Friday, June 19, 2015

Race in America Today—Lessons of Rachel Dolezal and Dylann Roof

They wept outside Mother Emanuel Church on Wednesday.

From the moment I first saw a posting on Facebook a few days ago that a woman with wild, springy hair who had been elected to a local NAACP leadership post was really a white woman passing for Black I refrained from joining the rising cacophony of comments.   I could see the train wreck coming.  This one apparently damaged woman would become the focus of a media and social networking storm as Americans of all stripes transformed her from a human being to a symbol for their individual racial anxieties, identity insecurities, ideologies, and wells of moral indignation.  I knew the terms of engagement would be quickly set and hardened and that the whole affair would quickly degenerate into a shouting melee in which no one listened to what did not confirm their own conclusions and in which no minds would be changed.  And indeed, that is exactly what happened to Rachel Dolezal and by extension all of us.
Then just as the whole thing was burning with satisfactory white heat, just as CNN was dedicating its whole evening news block, a harmless looking goofy white kid with a ‘60’s bowl hair cut sat in a Charleston, South Carolina Wednesday night prayer meeting at the most historically significant Black Church in the state, and then calmly began shooting people.  As he reloaded the kid later identified as Dylann Roof explained himself, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”  CNN, instead of going into their famous wall-to-wall coverage of a breaking terrorism story, doggedly stuck with its coverage of Dolezal with only periodic moments-long bulletins from Charleston.
Over at Fox News, more notorious than CNN only because it is more shameless, they had their own agenda for the evening—fawning over the latest declared Republican candidate for President to emerge from the seemingly infinitely commodious clown car, Donald Trump.  They could hardly be bothered to take any notice at all.  Interestingly earlier that day in his rambling announcement speech, Trump had pointedly charged another despised minority—Mexican immigrants—raped our women and committed crimes.  This statement, apt to inflame the racial paranoia of any number of devoted and armed Fox viewers, was not questioned by the interviewer.
And there, of course, is one of several cruxes of widening racially motivated violence in this country—abetted and even encouraged by allegedly respectable media for the political advantage of their benefactors and clients.

Rachel Dolezal, vessel of racial identity anxiety.

The brouhaha about Rachel Dolezal was never much more than a distraction destined to be fodder for a few days of news cycles.  It came hot on the heels of another, but more enduring story because celebrities were involved, the Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner transformation.  It struck a similar note of anxiety over well defined identities and roles.  The ability of people to apparently transcend agreed upon identities really freaks a lot of folks out, especially those, like many Americans, who have been conditioned to think in binary, polar termsthis or that never both, either, or neither.  Journalist and analyst Doug Mulder explained, “Everything you thought was a category is actually a continuum” in his post What’s So Scary about Caitlyn Jenner at his blog The Weekly Sift.
What really freaked people out about Dolezal, an obscure figure on the national stage at best, was not that she lied about her race or that she tried to pass, it was that she was white and tried to pass for Black.  Had the opposite occurred—and it sometimes has—it would have caused no more than a ripple.  Mixed race, light skin blacks have been passing for white since colonial times.  Think the natural children of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings.  It is enshrined in our culture and has been a common theme in novels, play, and films—think Julie in Showboat and major characters in Imitation of Life, Band of Angles, Pinky, I Passed for White, and The Human Stain.  We may not approve of it.  Whites may be made insecure about their own pasts and Blacks may feel betrayed, but everyone understands it.  After all who, given the chance, would not choose to be White and claim all of the security and privilege that status offers?
But a white choose to pass as Black?  Well that must be just plain crazy.  Who the hell would want to do that?  The paranoid mind can come to only one conclusion.  An educated white woman choosing to be Black must be more evidence that Blacks are “winning”, that their master plot to subjugate the White race is working.  Rachel Dolezal was just an early deserter.  More will surely follow the evil liberals who have always been race traitors anyway.
A lot of folks who are not avowed racists pick up on that anxiety vibe and resonate with it never fully consciously realizing the implications.
I am not writing o an apology for Dolezal hear but neither am I going to participate in the ritual denunciations of her with which many white anti-racist allies feel compelled to preface any remarks which might indicate some personal sympathy with her.  I am interested in how this blip on the racial radar against the background of the towering thunderheads which threaten to envelop it and all of us.

