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Friday, June 19, 2015

Is Honesty about American Racism Really the Best Policy? Some Thoughts on the Charleston Church Massacre and the Ambiguous Value of Candor

It is completely predictable in our polarized nation that there are two competing narratives about the Charleston Church massacre. One narrative is that the actions of Dylann Roof, the young murderer, reflects and is inspired by a toxic and pervasive brew of wistfully nostalgic white supremacy and racist paranoia that swills around the internet and spills out into the open in Freudian slips and occasional acts of terror. Such murders are not the random, inexplicable acts of lone lunatics. They are instead a disturbed individual’s taking literally the day-to-day racist fantasies and nostalgia of millions of white Americans, attitudes that foster websites like Stormfront.org and practices like the flying of the Confederate flag outside public buildings. This narrative is best captured by Jon Stewart’s passionate denunciation of the widespread tendency to treat Roof’s act of racial terrorism as a merely tragic outburst of individual lunacy rather than an all-too-predictable product of widespread American racism. Key to Stewart's eloquent appeal was his tying white Southern fondness for the Confederate flag and for naming streets after Confederate war heroes to racism generally and Roof's racist attack in particular.

The second narrative, mostly from conservative sources, is that pervasive contemporary racism had nothing to do with the Charleston massacre. In one version, that attack is said to be the product of anti-clerical bias requiring churches to arm their parishioners to protect the faithful. (Such a spin was nicely captured by Fox New’s interview of E.W. Jackson, a black pastor at a church in Virginia). The less implausible version of this narrative is that Dylann Roof was indeed a vicious racist but that his racism is an atavistic expression of a long-extinct ideology rather than a reflection of widespread contemporary attitudes and fears. (This version of the Roof-does-not-reflect-America response is well captured by the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed, which attributed Roof’s murders to some “problem that defies explanation beyond the reality that evil still stalks humanity”).

As a matter of common honesty, Stewart’s interpretation of the massacre strikes me as far more accurate than Fox’s or the Wall Street Journal’s spin. Roof’s rhetoric – fear of black rapists’ attacking white women, for instance -- is not only as American as apple pie but as contemporary as Stormfront.org or talk radio. The numbers of Americans who endorse Roof’s attitudes, if not his violence, can be numerically tracked at racist websites and measured through simple social science experiments. That alienated individuals (Dylann Roof, Anders Breivik, etc.) would take such widespread attitudes and rhetoric as inspiration for a mass killing is no more surprising than that (for instance) alienated young Muslim men would draw inspiration for murder from anti-semitic pamphlets in Middle Eastern bookstores and anti-semitic sermons at extremist mosques. Conservatives’ stance that they are shocked, shocked, by Roof’s “inexplicable” attack strikes me as just as implausible as the analogous claim by moderate Muslims that “extremist” Islamic violence bears no connection to Friday sermons at major mosques comparing to Jews to pigs and apes.

Nonetheless, if I were to judge these competing narratives by their utility rather than their honesty, I confess that I prefer the Fox News spin. My reason, elaborated after the jump, is that Fox News’ approach has a prayer of creating a cross-racial rural coalition rooted in church and guns. By contrast, Stewart’s Naming & Shaming strategy seems not only futile but dangerous to me: Convince “mainstream” Southerners that their condemnation of racist violence is inconsistent with their embrace of Stonewall Jackson and the Confederate flag, and you might find that they dump the former rather than the latter.

As I noted five years ago on this blog, everyone is ethnocentric, meaning that they "tend to divide human society into in-groups and out-groups and use those divisions to reinforce their own sense of identity and self-worth." One should predict, therefore, that white, middle-class, suburban or rural, Southern, and evangelically Protestant Christian homeowners will develop a bias favoring similar people.

Stewart's Naming & Shaming strategy invites the scolded listener to consider whether this general bundle of cultural loyalties (for instance, an affinity for Confederate flags) is causally associated a tendency towards racist violence. It seems to me intuitively obvious that there is such a link. Such a Naming and Shaming strategy, however, poses the risk that, rather than jettison their general cultural commitments to Southerness, the target audience will instead circle the wagons. Maybe it is just my paranoia, but it is not obvious to me which horn of the dilemma white South Carolinians would choose if they were convinced that there was an inconsistency between their general celebration of "Southern-ness" and their condemnation of a racist church-shooting.

The Fox News strategy, for all of its intellectual dishonesty, has the single virtue of reenforcing the aversion to racist violence by tying that aversion to the target audience's other cultural commitments. "If you love the NRA and attend church regularly," the Fox News interview implies, "then you should rise up to demonstrate against the anti-Christian Dylann Roof and arm Black churchgoers against others of his ilk." Painting white supremacists as anti-Christian rather than pro-Confederate, in other words, seems like a smarter way to peel off Southern support for the frequenters of Stormfront.org and similar venues. Likewise, painting black churchgoers as potentially pro-gun seems to me to be a smarter way to ground a cross-racial rural coalition than insisting that white Southerners tear down their statues of Robert E. Lee, re-name their streets that now commemorate Confederate generals, and lower the Stars and Bars.

None of this is to condemn Stewart for his eloquent speech (which probably had few listeners sympathetic to the Confederacy who could be alienated by it). Instead, I offer merely a limited endorsement of the Fox News approach. The admittedly dishonest down-playing of the role of racism in white Southern culture seems better calculated to me for the forging of cultural and ultimately political ties between white and black Southerners than the jeremiad against the Confederate symbols that many whites hold near and dear. Sometimes, in short, honesty might not be the best policy.

Posted by Rick Hills on June 19, 2015 at 05:57 PM | Permalink


A few things.

1. I do doubt that many Southerners will "dump" their "condemnation of racial violence" even if people like Jon Stewart keep telling them that their Confederate nostalgia has something to do with racial violence. I think condemnation of racial violence will be the overwhelming norm for the foreseeable future. It may well be, though, that packaging condemnations of racial violence with condemnations of certain related Southern cultural practices will tend to intensify the racist sentiments of a small minority of Southerners, in a reactionary sort of way.

2. That said, since you acknowledge that Confederate nostalgia and the like are contributory factors to racial violence, one does have to ask what would help decrease racial violence more: avoiding alienating Southerners by linking racial violence to Confederate nostalgia, or campaigning to depopularize Confederate nostalgia and to eradicate various signifiers of it, e.g. Confederate flags on state capitols. That seems like a very difficult empirical question to answer.

3. Further, acquiescing to Confederate nostalgia will, quite apart from its positive/negative effects on rates of racial violence, injure minorities in less palpable but real ways: fostering a sense of exclusion, contributing to discrimination that stops well short of violence, etc. And those costs (assuming that there's something we can actually do about Confederate nostalgia - I suppose if there's nothing we can do, shutting up about it wouldn't have those costs) have to be weighed against the speculative benefits of not antagonizing Southerners by criticizing their culture.

4. Finally, the fact that the whole Republican establishment of South Carolina has rapidly decided to junk their Confederate flag in response to an incident of racial violence suggests not only that Southern Confederate nostalgia may be more easily defeasible than you think, but that pretty conservative Southern politicians, at least, are willing to draw a fairly explicit connection between Confederate nostalgia and racial violence without much fear for their electoral futures. That's just one data point, but a pretty notable one that cuts against your argument.

Posted by: Asher | Jun 23, 2015 1:19:08 AM

I understand why you would think the Fox strategy is more likely to be effective. Christian unity is important, but it cannot be the predominant narrative. I don't think one can, or should, avoid the conversation about race. The Fox narrative creates an aversion to religious violence, not racist violence. If we focus on the religious angle, then what about killing people of color who are not Christians, or at least not in church when they get shot? Also, I am not convinced that "Christian unity" will advance race relations in America to the extent that you predict. Aside from the Sunday morning church hour being described as "segregated," remember that even the Klu Klux Klan identify themselves as a Christian organization. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/21/virginia-kkk-fliers_n_5008647.html

Posted by: Jan | Jun 22, 2015 10:59:04 AM

Doug, please go and watch Fox News

Posted by: Barry | Jun 22, 2015 8:21:21 AM

Doug Levine: if you ever driven through the south you'll see plenty of evidence of white supremacists. Just look for a red flag, with a blue diagonal cross outlined in white with white stars on it. A good place to start looking would be the South Carolina statehouse.

Posted by: brad | Jun 21, 2015 5:41:33 PM

To claim we should lie for "the greater good" and sensitivity to the feelings of the southern heritage of white supremacy is to simply ask everyone else to eat their feelings for the benefit of southern whites. What does that do? It strengthens the perpetrators while demoralizing the victims. Why is the morale and feelings of advocates of "southern heritage" more important than the need for support and solidarity of victims of racist hate?

The persistent idea is that if we give the southern whites their confederate flags, their Confederate Monuments, and paper over various "unpleasantness", then they will come around to our side. But that's not being particularly supportive of African Americans, and asking them to make major sacrifices you won't ask them to make of southern whites comes across as believing that the latter group is more important.

Posted by: Tyro | Jun 21, 2015 4:17:04 PM

I fail to see any evidence, and the author does not cite any, of a pervasive belief in white supremacy in American society. On the contrary, the white supremacists are pushed to the margins, to websites like Stormfront. Opposition to affirmative action, and pushing back against the claims that police are witlessly gunning down black men, is not white supremacy, is not racist and is not a problem.

