Reading about the massacre of nine innocent people in Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, last week, made me physically too sick to write about it (given that I was already feeling poorly), but I followed the coverage, both in the official media and on Twitter. And fierce coverage it has been, with many beautiful and important articles.
Attempts, mostly by Republican politicians, to make the actions of the killer be about something else than the hatred of black people, failed miserably. Dylann Storm Roof's motivation was clearly what he himself reputedly told his victims*:
"you rape our women and you’re taking over our country"
He has been quoted as stating that he wanted to start a race war.
All that should be in the foreground of the discussion, just as misogyny should have been kept (and perhaps was kept) in the foreground in the Eliot Rodger case.
But both cases also shared other aspects: Easy access to guns made the numbers of dead people much greater, the online hate sites helped in the radicalization of both killers and the acts also shared a flavor of terrorism, depending on how terrorism is defined.
Dylann Roof advocated white supremacy, as it is advocated by online sites such as Stormfront, though obviously also as institutionalized white supremacy. On his website he is shown holding the Confederate Flag as a symbol of his white supremacist beliefs.
On the day nine citizens of the United States were slaughtered in Charleston, the Confederate Flag flew over South Carolina State House. For many the "Rebel Flag" is a symbol of the history of slavery and a symbol of racism against African-Americans, and Roof's murders made those ties more visible. Thus, the first political effect of the massacre was a drive to take the flag down.
And it looks to be a successful campaign, because even the Republican Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, now thinks the flag should be removed. Earlier she didn't find it all that important.
Symbols do matter. They matter greatly, from crosses and crescents to swastikas and all types of flags. They matter, because of how they are interpreted. To remove the Confederate Flag from its current site in South Carolina and to move it into a museum makes excellent sense.
For one thing, it cuts straight through the association between the white supremacists' use of the flag and the idea that it's just a flag celebrating general history of the South. That's helpful, as anything reducing the power of hate sites is helpful. And it means that black Americans don't have to walk by the flag waving in the wind while going to work or to school or to the stores.
For another, the drive to get rid of the Confederate Flag is one way for people to unite, to say that what Roof did was not in their name if they are white, to show support for the anti-racism cause.
But in a different sense symbols are just symbols. Removing a flag is fairly easy, costs almost nothing, nothing else needs to change, none of the deeper roots of racial hatred need to be snipped off. The act reminds me of some of the online debate over gender in that it's about how we speak about things, not about how we change those things on a more fundamental level.**
The bricks-and-mortar level, if you like. Probably because of my background, I come into these conversations from an economic angle. How do we decrease the great inequality in incomes and wealth in general and between racial and ethnic groups in particular? How do we make all schools good enough so that all children have at least some chance of reaching their own versions of the American Dream? How do we guarantee jobs for all people, jobs which pay enough to leave some time over for other things in life (families, walks in the park, political activism, music). And what about sufficient health care, including mental care? Gun control?***
All that should be included in our social justice movements, and all that contains both gendered and racial components. So the bricks-and-mortar view of how to alter the society is not some gender- or race-blind attempt to elide the debate about racism or misogyny. In my opinion it's an essential part of the battle, and a difficult part.
My point is not to argue against the kind of activism that is happening but to urge that it be expanded to those underpinnings of the institutions which govern our lives.
*See here for an article which analyzes the quote in the context of black and white women, and here for a view which argues that white women should clearly state that they are opposed to Roof's views about the need to protect them against rape by black men.
I'm utterly opposed to his views and my guess is that so are pretty much all white women. I also agree with those who point out that six out of nine victims were female which doesn't really support Roof's statement about his purposes. On the other hand, consistency has never been a major aspect of extremist radical thinkers. What they utter while killing people are slogans which usually fall apart if exposed to any logical analysis. The main point is that they believe themselves to be acting on behalf of some group or divinity, against all other groups or divinities.
**Consider the way the conservatives discuss president Obama's use of the term "ni**er" when talking about what racism is and is not. By focusing on what we say we often get a clean health report on what we believe.
*** Reverend Clementa Pinckney, a pastor of Emanuel AME Church and a State Representative in South Caroline, was one of those gunned down. He once called for stricter background controls for gun purchases. The initiative failed, but perhaps one could be introduced now, in his name.