Dylann Roof, racist, terrorist, and assassin.  Not a misunderstood victim of mental illness,
The murderous terrorist Dylann Roof is emblematic of that storm that has been gathering strength for month, in direct response to the many protests of police brutality and the summary execution of Black men, women, and children.   The heretical claim that Black Lives Matter and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity is seen as a slap in the face by many whites, a daring challenge to privilege, and an attack the empowered guardians of that privilege, the police.
That certainly is what Roof thought.  In the short hours since his identification and peaceful arrest in North Carolina, we have discovered a lot about him.  He was an avowed raciest and considered himself a neo-Confederate patriot.  He proudly had a Confederate Flag license plate frame on his vehicle.  He posted a widely circulated picture of himself in a jacket emblazoned with the Apartheid Era South African Flag and the flag of the rogue white supremacist country of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).  And we have learned that his weasel of a roommate was used to his racist rants and knew for months that Roof was planning “something big” in hopes of igniting a race war and did nothing to report the danger to anyone.
And then there is the matter of Roof’s selection of a target.  It was hardly a random or accidental choice.  There are plenty of places to kill Black people in Charleston which is more than 25% Black.    The state of South Carolina as a whole more is than one third Black.  He could have picked busy streets, stores, schools, night spots, or movie theaters.  Instead he picked the most significant black shrine in the city, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal ChurchMother Emanuel as it was known far and wide.  

The. Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney in his historic church
Then there was the issue of Mother Emanuel’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney who was not only a dynamic and beloved religious leader to his congregation, but an important local activist who became the youngest ever Black member of the South Carolina House of Representatives at age 23 and was currently a State Senator.  He had recently co-sponsored bitterly contested legislation to require police to wear body cameras and joined other local pastors for a prayer vigil and protest after Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man, was shot eight times in the back by a police officer in North Charleston.  The attack then was more than a mass shooting—it was a political assassination.
It is impossible to deny that Roof conducted an act of racial terrorism.  Not that the American right wing which has long courted overt racists and their covert allies as a key element of their political base is not desperate to try.  Thursday anchors on the Fox & Friends morning show were flogging the idea that the shooting was an attack on Christianity.  By evening presidential wannabe and perpetual dick Rick Santorum was making the same claim, thus by implication shifting the blame to secularists, humanists, and atheists he identifies with the Left.  There is no evidence of this and it flies in the face of Roof’s own words, but that never stop blatant lying before and won’t now.  Millions of American will soon believe it as, you should pardon the expression, gospel.
There were also leading conservatives who expressed sorrow and regret at the shooting but professed the complete inability to understand it.  Leading that charge was Governor Nikki Haley who because she comes from an Asian Indian family, is used to by the state’s racists to prove that South Carolina has now moved “beyond race” and is essentially color blind.  In her first response, a Facebook post she wrote, “While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another…”   This is a woman who has made political hay out of defending the continued display of the Confederate Battle Flag on the state Capitol grounds.  That’s the same flag that Roof flaunted on his car. 
Then there is the secondary issue of guns.  Gun worshipers are all over their web pages and social media sites wringing their hands and screaming that the attack will be used as an excuse to take away their manhood, er, toys.  Some have held Rev. Pinckney responsible for his own death by packing himself and shooting it out wild west style.  But the fact remains that the murders were carried out by Roof with an automatic pistol given to him on his 21st birthday by his parents despite their knowledge that he was “troubled” and feared he was dangerous.  That makes them abettors and accomplices in my book.
That leads us to the knee jerk trope that Roof was the victim of mental illness which was floated by the media as soon as the shooter was identified as white and well before anyone had any idea just who the hell he was.
Yesterday I read one too many Facebook comment about not understanding the actions of a madman, many from well-meaning but naïve people who should know better.  This is what I posted yesterday in weary response to one-too-many such claims.
I am uncomfortable with the repeated use of the word madman to describe him. This, along with lone wolf, always seems to be used as modifiers for White men with guns who commit multiple murders.  Black killers, alleged or confirmed, are never described that way in the media.  They are called thugs, criminals, and terrorists. Pleas for better mental health services often far outnumber calls for restricting easy access to guns are part of the same syndrome.  So is the refusal to acknowledge the culpability of the media and society that is spreading and fostering racial hatred and a burgeoning network of hate groups and hangers on.  Many an alleged lone wolf has spent hours on such web sites even if he never actually joined a group. Worse, his example will empower copy cats. The clear racism, xenophobia, and gun worshiping culture behind this all have to be strongly confronted and stripped of its cover and excuses. Ask yourself if by spreading these code words if you are not abetting the crime.....

That’s my take on the sorry situation of our country.  Black Lives Matter!  What the hell are we going to do about that?


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