Dylann Roof Is Not Alone: Racism Persists Across Generations

On Wednesday, June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof allegedly massacred nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

This is one more example of black America being assaulted, laid under siege. A sense of racial battle fatigue has been reinforced. Black Americans are upset, like all decent people of conscience, that nine innocent people were murdered in what is a repeated pattern of mass shootings in the United States, where a fetish for guns and the gross power of the gun lobby overrides commonsense legislation designed to protect our communities from such violence.

Black America is angry that black life is cheap in America, and that the necropolis of black bodies killed by the United States' police departments will now have additional victims placed in its tomb. Black and brown folks are routinely subjected to gross and unjust violence by America’s cops; black Americans are, in the post-civil rights era, not even safe in their churches from white racial terrorism.

Black America is disgusted by how media will, as it always does, depict Dylann Roof as a lone shooter with mental health issues, as they humanize him in order to put the murderous violence in some type of context. By comparison, the American corporate news media is not neutral in how it depicts white criminals as compared to blacks, Latinos, Asians, First Nations Peoples, Arabs, or Muslims.

White people who run amok and commit mass murder and violence are to be understood; they are rarely if ever treated as representatives of the white community or the rotten fruit of whiteness and white privilege that is poisoning the common good. Non-whites and the Other, when they commit foul deeds, are almost always depicted as a reflection of some type of pathology or problem exclusive to that group.

Alas, many in black America are resigned to the fact that for most of the United States’ history, violence against people of color has been a means of policing the boundaries of white democracy. Stealing resources, land and labor from black Americans has been the norm. The post-civil rights era and the age of Obama are outliers in American history.

America can elect a black man as president, but black Americans are routinely subjected to unjust, unwarranted and disproportionate violence in the United States. Unarmed and innocent black men and women can be killed on video by the police; the white racial paranoiac gaze somehow finds a way to make excuses and legitimize such violence. Black American culture is American culture; the United States remains racially hyper-segregated, with current research suggesting that 75 percent of white Americans have no friends of a different race. The United States has made clear progress in terms of justice along the colorline; Yet, in many ways and too many moments America of 2015 feels like the American apartheid regime of Jim and Jane Crow.

And of course, there is the absurdity of these last few weeks, with too much precious energy expended on the racial tragicomedy of Rachel Dolezal instead of real issues of public concern such as a racist criminal justice system, the race and wealth/income gap, and the persistent threat posed to the common good and public order by white right-wing domestic terrorists and hate groups.

And then there is the central figure in the Charleston church massacre. In a recent photo Dylann Roof is possessed of a vacant and disturbing stare. He told the black people he was slaughtering that they “were raping our women” and “taking over our country.” His father is rumored to have given him a gun for his 21st birthday. He had a criminal record. Dylann Roof also wore the emblems of hate on a jacket, the flags of the dead Herrenvolk white supremacist apartheid countries of South Africa and Rhodesia. Moreover, one cannot overlook the ugly intersection of symbolic (and real) violence as Dylann Roof committed mass murder and white racial terrorism in a black church in the state of South Carolina, which still flies the American swastika, a symbol of white supremacist violence against African Americans.

Dylann Roof was obsessed with the past. He wore flags of countries that no longer even represented the racist values he killed for. Roof channeled his own version of the white right and the Republican Party’s 2008 and 2012 racist slogan “We want our country back!” as he fired volleys of bullets into black people’s bodies, their flesh and personhood symbolic poisons in the white body politic, the “real America” worshiped by movement conservatives and that they clamor for in their nativist primitivism, birtherism, Fox News delusions of a “war on Christians,” conspiranoid delusions, and fears of “the browning of America” and “demographic suicide.”

Roof is 21 years old, born in the 1990s. His generational experience is supposed to be one of multiculturalism and diversity; necessary values for a corporate, neoliberal, globalized interconnected world. While there is much to celebrate in terms of the racial attitudes (as well as those about gay marriage and other “progressive” political causes) of America’s (white) young people, Roof’s racist murder spree hints at some deeper societal and political troubles.

In an era where there is “racism without racists,” it is very difficult to talk in a direct and clear way about systems of privilege, white supremacy and inequality in the United States. Young people (with notable exceptions among black and brown youth) born after the civil rights movement often do not even have the language to accurately describe or understand racism and white supremacy. They have been socialized into a bizarre world where to talk about race means one is “racist” and given a dishonest vocabulary that includes phrases such as “reverse discrimination,” which in turn gives life to white victimologist fantasies. 

Research by the National Opinion Research Center highlights how young white people are almost as racist as their parents and grandparents. When it comes to explicit prejudice against blacks, non-Hispanic white millennials are not much different than whites belonging to Generation X (born 1965-1980) or Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964). White millennials (using a definition of being born after 1980) express the least prejudice on 4 out of 5 measures in the survey, but only by a matter of 1 to 3 percentage points, not a meaningful difference. On work ethic, 31 percent of millennials rate blacks as lazier than whites, compared to 32 percent of Generation X whites and 35 percent of Baby Boomers. 

Beyond generational comparisons, the poll suggests substantial minorities of white millennials hold racial prejudices against blacks. Over 3 in 10 white millennials believe blacks to be lazier or less hardworking than whites, and a similar number say lack of motivation is a reason they are less financially well off as a group. Just under a quarter believes blacks are less intelligent, while fewer express opposition to interracial marriage or living in a 50-percent black neighborhood. Holding these attitudes is not the same as making racist comments in public or even among close friends, but there's clearly an audience for race-based judgment among the millennial generation.

The difference across generations is one where white racism has moved to the backstage,, i.e. private spaces, as well as the Internet, social media and other digital spaces. What researchers such as Jesse Daniels have described as cyber racism is now one of the primary means through which young people of color are marginalized and harassed in online spaces, and how many white youth are radicalized into white supremacist norms and values.

As I wrote in an earlier essay, some of the most important questions that need to be asked about Dylan Roof are: Who radicalized him? Did he learn his racist hatred in the home or online? From what wellspring did Roof’s violent racism spring forth?

There is no vocabulary for “white crime” in America. The idea of white right-wing domestic terrorists is verboten and unacceptable to the corporate news media. Because of those delusions and decisions, the American people are made less safe and not more. White supremacy is a demon in the body politic, culture and collective consciousness of the United States. The Charleston massacre is one more reminder that it has not been exorcised from the country’s soul.

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