Special Bulletin. Charleston, Race and Guns

The outrage in Charleston provoked a flood of commentary on two of the most difficult issues in American life: race and guns. If the brutal murder of nine people in a church resulted in some lasting progress on those issues, it would provide a memorial to the victims that could offer some comfort to their families and friends. Unfortunately, however,  the likelihood of forward movement in either area is uncertain at best.

It does appear that the Charleston shooting will result in the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the capitol in South Carolina and its disappearance from license plates in several states. That is a welcome and overdue reform. To be sure, there are Southerners of decency and good will who recognize the evil of slavery, but for whom the flag is nevertheless a sentimental symbol of regional identity. For the rest of us, however, and surely for most African Americans, it is difficult or impossible to separate the flag from that evil and from the reappearance of the flag in the 1960s as a symbol of resistance to the civil rights movement. The self-identification of the Charleston shooter, Dylann Roof, provided a dispositive reason for relegating the flag to museums and private homes.

As others have already pointed out, however, removal of the Confederate flag is essentially symbolic and will not greatly improve the lives and prospects of blacks in the South, let alone elsewhere. Indeed, it might in the short run make things worse, by supplying evidence to those who share Roof’s demented vision, that “they” are taking over the country. Moreover, the further the reform is carried, the wider the swath of resentment it may stimulate. For example, Stars and Stripes has noted that ten major military bases are named after Confederate generals or other officers. Should they be renamed as an Op-ed in The New York Times argued two years ago? We think that would create far more ill-will and divisiveness than it would benefit. And reform should not be allowed to descend into a self-righteous exercise of shaming the ante-bellum South. It may be well to remember that the Civil War occurred less than 100 years after the Declaration of Independence, a majority of whose signers owned slaves, and the Constitution which, without mentioning slavery, treated slaves as three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation. Indeed, one observer has noted, Washington and Jefferson were slave owners whose portraits proudly adorn our currency.

Charleston has generated something of a debate over the extent to which institutional racism—as distinguished from individual racist acts—still persists. The Wall Street Journal cited a reference by President Obama to the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963, and went on to observe that times had changed:

Back then and before, the institutions of government—police, courts, organized segregation—often worked to protect perpetrators of racially motivated violence, rather than their victims.

The universal condemnation of the murders at the Emanuel AME Church and Dylann Roof’s quick capture by the combined efforts of local, state and federal police is a world away from what President Obama recalled as “a dark part of our history.” Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists.

Charles Blow, writing in The New York Times, took issue with the Journal. He began by endorsing a definition of institutional racism proffered by the Aspen Institute: “Institutional racism refers to the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor, or put a racial group at a disadvantage.” Blow did not give any evidence or examples of such racism but fell back on asserting that “Institutional racism is often like a pathogen in the blood: You can’t see it; you have to test for it. But you can see its destructive effects as it sickens the host.”

For our part, we would not describe as “racist” conduct that does nor involve intentional discrimination. In any case, arguing about what does or does not amount to institutional racism is probably not productive. With or without that label, there is no question that many minorities, and particularly many African Americans, live in conditions that “put them at a disadvantage” in terms of housing, education, employment and virtually every aspect of modern living. Conservatives tend to blame such circumstances on bad choices and irresponsible conduct by the minorities themselves, and without question there is something to that. But that is far from a complete answer. Among other things, it takes no account of the staggering odds that face the children born into conditions of deep poverty: to parents, often a single parent, who have limited capacity to raise them, surrounded by neighbors whose occupation of choice may be dealing in drugs, and attending a school in disrepair and too often staffed by teachers of marginal talent. And if they fail to summon the heroic qualities required to surmount those conditions, they will likely introduce children of their own to a comparable environment with comparably bleak prospects.

Under such conditions, merely repeating demands for individual responsibility, however justified it may seem, is are unlikely to have much effect. Clearly, government intervention is required, but designing strategies of intervention that are effective and politically acceptable is no easy task. It is a task, however, that Republicans cannot abandon to Democrats. It is one that they, and particularly those who aspire to the Presidency, must attempt to meet.

Turning to the subject of guns, the opportunity for progress appears to be even more dubious. In his press briefing after Charleston, President Obama spoke to the issue:

At some point we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now.

As it happens, we agree with the President, but it is not clear that any of the particular gun control measures proposed in the past would have kept a gun out of the hands of Dylann Roof. And if previous massacres failed to produce any action in Congress, there is little reason to suppose that this one will be any different. It is more likely that Charleston will simply add to the ever-growing weight of evidence that we have far too many deadly weapons in the hands of people who should not have them. 

