NORTH CHATHAM, N.Y. – U.S.A.
Post-World War II political institutions in Germany foster reconciliation with and atonement for a shameful history of white supremacist genocide Conversely, the ruling class of the United States willfully ignores a centuries-old gumbo of racist slaughter and gun fetishism amounting to slow-motion genocide. Profiteers of American racism prefer instead to ascribe endless acts of domestic terrorism to “lone wolf” psychopaths.
Of late, the loner is a pathetic 21-year-old pasty-faced squeak and confessed murderer called Dylann Storm Roof. On June 17, he calmly drew his Glock 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol on worshipers participating in a Wednesday evening bible study session conducted by Pastor Clementa Pinckney at the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina. He killed nine black people, Pastor Pinckney included, dispatching them one by one whilst shouting, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over the country, and you have to go.”
Immediately, corporate media quoted a bevy of racially blinkered politicians who mouthed the usual: There are no words to describe this tragedy…We will never understand his motivation…His sickness is beyond human comprehension. There are plenty of words attendant to Mr. Roof’s conduct; the word tragedy is misused, as it connotes no human fault; society has a rôle in Mr. Roof’s theatrical homicides. And there is unholy significance to Mother Emanuel’s location on Calhoun Street—named in honor of the hawk-faced political theorist and ignoramus historian John C. Calhoun (1782-1850). In 1838, Mr. Calhoun defined the “great institution” of slavery as a mutual “blessing” for all concerned:
A mysterious Providence [has] brought together two races, from different portions of the globe, and placed them…in nearly equal numbers in the Southern portion of this Union. They [are] inseparably united…Experience [has] shown that the existing relation between them secured the peace and happiness of both. Each had improved; the inferior greatly, so much so that they [have] attained a degree of civilization never before attained by the black race in any age or country. Under no other relation could they co-exist together. …[W]e must defend and preserve it.
In America, eighty-eight people are killed by gunfire every day; white racist police officers shoot and kill innocent, unarmed black people from coast to coast; full-fledged massacres are weekly events. Most carnage of this sort no longer merits headlines, or even shock; it is that routine. Our ever-so-quotable politicians have little or nothing to say of it. They are too busy suckling at the teats of the National Rifle Association, which lobbies Congress to do absolutely nothing by way of sane gun laws.
Thus are we mired in another matter of unholy significance: a race-crazed, so-called lone wolf maniac has to walk all the way to the nearest street corner to buy a Glock 9-millimeter. Marketers and handgun aficionados hail this pistol as having “enhanced shootability,” less recoil than competitor semiautomatics, the greatest capacity for high-velocity bullets, and the cheapest price tag. Mr. Roof’s trusty Glock was a birthday gift from his father.
Likewise available at friendly neighborhood gun emporia in Anywhere, U.S.A. is the nation’s most popular firearm: the Bushmaster AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, a civilian model of the U.S. Army’s M-16 assault weapon. The AR-15 comes equipped with extra features such as high-speed ammo clips that fire up to a hundred organ-melting .223 caliber dum-dum bullets before it’s necessary to reload. (With a few adjustments, the AR-15 can become a fully automatic machine gun.) In December 2012, Adam Lanza, age 20, used his very own AR-15—this one a Christmas gift from his mother—to mow down twenty children and six of their teachers at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, as well as Mommy Dearest herself before he blew his brains out. Young Lanza’s ersatz machine gun is the number one choice of his fellow mass murderers. Among its proudly defensive owners are Governor Nikki Haley and Senator Lindsey Graham, both of South Carolina.
The number one target of bigots’ bile and death threats is Barack Obama, the first black U.S. president. With a face and voice full of pain, he addressed the nation the morning after the slaughter of bible-reading African Americans in Charleston—nicknamed the Holy City due to its preponderance of churches.
“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” said the president. “Once again, innocent people were killed, in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun. …We, as a country, will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”
Such reckoning did not occur three years ago in the aftermath of schoolhouse slaughter in Connecticut, where most victims were white. It is unlikely to occur now as nine black families grieve for their beloved and bury their bodies. One mourner told the New York Times, “We’re not worth the air they don’t want us to breathe.”
In America, guns and fear are sold to maniacs and racists and all the rest of us. This is big business. Stephen Feinberg—chief executive of Cerberus Capital Management, parent company of Bushmaster—reaps millions upon millions peddling firearms. His stooge, Charles L. Cotton of the N.R.A., handles the fear component of a lucrative commercial scheme: more fear = more guns = more revenue. Upon hearing the news of massacre in the Holy City, Mr. Cotton blamed Mr. Pinckney for the church carnage, never mind the pastor’s own death. By Mr. Cotton’s lights, the dead preacher should have been packing a pistol of his own, with which to blast away at the monster Roof, thereby protecting his flock.
Fox Television, a network in the spirit of Reichsministerium für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda of Josef Goebbels (1897-1945), characterized the massacre as yet another sortie in “the war on Christianity”—a right-wing trope in the age of Barack Obama, whom Fox commentators frequently imply is a Jesus-hating homosexual Muslim. Never mind that Roof the killer fetishized the “battle cross” flag—emblem of the Confederate States of America during the U.S. Civil War (1860-65), in which the Confederacy sought to preserve Mr. Calhoun’s “great institution.” Its stars and bars respectively symbolize thirteen treasonous southern states and the odd notion that Jesus Christ was on the side of the southern crusade.
And never mind that Roof was an avid consumer of neo-Nazi, white supremacist literature. Facts have little to do with the proto-fascist programming of Fox TV. On the morning after Pastor Pinckney and his black congregants were slain, Fox commentator Steve Doocy complained of non-fascist media, “Extraordinarily, they called it a hate crime.”
Speaking of guns, enter Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, one among an expanding parade of right-wing politicians seeking to become the Republican Tea Party candidate for president. Mr. Cruz chose the Friday after Wednesday night’s shoot-em-up to crack an unfunny joke at a campaign rally in Red Oak, Iowa: “The great thing about the state of Iowa is, I’m pretty sure you all define gun control the same way we do in Texas—hitting what you aim at.”
Meanwhile, rivals of the charmless Mr. Cruz—including long-ago Florida Governor Jeb Bush, brother of America’s all-time worst president, George W. Bush—spouted a menu of vagaries to dodge reporters’ questions as to their positions on a rising tide of calls to remove the racist “battle cross” from the grounds of the South Carolina capitol. They did, however, man up to mumble clichéd sympathies: My heart goes out to the families…I’m praying for the families…Now is the time for the community to heal.
Long-ago Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas—eponymous huckster of cinnamon pills as a sure-pop cure for diabetes, dimple-cheeked ex-Fox TV commentator, author of the autobiography “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy”—said taking a position on the symbol of race-based treason and terror doesn’t have “anything to do whatsoever with running for president.” Which he is.
At basic issue here is the failure of America, as a nation, to do away with a wicked combine of disgraceful politicians, right-wing media, organized racism, and corporate profiteers of white panic. The Confederate flag is merely a bit of overt evidence of our endemic racism, as was the once ubiquitous public utterances of the word nigger.
But an underlying social rot remains virtually unacknowledged.
The genesis of America’s racist plague arrived with a shipment of kidnapped Africans to the port of Jamestown, for the purpose of wage-free labor in the white-owned tobacco and cotton fields of Virginia. In 1859, as secessionist fever gripped the South, the region’s foremost slave auction was established in Charleston, along the attractively cobblestoned Chalmers Street (now a major tourist attraction). There, beneath a bouquet of Confederate flags, newly arrived Africans in iron shackles—men, women, and children—were sold to the highest bidders; if families were splintered in the cause of such enterprise, so be it.
Only six generations beyond the slave era—and two generations beyond 1960, when most blacks were prevented from voting—it is unsurprising that today’s African Americans lag behind whites in terms of personal income, property, educational levels, and employment status. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in every three black men born today will go to prison at some point in their lifetimes; black women are three times more likely to be incarcerated than white women; and conviction records, mostly for nonviolent drug offenses, disenfranchise fifteen percent of voting-age blacks.
