Mourning hymn of the Republic

Reactions to the terrorist activities of a white supremacist in Charleston serve as a timely reminder that “post-racial” America is still a long way off.

Fernando Betancor
22 June 2015
Candlelight vigil for the victims of the Charleston church shooting. Light Brigading/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Candlelight vigil for the victims of the Charleston church shooting. Light Brigading/Flickr. Some rights reservedIn the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me, As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, While God is marching on….

– Fifth stanza, Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe, November 1861

Dylann Roof is a self-confessed white supremacist, a racist and a murderer. On the night of 17 June, he walked into the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat in the pews for an hour watching the peaceful folk of that congregation lift their voices and their hearts to the Almighty, and then shot down nine of them in cold blood, including pastor and State Senator Clementa Pinckney. Before he pulled the trigger, he told his victims: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.” Then he scurried off into the night like the cowardly son-of-a-bitch he is.

He is also a terrorist— someone who commits acts of violence for a political purpose—but is not widely referred to as such. If Dylann Roof had been a Muslim, he would be a terrorist. Had his victims been Jewish worshippers in a synagogue, he would be a terrorist. But as his victims were black, he is a ‘disturbed young man’.

Terrorism: the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal

No. No. NO. Dylann Roof did not choose Mother Emanuel at random. He did not direct his fire into unarmed black parishioners at random. He did not utter his hateful words at random. His acts were wholly political: a calculated assault on the notion of racial equality and that a black person has any place in the fabric of American society. It is only one more act in a long and shameful history of lynchings, shootings, burnings and other atrocities with which the defeated South sought—and largely succeeded—in subjugating their newly liberated slaves.

The racist cant uttered by Roof prior to his abominable act is typical of the terrorist, who must dehumanize his victims before he can murder them. It is the same nonsense as the fabricated “Elders of Zion” used by the Nazis as a justification for their genocidal anti-Semitism. It is particularly ironic, because it was the African who was forcibly transported to this country, stuffed like cattle into the holds of nightmare slave ships, sold at auction if they survived the passage, exploited, whipped, sold without their partners and children, murdered with impunity if they proved too troublesome to sell, raped by their white masters if they were attractive females, for 258 years until being notionally freed by the victorious North. Yet it is the white man who is the victim?

Dylann Roof was not a madman acting randomly. What can be said of the environment that nurtured him? I don’t know the Roof family, neither can I, nor will I, comment on whether they were good parents or bad, or shared and shaped his views on race. Roof nonetheless grew up in a place that still flies the flag of secession over the state capitol next to the Palmetto flag and still idolizes the leaders of rebellion: a rebellion in the worst cause ever known to mankind. The judge that will sit on his trial has been reprimanded for saying “nigger” in Court; his first reaction was not compassion for the victims, but for the assassin’s family.

A timely tragedy in “post-racial” America

This is a timely tragedy. Too much ink has been spilled since 2008 in describing “post-racial” America. Post-racial? Tell that to our African American citizens whose lives are as marginalized today as they were seven years ago, or even thirty seven years ago. Those who talk and write about a post-racial America are either wilfully blind, or malicious in their intent. Too many use this description of our society to justify the dismantlement of the hard-won Federal protections that guarantee the rights of Black Americans. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act that allowed Congress to oversee the periodic redrawing of electoral districts. The ruling was again split along ideological lines, 5 to 4, with Chief Justice Roberts writing the majority opinion. “Our country has changed,” wrote Mr. Roberts, “Problems remain in these states and others, but there is no denying that … our nation has made great strides.” South Carolina was one of the nine states affected by the decision.

It was a timely reminder that, just as a clique of unaccountable patricians have bought the political support they needed to roll-back the New Deal over the past thirty years, there is now a systematic effort to roll-back the triumphs of the Civil Rights movement. The striking of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act; the systematic efforts to impose onerous voter identification requirements without providing the means for state or federal authorities to issue uniform, acceptable identification; the tacit re-segregation of housing and school districts through changes in zoning ordinances and bussing; the elimination of income support, food supplements and educational assistance: all highly discriminatory in their effects, though more difficult to prove so in their purpose.

