The Confederate flag and Dylann Storm Roof are perhaps the most potent and virulent symbols of racial hatred these days, and understandably so. When Roof committed mass murder by gunning down nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, he did so in the spirit of the Confederacy he seems to love so much.
However, as much as we are paying attention to this madman and a Rebel flag which defended slavery, segregation and lynching — and we should — let us not lose sight of the bigger picture. These are merely extreme symbols of racism. Ultimately, we must focus on systemic racism, the pervasive forms of racial oppression that plague our economy, the education system, law enforcement and the judicial system. And if we ignore this painful reality, then we are merely opting for symbolism rather than real change.
Roof, who is the subject of a federal hate crime investigation, is a domestic terrorist whose purported racist manifesto reveals much about the killer’s pro-apartheid, neo-Confederate and neo-Nazi sentiments. And while he was apparently acting alone, he really was not alone. South Carolina is home to at least 19 hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, including two Ku Klux Klan chapters, four white nationalist groups, including the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), and six neo-Confederate organizations such as the League of the South. Roof was reportedly radicalized by the CCC, a reincarnation of the Whites Citizens Councils of the 1950s and 1960s that is now associated with Republican politicians.
Dylann Roof may have been radicalized, but a major political party in this country has been radicalized as well. Once the party of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the GOP has become the new segregationist Dixiecrats for the twenty-first century. As Fox News and rightwing talk radio fan the flames of racial hatred, Republican politicians enact laws making it more difficult for black people to vote and easier for white supremacists to amass the firearms they need to kill black people — and acquit them when they kill black people. With the conservative movement directing their hatred towards people of color, pulling the levers of power and encouraging an armed insurrection against a black president through “Second Amendment” remedies, it is no wonder that the Dylan Roofs of the nation dare to start a race war as they do.
Blaming a lone gunman or a Civil War flag for racism only clears society of wrongdoing. While many whites believe they are not racists because they don’t use racial epithets or gun down a black church, racism is not merely the acts of a handful of people who hate black folks. Institutional racism is a system of white skin privilege and white supremacy that benefits preferred members through specific policies and rigs the game against outsiders.
Unjust laws determine that the public schools in black and Latino communities should be underfunded and fail those children or that banks will deny loans on the black side of town. With racist policies and practices, the police stop and search and arrest men of color, and the prosecutors and judges send these black and brown bodies to prison. And while some would forgive Roof for his crimes, who do we forgive for the subprime mortgage crisis which preyed upon black homeowners and resulted in the largest loss of black wealth in history? Who would we forgive for sending a black man to solitary confinement for forty years in a former slave plantation — if we chose to forgive —and who should accept responsibility? Who do we punish for high black unemployment, for black women earning 64 cents for every dollar a white man earns? And who pays for the cradle to prison pipeline, or a war on drugs that has amounted to a war on black America?
Let’s all hope the flag gets removed forever and that Roof receives full and swift justice for violently ending nine beautiful lives. However, it will be at our nation’s peril if we confuse these two symptoms for our nations true disease — the cancer of systemic racism.
As the Reverend Dr. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP eloquently said, “The perpetrator was caught in Shelby, but the killer is still at large.”
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove