Sunday, June 21, 2015

Charleston and White America

The murder of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina last Wednesday is both horrifying and deeply disturbing. I am inclined to agree that this was an act of terrorism.

But we cannot call this act surprising or unthinkable.  Not in a country with a troubled history of racism and violence, the legacy of which continues today in racial discrepancies in healthcare, education, incarceration, etc. Not in a country where the horrific actions of angry young white men are always buried in sympathetic narratives. Not in a country where these angry young white men have easy access to weapons that kill people efficiently. Not in a country that continues to experience an undercurrent of racial fear and hatred that bubbles to the surface in the use of words like “thug” or phrases like “we must take our country back” (From whom, one wonders…).

Addressing white America

From here on, I want to specifically address my fellow white Americans, as I did in a previous post, “Nonviolence for White Americans.” 

Our culture makes it easy for white Americans to think of racism as something in the past (as in the sanitized narrative of Martin Luther King, Jr.) and as something that isn't really our issue.  This is an undoubtedly false view of racism in 21st century America.

Jamilah Lemieux makes a compelling case in her piece, “White Silence Kills 9 in Charleston,” that at this point only white people can end racism in America. I recommend that my fellow white Americans read her piece with an open mind; you may not agree, but it is well worth your consideration. I think Lemieux is right. We white Americans have serious work to do. Where to start?

The murderer’s motivations

First, we can’t pretend that we don’t understand what motivated the murderer (Feel free to add, “alleged” every time I say “murderer.” I trust the American legal system to presume a white mass murderer innocent until proven guilty, but this blog isn't a court of law). Roof knowingly chose a black church with a nearly 200-year history. He explained his motivations during the attack. His racist manifesto has been found online. See Larry Wilmore’s hilariously effective treatment of the absurd notion that this was an attack on Christianity that had nothing to do with race.

The murderer is one of us

Second, we can’t deny that Roof is one of us, that is, a white American. I realize how easy it is in particular for white Northerners to chalk this up to a racist, ignorant Southern Other (I grew up in Minnesota, so I know how easy it is to use stereotypes about the South in order to hide one’s own faults). But, like it or not, South Carolina is part of the United States. I hate to break it to you, white America, but the murderer is one of us. 

Besides, Northern condemnations of Southern racism are hypocritical. As just one example, remember that most of the widely publicized police killings of unarmed black men and boys in recent years were in the North: Eric Garner was killed in New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and Michael Brown in Missouri.

See this article by Baynard Woods for a perspective from a white Southerner.

We are affected by racism and can do something about it

It is disturbing and difficult to admit that Roof had racist motivations and that he is one of us; I suspect many of us are unwilling to do. If we are able to do so, however, white Americans can move toward admitting that this murderer is not merely a deranged outlier, but that he is a direct effect of the deep racism that we continue to allow to exist and that corrodes our own humanity with the mental acids of fear and hatred. Racism is not something that only affects people of color. It's not uniquely their problem to solve.

I don’t pretend to have the answers for what particular actions we should be taking to end racism. But I think the issue facing us today is deeper than not knowing what to do: we must first recognize the problem and decide we want to do something about it. White America, we can’t keep pushing away these issues and putting our heads in the sand to pretend they don’t exist or that they don’t affect us.

Racism is a problem for all Americans, and it’s a problem that we white Americans have a great deal of power to change. That is, if we decide we want to.


  1. This is a really interesting collection of thoughts from some philosophers on Charleston:

  2. See also this article, "Why It's So Hard to Talk to White People about Racism," which makes the distinction I forgot to make between racism as a personal feeling and racism as a cultural and institutional system.

  3. Here are some ideas for specific things to do: "Nine Ways You Can Use Your White Privilege for Good":