""""""- S.C. State Senator Paul Thurmond, son of Strom Thurmond, explaining why he will vote to take down the Confederate flag
This is the beginning of communism.
""""""- Robert Lampley protesting the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol grounds
A young man gets hooked on a volatile political website, obtains a modern weapon, pumps up his sense of vengeful zealotry, latches onto a symbolic target and kills a handful of people. Why does this "radicalized" young man do this? To advance what he feels in his tumultuous, troubled inner life is an important goal, a greater conflagration -- all to satisfy his youthful, lone-wolf feelings of dissatisfaction with the status-quo.
In America, if that young man is a Muslim and the website is focused on attacking the globalized, consumer culture of the National Security State -- it's terrorism. If the young man is a white American attacking African Americans ... well, if you listen to Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, he's an individual, Godless lunatic and the real problem is "far-left race-hustlers" who hate America and want to destroy it.
Since the first moments following Dylann Storm Roof's shooting of nine African American Christians in Charleston, I've been watching a lot of Fox News and MSNBC. Even before rigor mortis set in on the nine bodies, after expressing his condolences, O'Reilly began flogging the individual maniac line hard. Race problems in America, he insisted over and over, have been solved and any other explanation was far-left race-hustling. MSNBC conceded Roof was likely not mentally well, but it quickly assumed what might be called a social-dysfunction line focused on the persistence of racism in America.
Eugene Robinson, a Pulitzer-prize winning, African American columnist at The Washington Post, was the spiritual center of MSNBC's coverage, since he was raised as a black kid in Charleston; his grandfather had a blacksmith shop near murder site, the famous AME church known affectionately as Mother Emanuel. Robinson is a moderate, easy-going man, and you felt in his heart he understood only too well what this was all about. He was not shy in calling it race-based, white nationalist terrorism.
While Robinson knew Roof's act had historical roots and real political spin, O'Reilly was at his most intense in demanding that it be seen only as the act of an individual. O'Reilly's tact seemed to rely on the fact African Americans are 14% of the population. He was assuring his viewers race was no longer a problem. The problem now was individual advancement; American opportunity was there, and if anyone, black or white, was a failure in 2015 it was his or her fault. Empathy for African Americans was "race hustling" -- an effort to destroy America.
Lurking in the subtext of all this was the greatest boogie-man word of all: Socialism. The black president was a "socialist" at heart. His remarks following Charleston about gun-control proved it. In fact, anything that diminished the idea of individual responsibility as the root of everything affecting the lives of Americans was beyond the pale. When Kirsten Powers, a popular centrist foil on the O'Reilly show, rigorously defended the idea that institutional racism still existed in American culture, it brought out the notorious O'Reilly Irish bully temper. But she would not be bullied.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, a woman of Asian/Indian heritage, at first did not seem up to the political challenge presented by young Roof's extraordinary act of terror. She fought back tears over the legitimate pain she must have felt as leader of a state with such a troubled racial history. As an Indian-American, she didn't personally share the deep-seated attachment to the Confederacy and its battle flag. Many wondered what she would do.
Then the astounding symbolic clarity of young Roof's act of terror went viral. Mitt Romney ponied up and tweeted "bring down the flag." Other Republicans were running for cover, hiding behind trees, under the bed. Rick Santorum had tried early on to characterize the killings as anti-Christian. On Fox, when it was mentioned the young man attacked in a church, Santorum reportedly said: "What other rationale could it be?" But even he soon gave up on that line.
Witnessing examples of the flash-like explosion of political critical mass is fascinating. It's like tossing a pebble off the dock into a school of minnows. Pssssst! A mysterious, visceral communication is at work. In this case, Dylann Roof was the pebble. It's interesting to see such a flash critical mass centered on a powerful symbolic material object like the Confederate battle flag that, it must be noted, has been offensive to African Americans in South Carolina for over a century. Thanks to Roof we're learning that the flag was not seen from the end of the Civil War to 1962, when it was resurrected by people like Strom Thurmond as a symbolic counter to the growing Civil Rights Movement in the South.
This brings us to the "coded" and "dog-whistle" racism of the Obama era and Michelle Alexander's notion of The New Jim Crow, the title of her powerful book. Her thesis is about a shift in which African Americans, especially males, are no longer publicly stigmatized for being "niggers" or for their color; they are stigmatized for being "thugs" and "felons." This is thanks to a criminal justice system that leans very hard on poor African American males and incarcerates them at an unprecedented rate. This rise in the mass incarceration of African Americans coincided with tough-on-crime legislation featuring heavy-police-funding led by Senators Joe Biden and Strom Thurmond, both on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Attuned to the Southern Strategy, Thurmond had become a Republican. Biden on his part pushed big crime bills, he has said, as a way for Democrats to get back into the game after the election of Ronald Reagan.
The mass incarceration of African Americans of Alexander's New Jim Crow thesis is the "institutionalized racism" Kirsten Powers insisted was real today. No doubt the rich, white, non-empathetic Bill O'Reilly would reduce Alexander and her thesis to "far-left race-hustling."
The Backfire and the Run For Cover
The callow Dylann Roof's stated ambition was to set off a race war. The fact it has so far done the exact opposite is what makes this case such a teachable moment. No one seems to have predicted the scene of Governor Haley surrounded by a cluster of Southern Strategy Republican office holders calling for the Confederate flag to be removed. In her first race for governor, she said the flag "was not something that is racist;" it was "a tradition that people feel proud of." Suddenly, the flag was "a deeply offensive symbol."