Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Conversation about Racism in America

Mass murderer Dylann Roof and the symbol of southern bigotry
This is a bit off topic for me. But as a religious Jew I feel moved to comment on the horrible mass murder in Charleston South Carolina. Racism and bigotry affects all of us.

Last week a young 21 year old man by the name of Dylann Roof walked into a church filled with black congregants, sat down next to one of them, and after about an hour sitting quietly got up, took out his pistol, and started shooting at them, murdering 9 people! Then he walked out. What this evil human being and numskull did not realize is that he was recorded on a closed circuit TV and was apprehended almost immediately.

That this fellow is not too bright is an understatement.  Not being raised that way, at some point in his young life he became a racist, buying into the kind of racist and antisemitic drivel one can easily find on internet websites run by white supremacists.  I have to believe that anyone with half a brain would laugh at the kind of nonsense presented as truth there. But I guess there are a few people around with half a brain.

To Dylann Roof, this was pure truth. So convinced was he of this ‘truth’ that he felt he had to act – since his fellow racists weren’t doing anything but talking online.  The results are tragic beyond words. 9 high caliber people were killed. People whose lives revolved around God. People who could set an example for all of us.

What concerns me however is the idea of having a public conversation about racism in America. One can look at this event and say, “Yes, it is still very much alive!”

Racism of the Dylann Roof type surely still exists. Obviously. But much like antisemitism, it only exists on the fringes of society. A fringe to which this young mass murderer belongs. We must therefore continue to be vigilant and guard against people on the fringe of society that might do something horrible like this in the future - in pursuit of their racist goals. But to say that this type of racism exists at any significant level beyond these fringes is simply not true. Even in the South.

One need not look any further than the most powerful man on earth, the President of the United States. A black man freely elected by a country whose vast majority is not black. The people who voted for Barack Obama twice in 2 elections against some very decent white candidates were certainly not racist. They reflect the views of the majority of this country. And even those of us that did not vote for him, in the vast majority of cases it was not for any racist reasons but rather for political ones. I for one was proud of my country the day Barack Obama took office - even though I didn’t vote for him. We have “overcome”. 

What about the South? There was a time not too long ago where a white man that murdered a black man would have pretty much gotten away with it. What happened this time is that law enforcement pursued this felon with vigor and zeal. They caught him immediately. There was not a decent human being that was not touched by the sorrow and tears of their loved ones. The entire nation- black and white - grieves along with them, denouncing the racism that caused this to happen. The sense of sympathy and outrage was near universal across all racial and ethnic lines.

But despite this reaction I don’t think we can yet say that there isn’t a more widespread and different kind of racism. The kind President George W. Bush called soft bigotry. It is the kind that looks down at a fellow man because of his color – even though he wouldn’t harm him and be outraged if someone did.  It still exists in the North and in the South. But it is so subtle that those who are soft bigots may not even realize they are.

That there is discrimination against blacks is a fact. It might be unintentional. But it’s there. The recent spate of police brutality against blacks suspected of crimes is illustrative of that. Even though we are talking about the criminal element and even though in some cases violence was justified, it cannot be true that in all cases violence was justified. I believe that all things being equal - it has been shown that white suspects get treated differently by law enforcement and the justice system than black suspects do.

There may be sociological reasons (beyond the scope of this post) that explain this phenomenon as not necessarily always racism oriented. But the facts remain the same. Black suspects are generally not treated as favorably as white suspects.

Soft bigotry is far more evident in the South. That is made clear by the ubiquitous presence of the Confederate flag (the so called ‘stars and bars’) in public areas; on license plates; and on merchandise.

Proud white southerners claiming the flag demonstrates their heritage - heatedly deny any connection between the flag and racism.  But how is that flag any southern black man’s heritage?  It is the flag of slavery, no matter how much they deny it. I doubt that there is a single southern black that ever saw that flag as their heritage.

Yes, southern whites’ ancestors fought with pride in the Civil War. Many of them died in that cause. They have always claimed the fight was over states rights, not slavery.  Well, sure it was about states rights. It was about the states’ right to allow slavery .  And to not allow the federal government to take that right away from them. They can say it was about states’ rights until they are blue in the face. It wasn’t about that. It was about slavery. Slavery is what drove the economy of the South. Without slaves cotton could not have been picked so cheaply and their plantation economy would collapse. Or so they thought. That is the heritage that the Confederate flag  stands for. That is what their ancestors fought and died for.

It is finally dawning on the South that this flag is not seen by all in the positive light they see it. Not because of any epiphany. Not because they stopped believing it is their heritage. But because of what it has come to represent in the fringes that produced a Dylann Roof.

Blacks are still not seen as equals. They are seen as second class citizens with no heritage. Well in my view not having the heritage of fighting for slavery makes blacks better citizens than the whites that do have that heritage.

So the stars and bars are going to quickly now disappear across the South. White southerners now seem to understand that  rabid bigots like Dylann Roof use it as the symbol of their bigotry. It is a symbol of bigotry. Whether the whites in the South realize it or not.

So, yes, we do have to have a conversation about racism in this country. We have come a long way since the sixties. But indeed we have a long way to go.