As President Obama said in a June 23 interview with podcaster Marc Maron, “The legacy of slavery [and] discrimination in almost every institution of our lives…casts a long shadow, and [it’s] still part of our DNA. That’s passed on. We’re not cured of it, clearly. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘nigger’ in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not.”
Unsurprisingly, Fox TV neglected the context of Mr. Obama’s remarks, reporting that he “demeaned the presidency” by saying nigger.
In October 1999, more than three hundred angry white southerners swarmed the base of South Carolina’s capitol in Columbia, where they unfurled a gigantic Confederate flag as a photogenic backdrop for the day’s roster of racist ranters. Keynoting the jamboree was the aptly named A.J. Barker, a biscuits-and-butter specimen of good old boy southern manhood at odds with black South Carolinians long opposed to a banner as racist as it is treasonous.
Mr. Barker, a macher in the Council of Conservative Citizens, declined to say nigger. Nevertheless, he elicited the approving hoots and hollers of his assembled genetic pool by disparaging black folks in vintage peckerwood fashion: “They are trying to destroy our heritage and culture. They are the enemies of God, and the enemies of our race—supported by people with baggy pants and earrings in the eyes and noses and other places like in the heart of Africa.”
It is an easy thing to laugh at Mr. Barker and his hate group, founded in southern city of Atlanta in 1988. But as the president suggests, they are as American as AR-15 semiautomatics. The organization’s tripartite watchword, according to its website: “God is the author of racism; God is the One who divided mankind into different types; mixing the races is rebelliousness against God.” The unsubtle antecedents of the C.C.C. are Ku Klux Klan (K.K.K.) mobs that roamed the South in masks and pointy hats with little stars-and-bars patches to lynch blacks freed from slavery by the U.S. Army after it defeated Confederate traitors. Then came the more immediate predecessors—White Citizens Councils that popped up all over the South in 1954 in light of the Supreme Court’s abolition of racial segregation in public schools.
Today’s C.C.C., under the leadership of Texas slumlord Earl P. Holt III, has funneled tens of thousands of dollars to the current Republican Tea Party presidential campaigns of Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, and homophobic ex-Senator Rick Santorum—as well as to Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid in 2012, and the campaign treasury of Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert, a mainstay of annual Dumbest Congressmen lists.
As a right-wing radio host in 2004, Mr. Holt used the word “nigger” numerous times in defining African Americans as “the laziest, stupidest, and most criminally-inclined race in the history of the world.” Messrs. Cruz, Paul, Santorum, Romney, and Gohmert have recently said they were shocked—shocked—to learn of their patron’s philosophy.
Mr. Holt and the C.C.C. will most surely have something to say about declarations of intent by Governor Nikki Haley and a few other South Carolina politicians to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse environs. In her televised speech of Monday, June 22, the governor allowed how the flag of human bondage, racial degradation, and Dylann Roof-style domestic terrorism might be “deeply offensive.” She noted, too, that South Carolina was recently declared—by someone—as the “friendliest state, and the most patriotic.”
She then pushed forward with the sort of nonspecific hagiography that soothes the savage breasts of old timey segregationists whose aim in life is to look away, look away, Dixieland. “For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble,” the governor explained. “Traditions of history, of heritage, and of ancestry. Those South Carolinians view the flag as a symbol of respect, integrity, and duty.”
Having given a nudge-nudge to the old white guard, Ms. Haley vowed that Monday evening to do everything in her gubernatorial power to transfer the battle cross to its rightful resting place—a museum. Such determination was not in evidence three days earlier when she equivocated on the flag question by reiterating her opinion-free view that flying the Confederate colors was “a sensitive issue.”
Her predecessor in office—Mark Sanford, forced to resign after lying about a taxpayer-funded sex romp with his Argentine mistress, after which he was elected to the House of Representatives in Washington—echoed Ms. Haley’s non-opinion by referring to the flag matter as a “complex issue.” But then, with lightning speed, both Mr. Sanford and Ms. Haley stood foursquare for doing the right thing, if the feeblest. Corporate media duly pronounce them “courageous.”
Neither one of them, however, has mustered the actual courage required of a white politician determined to improve the prospects of life for black constituents—in terms of wages and salaries, property ownership opportunity, education, and employment. And in terms of election law, the Republican Tea Party of Governor Haley and Congressman Sanford is engaged in an endless multistate plot to suppress voting among African Americans, who give overwhelming support to the opposition Democratic Party.
In the ongoing shame of its anti-democracy voter suppression effort, the Republican Tea Party enjoys the support of John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court—appointed by the aforementioned all-time worst president. Two years ago this month, in the matter of Shelby v. Holder, Justice Roberts guided his court to evisceration of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required federal preclearance of alterations to election statutes in states with histories of discriminating against black voters. Namely, states of the Old Confederacy, very much include the first state to secede from the Union—South Carolina.
The stupendously dim Justice Roberts wrote in the majority 5-4 opinion in Shelby v. Holder, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Within hours of Justice Roberts’ handiwork, Nikki Haley’s South Carolina legislature leapt at the chance to enact a state voter registration law that made it considerably more difficult for citizens with skin color matching the nine murdered congregants of Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Ms. Haley said nothing of that racist law on the evening of June 22, nor did Congressman Sanford—nor did Senator Graham, who stood near the two, rolling his baby blues in disgusted reaction to the “courageous” remarks about banishing his beloved, albeit embarrassing Confederate flag.
For her Johnny-Reb-come-lately fortitude, Nikki Haley is now a darling of the Republican Tea Party establishment. Right-wingers love nothing more than a gestures as a substitute for progress. Besides her newfound compassion for persons who might take offense at a racist totem on public grounds, Ms. Haley is riding high in the opinion polls for something else: the highlight of her 2013 reëlection campaign was taking a pose with an AR-15 semiautomatic. As I write, her party’s poobahs are talking her up as a vice presidential running mate for whatever marcher in the clown parade lands at the top of the ticket.
As for the disgraced ex-governor, Mr. Sanford is many times over a grateful beneficiary of the N.R.A.’s Political Victory Fund. It helped him win a seat in Congress, after all. Thanks to him and South Carolina legislation he signed, teenage maniacs bent on racist terrorism such as occurred at Mother Emanuel may purchase whatever firearms they desire. No permit needed, no registration required, no background check necessary, and no matter if the buyer awaits trial on felony charge—as does Dylann Storm Roof, per arrest unrelated to his killing spree.
This is why I am faithful to the God of irony: Of all people, the son of South Carolina’s all-time champion white supremacist hypocrite is the voice of reason in the wake of what occurred on June 17 at Mother Emanuel. The hard fact is that four centuries of white racism in my country will not be reckoned with until white people decide to do so.
“I am aware of my heritage,” said South Carolina State Senator Paul Thurmond this week. “I am not proud of this heritage.”
No media report credited Mr. Thurmond with “courage” for countermanding the views of his authoritarian father—the late U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond, who died in 2003 at age 100. But courage it was, and wisdom.
In 1948, Thurmond père was the unsuccessful presidential standard-bearer of the segregationist States Rights Democratic Party. In announcing his candidacy that year, he said, “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches, and our places of recreation and amusement.” He held such corrosive notions throughout his life and political career, with one exception: his secret affair with a 16-year-old black housekeeper, which resulted in the birth of his daughter—Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Ms. Washington-Williams revealed the relationship in a bittersweet memoir, published upon her father’s death.
In speaking of slavery, Thurmond fils said, “It was inhumane and wrong, wrong, wrong. It is time to acknowledge our past, atone for our sins, and work for a better future.”
He praised his fellow political partisans—Nikki Haley and the rest—for deciding that a better future cannot be built “on symbols of war, hate, and divisiveness.” But he said there was far more to do, that the road ahead was long and the journey treacherous.
Indeed, white people must accept that the Confederate case is a deservedly lost cause. And they must renounce what Ms. Haley calls “traditions that are noble,” for they are, in sorry truth, ignoble tribalisms that are and always were wrong, wrong, wrong.
Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag