We have learned a lot about the state of “race relations” in the days since Dylan Roof allegedly committed his heinous crimes against the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
We have learned that violence motivated by white supremacy can destroy black lives even in their most private and sanctified spaces. We have learned again that too much of our mass media have a reflexive tendency to portray racial violence as motivated purely by psychological factors in order to preserve our national myths that racism is abnormal and that whites are not responsible for it.
We have also seen that it is easier for our politicians to ignore the root cause of such violence (Governor Haley) or renew calls for gun control (President Obama) than address the problem of white supremacy head on.
The clearest voices that we have heard in the wake of this tragedy have been those closest to the trauma. Avoiding the pitfalls of respectability politics, black leaders and their constituents in Charleston have made essential connections between the massacre at Emanuel, the spate of police brutality against black citizens that has unfolded before our eyes since Ferguson and the soft politics of white supremacy in America.
In short, they have recognized that the common element in the violence we have seen perpetrated against black bodies is rooted in the irrational fear of black people — at play in parks and pools, shopping at Wal-Mart, praying in their own church — held by many whites.
Social scientists have spent the last 50 years trying to understand the foundations of these fears and why they exert such a powerful influence on the behavior of so many people. What we know is that these attitudes are widely held in certain segments of the white population and easy to prime.
For a time, we thought that these attitudes were waning or transforming into “racial ambivalence,” but since President Obama won the White House in 2008, numerous studies have shown an uptick in white racial resentment.
So, how do we move forward after the Charleston massacre?
Black Americans must broaden the “Black Lives Matter” movement to achieve three goals.
First, black Americans must demand that the politicians they support directly attack white supremacy with both their rhetoric and their deeds. As the legal scholar and activist Derrick Bell used to say, in order for America to “get over racism,” we will need our leaders to talk straight to the American people about the origins, nature and costs of white supremacy to our society.
As the last two election cycles demonstrate, black Americans are well-placed to exert the necessary electoral pressures on the Democratic Party to achieve this goal. If black Americans can get at least one party talking honestly about the dangers of white supremacy, it is likely to move our political discourse in a very positive direction. Moreover, since we know that elite discourse has a profound affect on popular attitudes, this kind of messaging from politicians also holds the real potential to combat racism at its source.
Second, black Americans must continue to challenge the symbolic politics of white supremacy in all forms. While much has been made of Roof’s affinity for the flags that once flew over the racist, white-minority regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia, we also know that he had a penchant for the Confederate flag.
It is irrational to believe that this flag, which served as the standard of those whites who fought to preserve the bondage of blacks in the nineteenth century and also of those who resisted the desegregation of American society in the twentieth century, did not have an impact on the development of Roof’s racist worldview.
On the contrary, it is far more likely that the racist backlash to the NAACP’s campaign to remove the flag from atop the state capitol in the early 2000s — precisely the same period that social science tells us Roof would have begun to form attitudes about race — helped him along his path to racism, radicalization and violence. The Confederate flag and the many other racist icons that form part of the visual and psychological landscapes of America must come down if black lives matter.
Finally, black Americans must begin to use their power as consumers to sanction media outlets — most notably Fox News — that provide a steady diet of misinformation about black Americans and race relations to their mostly white viewership. These outlets create and stoke the kinds of resentments that become deadly operating directives in the minds of terrorists like Roof.
The easiest way to do this would be to tune out the profitable Fox media franchises that black Americans patronize to deny their news business from using these dollars to grease their racial resentment machine. There is no doubt that Fox News would change if other parts of the Fox empire suffered because of mass defections by black Americans.