It is also a timely reminder of the kind of people conservative leaders and Presidential candidates for the Republican Party are:

- Rick Perry calls the shooting an “accident” and blames the misuse of prescription medication for the mentally ill. This from the Governor of a state with one of the lowest health care budgets and worst quality of life profiles in the nation;

- Lindsey Graham, who said that in a nation of 300 million people “unfortunately every now and then, something like this happens,” and that it only proved that there was a war on religious liberty being waged in America. Graham also seemed to suggest that he would be in favor of a national tracking system “where they can be deterred or stopped” which is just batshit scary in itself;

- Ted Cruz, never one to pass up an opportunity to put his foot in his mouth, apparently couldn’t understand Roof’s rather obvious and self-admitted motivations: “A sick and deranged man went and prayed for an hour with the congregants in an historically black church and then, for reasons that we don’t fully understand murdered nine innocent souls”. Cruz is perhaps waiting for a postcard explanation from Roof;

- Charles Cotton, Houston-based attorney for the National Rifle Association, in what must be a front-runner for the most tactless howler of the year, blamed Senator Pinckney himself for opposing concealed carry legislation despite the fact that the relevant South Carolina legislation predates the Senator’s tenure. Let’s not let facts get in the way of our preconceived notions though, Mr. Cotton. This was too much even for some conservatives, and the Chairman of the South Carolina Judiciary Committee, Republican Larry Martin, angrily dismissed Cotton’s comments as ‘outrageous’.

- Jeb Bush had the good sense to keep his mouth shut and limit his statement to a condemnation of the violence and condolences for the victims. Mitt Romney, to his credit, called for the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina State House and was promptly crucified by conservatives.

What is outrageous is that we have politicians who not only fail to denounce a racially-motivated act of domestic terrorism as what it is, but that actively feed off of the divisions and bigotry that engender these acts. We have made great strides as a nation, but let no one speak of a “post-racial” America so long as:

- Black males live 6 years less on average than White males;
- Black males are incarcerated at 4.5 times the rate of White males;
- Median income for Black households is $20,000 less than White households;
- The percentage of people 25-years old and older with a Bachelor’s degree is 6% lower for Black Americans than for White - Americans.

 When any sufficiently large group of people exhibits such large differences in fundamental characteristics, we must assume either qualitative differences in the populations or else systematic discrimination, whether intentional or not. So unless we are willing to believe that Black Americans are, as a race, lazier, more wicked and less intelligent than White Americans, we must agree that the United States still displays institutional patterns of racial discrimination. What is worse, God help us, is that there are far too many people who DO think that these differences are explained by genetic differences between whites and blacks.

The case for removing the Confederate flag

Confederate flag flying at the state capitol building in South Carolina. Ken Lund/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Confederate flag flying at the state capitol building in South Carolina. Ken Lund/Flickr. Some rights reserved.For now, days of mourning. Soon though must come the days of wrath. The fight for racial equality is the fight to overcome the fundamental evil left unresolved by our Founders at the birth of our Republic. We can start by taking down that badge of secession and shame from every state house where it still flies. Take down the Confederate flag; ban it from public buildings. The Supreme Court has just handed us a wonderful precedent: in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. the Court found that the State of Texas could refuse to print a specialty license plate bearing the Confederate battle flag. The Court found that the license plate is speech by the government itself and so the First Amendment does not apply; a Confederate flag over a State Capitol is no different.

What about the conservative justice that broke ranks to side with the four liberal justices? Clarence Thomas, the only African American on the bench. This was not the first time Justice Thomas wrote an opinion on a First Amendment case that broke with his conservative peers. In Virginia v. Black (2002) an attempt to overturn a state ban on burning crosses, Thomas quietly challenged the free speech proponents:

“Aren’t you understating the—the effects of—of the burning cross? … We had almost 100 years of lynching and activity in the South by the Knights of Camellia and—and the Ku Klux Klan, and this was a reign of terror and the cross was a symbol of that reign of terror.  Was—isn’t that significantly greater than intimidation or a threat?”The Virginia statute was modified, but not stricken.

What is the Confederate flag if not a symbol of white supremacy, of a rebellion and nation established for the sole purpose of perpetuating the enslavement of one race by another? It is far more than simply a bit of curious historical memorabilia, like the Betsy Ross flag; to argue otherwise is as reprehensible as Germans pretending to fly the swastika flag because it is a part of their history.

In memory for the victims of Charleston, their families and their communities:

  • Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
  • DePayne Middleton Doctor
  • Cynthia Hurd
  • Susie Jackson
  • Ethel Lance
  • Clementa C. Pinckney
  • Tywanza Sanders
  • Daniel Simmons
  • Myra Thompson
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