Dylann Roof’s slaughter of elderly black Christians in Charleston, as they prayed and beseeched him to put down his gun, ranks as one of the most hideous hate crimes ever committed by a single white supremacist — and one of the most irrational and inexplicable, as well. “What was he thinking?” is a question no sane person can ever answer, and nothing he said at his murder trial sheds much light in that direction.
The death penalty is an archaic form of legal revenge I don’t endorse under any circumstances, but the execution of a sad creature like Roof creates a formidable logical impasse. If this boy isn’t insane, who and what can ever be judged insane, and how can we pretend to determine where madness begins?
A country that doesn’t classify Dylann as a madman invites suspicion that its basic assumptions are unhinged. Slavery produced and nurtured a racist pseudo-science, a theology almost, that began with economic rationalization and hardened over the centuries into what appears to be hereditary mental illness, one that still disfigures and disables tens of millions of white Americans.
The Charleston church murders were so disgusting, so nauseating in their blind cruelty that they resist generalizations. There may not be another Dylann Roof out there waiting to load his gun. A racist killing that was heart-rending on a more intimate scale occurred on the University of Maryland campus recently, when a bowling alley attendant named Sean Urbanski ran — screaming — up to Richard W. Collins III and stabbed him fatally with a four-inch blade. Collins, an ROTC cadet who was about to graduate from Bowie State University and join the Army as a second lieutenant, was an African-American. Urbanski, who is white, turned out to be a member of a Facebook group that called itself “Alt-Reich: Nation.” (Other members of the group claim they are satirists, not white supremacists.) Lt. Collins maintained a Facebook presence as well. The New York Times found something he posted in 2014: “I love all people and hate ignorance but I myself am ignorant so I am still working on loving all people.”
On May 20 Richard Collins’ pursuit of universal love was terminated by a white madman with a knife. He stopped trying to love us all, and went, we hope, to a much better place. Where the one certain thing is that he’ll never meet another white supremacist. What are we supposed to do about these people, these rabid children of Hate and Ignorance whose very existence is a deadly poison in America’s bloodstream? With the best of intentions it’s a struggle to love thy neighbor, as the late Lt. Collins discovered. But how many more black people need to die like this before black people decide that every white neighbor is a threat to their survival? What then? I — white — feel no closer kinship to Dylann Roof or Sean Urbanski than Barack Obama might feel to Idi Amin. Yet every racial stereotype begins with some dreadful individual, some actual case, and every time that stereotype is reinforced the prejudice multiplies.
Black racism, in other words, is based on some all-too-accurate observations. It’s a logical reaction — at worst an over-reaction — to bitter experience. White racism is based on nothing but guilt, fear, and a profound misunderstanding of the whole human experience up to this point. If racism of both colors is intensifying just as it ought to be diminishing, there’s nothing ahead of us, as Americans, but civil strife and violent decline. As someone wrote years ago, the United States of America has a café-au-lait future or no future at all.
When you encounter the word “white” attached to any organization or identity group — or the words “Caucasian,” or “Aryan” — run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. Here comes Satan, in one of his most familiar American disguises. He doesn’t quit easily. A century-and-a-half has passed since African slaves became citizens, and the sickness that afflicts their former masters is still an epidemic. The ruling party in Washington is a white people’s party — there’s no point in denying it — and it wins national elections by pandering to a “Solid South” of white Republicans who used to be Dixiecrat segregationists. The White House is occupied by a clueless racist, a former “Birther” who called Barack Obama a Muslim from Kenya, and his “chief strategist” used to manage the Breitbart website so dear to white supremacists and “alt-Right” neo-fascists; the president’s attorney general, who replaced an African-American, is an ex-senator from Alabama whose racist reputation once cost him a seat on the federal bench.
It’s not surprising, in this climate, that yet another crazy white man (they’re nearly always men) felt encouraged to leave a noose in front of the KKK exhibit at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. The Museum’s founder and director, historian Lonnie Bunch, reported in the Times that it was the third noose found at the Smithsonian Museums this spring. Others, Bunch reminded us, have been placed at Duke and American universities, and inside a high school in Missouri. What this means, he concluded in an anguished op-ed essay, is that “we must lay to rest any notion that racism is not still the great divide.”
His mention of the noose at Duke hits closer to home, in North Carolina where a series of cringe-making incidents have made us defensive, too quick to remind scornful liberals that more than half of us voted for Obama in 2008, and nearly half in 2012. There are a lot of decent white people in North Carolina. There are a lot of the others, too, and this year they think they’re getting a green light from Washington. The Ku Klux Klan, which had fallen on hard times in the Carolinas — a reporter at a late-‘90s Klan march in Chapel Hill noted that a dozen malnourished marchers seemed to have about 50 teeth among them — marched back into the news with a rally, dinner and cross burning in Asheboro, home of our state zoo. I wish I could ask the animals what they think of Darwin-defying humans draped in Klan robes and hoods. In Raleigh, a belligerent crowd of Tea Party yahoos carried the Confederate flag and a Trump flag side by side. The worst of our wretched crop of Republican legislators, an astonishing idiot named Larry Pittman who’s also a Baptist minister, made national news in April with a Facebook posting comparing Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler.
The ghost of Jesse Helms still walks these hills. But the North Carolina news item that depressed me most of all came from Leesville Middle School in Raleigh, where three male students were suspended for another social media atrocity, a hard-core racist video that featured them chanting “KKK,” “KKK” to punctuate a rant that would shame David Duke: “If you’re in America, we don’t accept niggers, Jews, Arabs or Spics. Go back to the fields of Alabama. Go back to the factories in Mississippi. You don’t deserve freedom.”
These are middle school students — 13, 14? — which accounts for the absence of logic, history or geography. But their intent is clear, and the shock factor is their age. I’m not sure it’s possible to re-educate adolescents with brains turned so rotten, so soon. The kindest way to end such wasted lives is to euthanize the poor kids, right now. They offer the community no value, civic or genetic. But if that seems harsh, maybe a wise judge would order them airdropped in Boko Haram country in Nigeria, where they would either die in the first half-hour or learn, perhaps, that even African Muslim terrorists can behave more honorably than middle-school racists.
It’s doubtful that any of the Leesville Three will ever matriculate, but if one of them should, he might find kindred spirits on many college campuses. A college printer at Vanderbilt University, apparently hacked, stunned the administration with a press run of anti-Semitic literature; the College Republicans of Central Michigan University disavowed a Hitler-themed Valentine’s Day card that turned up among their brochures. The Anti-Defamation League, which began tracking campus hate groups last September, reports white supremacist recruiting efforts at 66 schools in 32 states.
“In a political environment where white supremacists have felt more welcome than at any time in recent memory, we saw them move from the margins to the mainstream,” observed the League’s director, Jonathan Greenblatt. The proliferation of racist hate groups since the election of Barack Obama is an old story — the Southern Poverty Law Center now lists nearly a thousand — but 2016, the year of Donald Trump, was a banner year for the Rabid White Right. Assessing the impact of the new president and his henchman Steve Bannon, Mark Potok of the Intelligence Report confirmed that “2016 was an unprecedented year for hate.” And apparently the creeping chill of intolerance reaches children even younger than those middle-school videographers. A horrified elementary school counselor in Florida told a reporter, “An African-American child was asked if she was ready for shackles because she was going back to Africa. With tear-filled eyes she asked me: ‘Can Donald Trump really do that?’ We had a group of boys telling Latin American children to pack their things because they were going back to Mexico.”
How are we supposed to live with people who condone such things, and worse yet teach them to their children? America has accepted and assimilated people of every race and religion, but these homegrown pale-faced bigots, deaf to reason and disfigured by hatred, may be the one minority the melting pot can never render. A disgrace to the white race and a threat to everyone else, they provide the breeding stock for the psychotic killers, vigilantes, bullies and Internet “trolls” who threaten to make the USA a nation where no one will want to live, if this vicious trend continues. Solutions? For anyone actually convicted of a hate crime, the option of quick, painless, merciful euthanasia, to remove them from their torment and from the gene pool. For the others, I support forced relocation to some of these expendable states that harbor so many white racists already—-with an open invitation to secede from the Union.
I don’t limit my Final Solution to those ugly, dangerous, mean-as-snakes crackers who join the Klan or hang out in Nazi chat rooms. We need to get rid of their middle-class auxiliary, too, those seersucker “Christian” hypocrites who vote for the same godawful politicians to save a buck on their taxes or protect their property values. A more drastic approach would be expedited emigration to some pale monochromatic nation — Iceland, Finland? — where no one’s pigmentation could ever offend them again. That is, if there’s any society that would welcome the dregs of America, which I doubt. Call my solutions ethnic cleansing, if you like, but my only goal is the greatest good for the greatest number of American citizens.
This may sound as if I’m satirizing the overheated rhetoric of right-wing media, but don’t mistake exaggeration for insincerity. I’m at a stage of exasperation that threatens my health. When I open the morning paper and find a photograph of the white supremacist Fuhrer Richard Spencer (dressed in a white suit, with a Confederate flag flying behind him) shaking hands in front of the Lincoln Memorial … The Lincoln Memorial! When I see this smiling troll in his designer sunglasses, my exasperation hardens into despair. Is it unreasonable to think that even minimal education could have produced a post-racial American society by the 21st century?
Instead, it’s Springtime for Hitler, for Richard Spencer and Pamela Taylor. I keep coming back to Pamela Taylor, the former director of a government nonprofit in West Virginia, whose social media response to the presidential election was just about the purest expression of gratuitous white racism I’ve ever encountered. “It will be so refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady back in the White House,” Ms. Taylor tweeted. “I’m tired of seeing an Ape in heels.”
When you consider that Michelle Obama is this brilliant, educated woman who has never harmed Taylor personally and who is superior to her in every conceivable way, Taylor’s outburst takes its place as a classic specimen of blind racial hatred. Taylor lost her job, of course, but when did she lose her soul? When she dies, they should send her brain to researchers who study the pathology of racism, to see if there was some particular neural trainwreck that made Pamela Taylor what she was.
“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough,” the activist NBA superstar LeBron James reflected, after thugs spray-painted racial slurs on his $21 million home in Los Angeles. After the election in November, James endorsed the safety-pin movement, which urged white people who had not voted for Donald Trump to wear a safety pin on their clothing, a sign to non-white Americans that they were “safe.” “Do it,” James recommended last fall, “because I just don’t have the time or energy to hate you all.” I wore one on my lapel a couple of times, until I realized that no one recognized the gesture, and just assumed that I was another eccentric old white man.
How do we communicate trust, how do we let each other know that we’re not boiling with pointless hatred? That’s the sorry state of America in 2017.
Hal Crowther is a longtime journalist whose essays have been awarded the H.L. Mencken, Lillian Smith and American Association of Newsweeklies prizes for commentary and the 2014 Pushcart Prize for non-fiction. His latest book is An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H.L. Mencken (University of Iowa Press, 2014). He lives in Hillsborough, N.C. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2017
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