Posted by: Douglas Levene | Jun 21, 2015 11:20:46 AM

Yes, because there is no surer way to heaven on earth than for advocates to studiously lie or promote intellectually dishonest arguments in order to achieve what each one knows in his own heart to be the higher good. To proceed as Hills suggests would make meaningful debate and rational public decision-making nearly impossible. One could never accept the facts asserted by others, and what little trust in the good faith of one's opponents presently exists would be extinguished. I doubt the ends achieved by the means advocated--purposely deceiving others or else willingly deceiving oneself--would be glorious. Professor, is this a one-off dispensation from any commitment to truth, accuracy, and facts, or a principle of more general application?

Posted by: Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk | Jun 20, 2015 5:06:21 PM

Now of these two things, which sounds more plausible to

1) White conservatives and the black population suddenly up and
forge an effect and lasting socio-political-religious alliance,
despite disparate religious traditions, incompatible political
beliefs, and generally hating each others' music.

2) The existing socio-political alliance between white
liberals and the black population continues as it has for decades
cemented by both those groups having generally tolerant religious
traditions, very similar political opinions, and being able to
laugh at the same jokes.

Posted by: Hey | Jun 20, 2015 4:35:39 PM

Yes, Bill. And Mr. Hills, please note there are indeed 'two competing narratives about the Charleston Church massacre.'

One is a lie, pure and simple. And the people leading that know that they are lying, and are doing it for political reasons.

Frankly, anybody expecting Fox News to be other Die Sturmer is expecting ISIS to become a multicultural, religiously tolerant feminist movement.

" Painting white supremacists as anti-Christian rather than pro-Confederate, in other words, seems like a smarter way to peel off Southern support for the frequenters of Stormfront.org and similar venues."

No, it seems like a way to paint a clear white supremacist terrorist action as part of an imaginary conspiracy oppressing 'Christians'. Whom in the propaganda of the right, almost always end up being white right-wingers.

Mr. Hill, do you not remember Trayvon Martin? And innocent boy gunned down by a man seeking to hunt some ni-CLANGS!, and Fox News deliberately and dishonestly painted it as justified self-defense. Their actions were no different and no better than a newspaper justifying a lynching.

" Likewise, painting black churchgoers as potentially pro-gun seems to me to be a smarter way to ground a cross-racial rural coalition than insisting that white Southerners tear down their statues of Robert E. Lee, re-name their streets that now commemorate Confederate generals, and lower the Stars and Bars."

With what basis does it seem that way to you?

Posted by: Barry | Jun 20, 2015 1:06:39 PM

Passing strange that he explicited stated that race was the reason he was killing his victims.

Posted by: Fiddlin Bill | Jun 20, 2015 12:19:25 PM

I don't know why the two narratives are necessarily either/or. Yes, there are thousands of members of white supremacists organizations, but very, very, few of those members commit murder. Isn't it possible that Roof's mental illness was the primary causal factor, while his white supremacism determined his choice of victim? I.e., had he been Muslim, he would have shot up a synagogue. Had he been born 40 years earlier, he might have joined the Weathermen, and shot up a bank. Had be been able to get a date, the claim that "they are stealing our women" would have been far less salient. After all, there might be thousands of adherents to white supremacy in the US, but very, very, very few of them commit mass murder. So, belief in white supremacy can't be much of a causal factor.

Posted by: Gdanning | Jun 20, 2015 10:41:08 AM

Your strategy is probably the strategy of some unknown portion of the current GOP leadership--whichever of those folks are not actually racist monsters. Nikki Haley is likely, or at least there's probably a 55% probability of it, not a racist. Yet she couldn't manage to take a stand to cut the damn Confederate Battle Flag down from its post on the day after the massacre, if only to avoid the appalling photos showing it, alone, standing proud, when all other flags were at half-mast. This is a ridiculous version of the old "go slow" argument in the long long battle against official segregation. Maybe you need to remind yourself that now and then people of honor need to stand up for something. Go listen to some '60s Nina Simone. Mississippi Goddam!

Posted by: Fiddlin Bill | Jun 20, 2015 10:07:42 AM

But what if the rural black churchgoers take the Fox News' bait and arm themselves? That will only lead to them being gunned down by police officers who are all in favor of people carrying guns, so long as those people have the right skin color. When that happens will the NRA supporting white Southerners come out in their support, or will they find some reason to label them thugs, and side yet again with the state power they claim to fear and loath, but really worship and defer to?

Posted by: brad | Jun 19, 2015 10:29:20 PM

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