Our Role in Modern White Supremacy After Charleston

Disturbing Trends
Racial tension in the United States is probably greater now, at least for those of us born after the 1960s, than at any point in our lives. The media, business leaders, and politicians push the notion that, because we have a black president, because a few people of color are in positions of power, and because we can turn on the television and see more than one black person in a sitcom, we’ve achieved some measure of post-racial harmony. We know better than that. Racism and white supremacy are flourishing in modern America.[A]

There are visible signs, like a dramatic increase in the number of hate groups, or that since 9/11 more Americans have been killed by white supremacists than any other terrorist group.[1],[2] Then there are the not-so-visible signs, those not apparent to most white Americans. Despite overwhelming evidence that the police, judicial, and correctional systems are racist, that the lives and experiences of people of color are given less than those of white Americans, and the uninterrupted series of attacks against people of color in other countries since 9/11, much of “White America” is content going about their business as if race weren’t a problem.

None of us are immune to the effects of growing up in a country founded on white supremacy. The enslavement and genocide of people of color and indigenous Americans dates back to the founding of the American colonies. Those of us who call ourselves anti-racist or allies to people of color, who draw attention to acts of racism and institutional oppression, cannot escape its effects.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the recent murder of nine black Americans by terrorist and admitted racist Dylann Storm Roof, and the public response, cast new light on issues that our society has failed to address for decades. The Civil Rights movement brought great improvements for people of color in the United States, but it’s increasingly apparent that, despite those gains, the work of that (and the subsequent Black Power) movement has fallen short of its goals. People of color do not receive equal treatment in modern America. Signs of their oppression still surround us. We can no longer avoid talking about the dark legacy of white supremacy that we’ve inherited.

Blinding Ourselves to White Supremacy
We claim to be color-blind, an act which blinds us to the racism right in front of our eyes. Ignoring racists has done little to improve material conditions for people of color over the last 40 years. Color-blindness results inhibits an examination of our own thoughts and actions, further complicating modern race relations. The election of a black president, Barack Obama, in 2008 gave us hope that we’d moved beyond the era of white supremacy, but it’s ever more obvious that we’ve taken several steps backward.

The response from right-wing politicians and media to the Charleston terrorist attacks has been disturbingly consistent. They’ve molded the popular narrative to place the blame anywhere but where it belongs. Roof’s actions have been blamed on mental illness, prescription drugs, or even an attack against Christianity.[3] Even elements of the “progressive” media and some leftists have chalked the killings up to mental illness, describing racism as a mental illness (as if those who live daily with mental illness didn’t face enough stigma). This despite the killer’s own admission that the attacks were racially-motivated, despite the fact that he planned the attack well in advance, and that he spent an hour “praying” with those he would later kill.[4] Anything to deny they white supremacy, and a culture that makes excuses for racist behavior, is to blame.

White supremacy is not exclusive to right-wing hate groups. It is the foundation on which the United States and modern capitalism were built. The Ku Klux Klan, National Socialist Movement (NSM), and Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) wear their beliefs on their sleeves, but white supremacy runs much deeper than that.

White supremacy is the idea that the lives, experiences, and culture of white people — especially heterosexual white men — hold greater value than those of other groups. It is the notion that people of color or immigrants to the United States should cast aside their own culture to slip into America’s ever-expanding “melting pot.” Effectively they’re expected to conform to the expectations and norms of white American culture. If they don’t, say by speaking a different language, wearing their clothes the “wrong” way, or preserving all but the most superficial elements of their own culture, they’re not “American” (a label used interchangeably with “white American”). Those who don’t conform are viewed as a problem, even dangerous. Our society conditions us to think this way, even when we don’t realize it. If we aren’t vigilant our own attitudes will eat us up.

Racism functions on an institutional and personal level. Racism is white supremacy in action. While not as open it once was, racism is woven into the fabric of every American state institution. The disparities in our criminal justice, judicial, and corrections systems are undeniable. At every level of interaction with these institutions, people of color are more likely to be targeted, convicted, imprisoned, or killed than their white counterparts. It’s estimated that 1 in 3 black men and 1 in 6 Latino men will spend time in prison, compared to 1 in 17 for white men. Young black women make up the fastest growing prison population.[5] And while black people make up less than 12% of the US population, they account for almost 40% of the prison population and almost 60% of those convicted of drug offenses.[6],[7]

Deflecting Attention
White supremacists who wear their racism on their sleeves have rushed to defend the Confederate flag, a symbol they’ve long claimed represents Southern heritage.[B] They’ve distanced themselves from the murders in Charleston, but right-wing groups like the CCC, from which Roof drew inspiration, express sympathy with his motives. Republican politicians, many of whom defend symbols of the South’s racist past, have shifted course, calling for the removal of the Confederate flag and monuments to Confederate leaders from state grounds and changes to state flags.[8],[9]

When a group of politicians change course so dramatically on a position to which they’ve held firm for decades, something is amiss. State officials didn’t change their position until the day after a Charleston monument dedicated to the “Defenders of Charleston” was spraypainted with “Black Lives Matter.”[10] That alone might not have been enough to cause a change in conscience, but the fact that the media began drawing connections between conservative politicians and white nationalist groups like the CCC likely sealed the deal.[D]

Rather than place the blame where it lies, at the feet of a 400+ year legacy of white supremacy, the media and shrewd politicians have redirected public attention toward visible signs of racism. Is the removal of Confederate imagery from South Carolina’s capital and the flags of Georgia, Mississippi, and other states overdue? Absolutely. Is that be a victory for anti-racists and people of color? Of course. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that removing these symbols or changing our language means the end of white supremacy. White Americans in the Northeast and big cities have mastered the art of dancing around racist language and imagery, while white supremacy simmers beneath the facade. Much of the racist police violence, and the backlash against protesters, has taken place in large Northern cities or in and around “progressive” cities like Atlanta (the “city too busy to hate”).

Most of us are guilty of diverting our frustration toward symbols of racism rather than confronting the institutions that make it possible. Facing the institution from which we benefit under scrutiny leads to uncomfortable discussions about race that are easier to ignore in a “color-blind” society. Radicals leftists and anti-racists have a history of fixating on symbols of white supremacy at the expense of dismantling the institutions they represent. White supremacist groups are dangerous and need to be confronted. Placing our focus on extremists does a grave disservice to people of color, the regular victims of racist state institutions and violence. Even if we could wipe away every hate group, we’re still left with a criminal justice system, a “War on Drugs,” and a system of cultural marginalization that disproportionately target people of color.

Dealing With Our Own Baggage
For white people who consider themselves anti-racists or allies, targeting racist symbols and isn’t enough. We must support people of color in our communities while we step back to let their voices be heard and let them lead their own struggles for liberation. We can join in those struggles, but we can’t know they endure. We can provide a platform to voice their grievances without drowning them out with white voices. We can join our neighbors of color in the streets without jumping to the front of the line, making sure everyone knows we were there. Are we more concerned with walking this path together, as they determine its course, or with proving we’re supportive, that we’re not like those other white folks? Everything doesn’t have to be about us. If we don’t inspect our attitudes to find those places where white supremacy has crept in we certainly can’t be called allies. We’re simply reproducing the hierarchies of racist institutions in our own social movements.

It’s difficult, admitting that we’ve been conditioned with racist attitudes. It’s more difficult to deal with being called out when we express those attitudes, intentional or not. We become defensive, complaining we shouldn’t have been called out in public, or that our feelings should be taken into account in the process. “We’re allies, we shouldn’t be attacked for ‘trying to help!’” It’s not up to people of color to coddle and comfort us as we deal with our own baggage. Does it hurt your feelings? Probably. Is that more important than putting an end to white supremacy? No. If we are allies, if our support is genuine, we’ll get over it. Our support for the struggles of people of color shouldn’t be conditional on how we’re treated. Oppressed groups deal with having their feelings hurt, their lives and freedom placed in jeopardy, their voices being silenced, on a daily basis. Surely we can deal with a little criticism.

When Forgiveness is Not Enough
When violence against unarmed people of color occurs, it’s become routine, even expected, that the families of the victims offer their forgiveness to the guilty party. Stacey Patton writes in the Washington Post:

“Forgiveness has become a requirement for those enduring the realities of black death in America. Black families are expected to grieve as a public spectacle, to offer comfort, redemption, and a pathway to a new day. The parents of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown and the widow of Eric Garner were all asked in interviews if they’d forgive the white men who killed their loved one.” [11]

Why should these families be pressed to offer forgiveness to killers who refuse to express remorse, or even take responsibility, for their transgressions? The question that’s often unanswered is, were those victims still here would they offer their forgiveness? Unfortunately we’ll never know.

It’s understandable that family members would want to claim the moral high ground. Perhaps at one time there was a benefit to that. But given the unbroken chain of systematic violence people of color face in our society, forgiveness doesn’t seem like enough. Forgiving these killers, to the point it becomes obligatory, does nothing to address the system that creates monsters like Dylann Roof or excuses the actions of killers like Darren Wilson, George Zimmerman, or Michael Slager, the Charleston police officer who shot an unarmed black man in the back just weeks before the Charleston massacre a few miles away.[11]

White Americans, if we don’t act to dismantle white supremacy and confront institutional oppression of our neighbors, are complicit in every act of racist violence. Our collective silence translates to consent. Placing our feelings above those of victims, expecting oppressed groups to remain “peaceful” in their protests against oppression, and failing to act to so these things don’t continue to happen are a testament to our guilt. For us it’s a choice, but people of color aren’t given that luxury. They were born into a system that places them at a constant disadvantage, that put their lives and freedom in danger every day. The least we can do is back them up in their struggles for liberation — even (especially) when it makes us uncomfortable.

In a  system that make excuses and brushes aside each new act of violence as an isolated incident, or attributes the actions of those guilty to mental illness or drug abuse, we must do better. In a society that has been infected with white supremacy and the corresponding institutional oppression for over 400 years, racist attitudes are the norm, not the isolated actions of a few deranged extremists.

Until white supremacists no longer feel safe or comfortable holding on to that hate and until the institutions that oppress our neighbors are resigned to the past, there will be no shortage of work to do. This time, perhaps we’ll do do it right and instead of expecting our oppressed neighbors to conform to white expectations and white culture. Maybe their voices, and their lives, will begin to matter in our lives and not just on a sign. Perhaps we will trust our friends and neighbors of color to lead their own struggles for liberation and, for once, let us follow.

Sources and more information:

  1. The number of right-wing militia and “patriot” groups increased by about 800% between 2008-2012: http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/intelligence-report/browse-all-issues/2012/spring/the-year-in-hate-and-extremism. There are currently 784 known hate groups active in the United States, which have grown steadily since the year 2000, with a dramatic increase after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Despite popular perception, these groups are not just isolated to the South: http://www.splcenter.org/hate-map.
  2. A list of terrorist killing by white supremacists since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/06/18/white_extremist_murders_killed_at_least_60_in_u_s_since_1995.html. Almost 100 murders linked to members and users of Stormfront, a notorious white supremacists website: http://www.businessinsider.com/100-hate-crime-murders-linked-to-stormfrontorg-2014-4
  3. Some right-wing media sources have even gone as far as to blame the killer’s actions on Suboxone, a drug used to treat dependence on heroin and other opiates. The stories, many of which barely contain their slant toward sensationalism, claim that Suboxone can cause “violent outbursts” despite any evidence to support them. In fact, Suboxone is proven to be one of the most effective treatments for opiate dependence and addiction.
  4. The killer, Dylann Storm Roof, says he was radicalized after visiting the Council of Conservative Citizens web site. He wrote a racist manifesto and after the Charleston murders admitted the attacks were racially motivated. Despite this, some conservatives still refuse to concede that racism still exists in the United States.
  5. Report on growth of the black female prison population: http://www.blackyouthproject.com/2012/11/report-black-females-are-fastest-growing-segment-of-juvenile-justice-population/
  6. Black and Latina women have a 1 in 18 and 1 in 45 likelihood of going to prison, compared to 1 in 111 for white women:  http://www.sentencingproject.org/template/page.cfm?id=122. More white women shouldn’t be incarcerated, fewer women of color should.
  7. Incarceration statistics for black people and people of color: http://www.naacp.org/pages/criminal-justice-fact-sheet. The deeper one digs, especially regarding sentencing disparities between white offenders and offenders of color, the more disturbing the trends become. Again, the solution isn’t to incarcerate more white people, but to incarcerate fewer people of color. At 2.3 million inmates the corrections system is well beyond any reasonable capacity.
  8. The killer, Dylann Storm Roof, openly expressed white supremacist sentiments and admitted that his act of terrorism was racially motivated, even though some right-wing figures have tried to frame it as an attack on Christianity or, even worse, struggled to find Roof’s motives: http://www.businessinsider.com/2-people-think-they-have-found-dylann-roofs-website-2015-6, http://lastrhodesian.com/data/documents/rtf88.txt
  9. The Council of Conservative Citizens, the modern-day incarnation of the White Citizens Councils of the segregation area expressed support for Dylann Storm Roof: http://www.businessinsider.com/council-of-conservative-citizens-defends-dylann-roof-2015-6, http://conservative-headlines.com/2015/06/media-interviews-with-the-cofcc/
  10. Confederate monument was adjacent to the Confederate Battle Flag on the South Carolina state capital grounds was tagged with “Black Lives Matter” and other messages the day before Gov. Nikki Haley and other Republicans called for the flag’s removal: http://www.theroot.com/articles/news/2015/06/_black_lives_matter_spray_painted_on_confederate_monument_in_charleston.html. Other Confederate monuments in Charleston, Baltimore, and Austin were given a similar treatment the next day:
  11. http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/06/22/black-america-should-stop-forgiving-white-racists/
  12. More details on the killing of Walter Scott by Officer Michael Slager of the North Charleston Police Department: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/08/us/south-carolina-officer-is-charged-with-murder-in-black-mans-death.html?_r=0.
  • [A]: The meaning of terms like racism and white supremacy has grown somewhat nebulous in the past twenty years or so (maybe even before that). Here white supremacy is the institutional benefit of white people, especially white people in positions of power, over people of color. It developed in Europe and the Americas during the age of European imperialism. It was solidified in the colonial United States in an effort to create conflict between white workers or indentured servants and people of color, notably indigenous peoples and black slaves. The rift created by that division continues to this day. White supremacy, which places the lives and experiences of white people, especially heterosexual white men, above those of anyone else. It has been used to excuse the genocide of indigenous peoples and enslavement of black Africans and their descendants. More recently it has been used to excuse police harassment and violence against people of color, racial disparities in the corrections system, and xenophobia against immigrants, especially immigrants from Latin America. Racism is white supremacy in action. It is prejudice or hatred of oppressed racial groups by those who benefit from white supremacy. It is generally accepted that in order to be racist in the United States, one must be white, because while people of color might be prejudiced against white people, as a group they lack the power to enforce those attitudes on a large scale. It is generally accepted, as well, that reverse racism is a nonsense idea for that reason. White people might become victims of bigotry or hatred, but they are by no means an oppressed group. As workers or part of other oppressed groups (like the LGBTQ community or religious minorities) they might face marginalization, but they are generally in a privileged position in our society when compared to people of color in those same communities. See intersectionality or intersectional feminism for more information.
  • [B]: Many white Southerners claim the Confederate Battle Flag as part of their “Southern heritage.” Such a position ignores the fact that there is no one homogeneous Southern culture. It erases the cultural contributions and struggles of people of color in the South. There is also very little historical basis to support this argument. The flag was the symbol of only some state militias during the war and was never the official flag of the Confederate State of America and held no significant meaning until it was adopted by terror groups like the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s and added to several state flags during the fight against segregation in the 1940s and 50s.
    Support for secession was far from unanimous in many Southern states. In northern Alabama, East Tennessee and North Georgia, almost every county voted against secession. Lumpkin and Fannin counties in Georgia were well-known hideouts for for Confederate Army draft dodgers and deserters (see John Michael Alexander’s Appalachia: A History or An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz for more on the Civil War in Appalachia).
  • [C]: The Council of Conservative Citizens has links to many conservative politicians. In the wake of the Charleston massacre and the attention it brought to the CCC, these politicians tried to distance themselves from the group. The CCC has ties to David Duke, the Ku Klux Klan, and other right-wing extremists. The group’s website features an article titled “A Call to White Americans,” in which it is argued that “white Americans” should “look at the faces around you: Find the faces like yours, and see them as your brothers and sisters. Find the fair-skinned babies, and see them as your children.” There are several other essays in a similar vein at http://cofcc.org. (thanks to http://fair.org for bringing attention to this material)
  • [D]: Doctor Frances Cress Welsing on the Emanuel AME Church Massacre:
    “We have had 500 years of this. And it’s time that we begin to function with an analysis of why we are doing this over and over again. And insist that Racism/White Supremacy as a total System Structure be put on top of the table. Because there is no one being put before us on television talking about Racism/White Supremacy …And absolute insistence that we need to not be talking about anything else.”

Further reading on the Confederacy and the current state of race relations in the US: