thought. A large part of their identity is built upon the fact that whiteness is inherently superior. Poor whites are often the ones most resistant to this idea of white privilege because they don't see the direct benefits. However, those same poor white people are the ones fighting against minority groups (blacks, gays, immigrants) receiving equal rights. That's white fragility. This white fragility manifests in many ways. It can be claims of reverse racism or as simple as tuning out of the conversation of race entirely because it is uncomfortable. It can also manifest in dangerous ways if given the right (wrong) motivation and in the right environment, as seen with Roof.

All white individuals are not a problem, whiteness is a problem. The whiteness inherent in denying the existence of a problem. The whiteness inherent in being safely detained and given a proper trial for murdering 9 black people versus being choked to death on the street for selling cigarettes.

Dylann Roof wanted to start a race war because he was afraid of blacks taking over the country. This idea, this fear that blacks are going to rise up and kill whitey is nothing new. This was the exact plot of Birth of a Nation in 1915, and this mentality is still pervasive in many parts of the country (and in many media outlets) in 2015.  The number of groups coming to the defense of Dylann's views, making sure that his "important" ideas are not lost in the tragedy, is frightening. They continue to warn about a race war, but the only people who want a race war are racist whites who can't come to grips with a changing reality.

There will never be a race war because, as Rachel Dolezal proved (despite how awful she is as a person) race is a social construct and fluid. Which side will multiracial people be on? Which side will Eminem be on? Which side will Asians and Latinos be on?

Race is a social construct that has real effects on people's lives. Facing it head on is how we deal with it. Acknowledge your privilege as a white person. Acknowledge the realities of racial disparities. When black people protest with #BlackLivesMatter, resist the urge to reply back with #AllLivesMatter. You are silencing an oppressed minority group, which is the problem in the first place. Yes all lives matter, but historically and currently, it has been proven time and time again that black lives don't matter as much as white lives in this country. Raising black people up, or any people of color, is not taking white people down. It is lifting everybody up. When I see my black or Latino or Asian brothers and sisters being treated poorly, it doesn't improve my status because I'm white. It lowers my status as a human being.

Acknowledging whiteness and the negative effects of whiteness does not implicate every white person. If and when a civil war does break out, it will be about principles. One side's principles include freedom and equality for all, the other side's principles focus on the superiority of a few. The sides are largely divided by race, but there are plenty of minorities who will fight for a racist, oppressive establishment. Many Polish Jews helped the Gestapo round up other Jews. African slaves in America did the same for their slavemasters. Harriet Tubman always said she would have freed thousands more if only they wanted to free themselves. That is the power of the establishment. And it works the other way, too. In any fight for equal rights, the Civil Rights Movement, the Gay Rights movement, there are always people from the oppressive majority group that break rank and fight for equality for all. Many white people gave their lives in the Civil Rights Movement. Many straight people put their lives and careers on the line for the Gay Rights Movement. It's a matter of principles, not what you look like or who you sleep with.

I'm a straight, white, 35 year old man from a middle class family and I recognize that I have benefited from all of those aspects of my identity. I recognize injustices towards minority groups exist and I stand for equal treatment of all races, classes, genders and sexual orientations.

What do you stand for? Now is a good time to decide.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed. 

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