4 thoughts on “Special Bulletin. Charleston, Race and Guns

  • I have long thought that the state-sponsored display of confederate flags (on government property, license plates, etc.) was offensive and patently inappropriate, as such displays obviously celebrate both slavery (or at least Jim Crow) and also treachery. It should not have required the massacre of black Bible-readers by a white supremacist in 2015, 150+ years after the Civil War and the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, and 50+ years after state-mandated segregation was ruled unconstitutional in its various forms, for white people to get the point.

    Personally, my own initial reaction to the Charleston mass-murder (apart from shock and agony) was to rage against not just the murderer (which I do, of course), but also against whatever white-supremacist hate-mongers may have done to feed his murderous urges (which I also do). However, after I calmed down, I became more-deeply troubled. It was easy for me to point fingers at confederate-flag-waving-lone-wolf-misfits, and the hate-groups who fuel their genocidal fantasies (because I belong to neither group), but I have been increasingly forced to wonder “what is the matter with the rest of us white people”?

    Just as I have often wondered why the Holocaust is considered to be a “Jewish Issue” (because the “Jews didn’t do it,” I think it’s the rest of us who should be worried), and as someone who has been critical of “collective” Muslim culture for (however inadvertently) nourishing the murderous impulses among the twisted souls in their ranks, I think I need to take a look in the mirror myself. As well-meaning as many of us white American people might think we are, what is it about collective white American society that (however inadvertently) helps nurture murderous race-hatred among the twisted souls in our own ranks?

    We white Americans are born with a huge card in our hands which our black American compatriots are not dealt at birth. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that white Americans are all born into the lap of luxury, while black Americans are all born into the lap of poverty…nor does it mean that either group is more virtuous than the other. But white Americans, from all socio-economic strata and all levels of virtue, still have that one big card we get to carry around without having done anything to earn it. I think it might help a little if we white people just tried to be mindful of that in our day-to-day lives.

    Btw, I’m all in favor of stricter gun-safety laws, although I hold out little hope for their enactment in most states and/or at the federal level….and since we (or at least I) don’t yet know whether stricter background-checks would have prevented the Charleston murderer from obtaining his murder weapon legally, I don’t know whether the issue is directly pertinent to the Charleston massacre. (???)

    Sorry for rambling on….

  • I must admit that I initially thought about the flag issue with some sympathy toward those that looked at the flag as representative of the history of a state or areas and not a symbol of slavery and treatment of citizens of color. But, then someone pointed out and asked what I would think if the flag of Mexico or Spain were flying over the Capitol in Sacramento, either of which could be justified based on the history of California. Needless to say, my sympathies have changed to be in support of those who think the Confederate flag has no place over a government building.

  • The Confederate flag should long ago have been relegated to museums and the like. It is, as it has always been, a symbol of rebellion against the United States, ongoing and festering defiance of federal authority, and desire to subjugate black Americans in every way possible. What credible excuse is there for permitting such a flag to be “honored” in public places, in the South or anywhere else? Since when are the flags of any enemy, which is what the Confederacy was, “honored”? Should we fly a Nazi or Japanese flag over our state houses? Whether Confederate soldiers fought valiantly or believe in their cause is irrelevant. So, I’m sure, did many German soldiers; and nobody fought with less concern for personal safety than the Japanese.

    Let Southern whites get misty eyed about their forebears and the Lost Cause, even though, as some sage–US Grant?–observed, Never have men fought for a WORSE cause. Let them have their associations and memorials, and display their disgracful flag on private property. Do NOT let them display it on PUBLIC property–or impose that Lost Cause sentimentality, and the warped sentimentality that shrouds the flag, on the rest of us.

    As for the US bases named after Confederate generals, change every one of them to the names of Union heroes. Redressing that wrong brings to mind a far more grave one, alas, much too late to redress: Lincoln, so great in his general leadership of the Union cause, erred badly in not prosecuting and in many cases executing the top leaders of the Confederacy–certainly Jefferson Davis, his vice president, and probably Robert E. Lee. What? The sainted Lee? Patrician, gentleman, acclaimed commander? He was all of those, but he was also a straight-out, unapologetic, unreconstructed traitor to his country, an American, a “federal,” educated and trained by the US government who then made a deliberate choice to turn his back on it and wage war on its armies. In addition, after the war, in numerous speeches, Lee gave no hint of contrition, giving instead only emotional speeches in praise of his troops and lamenting how unfairly the fates had treated the Confederate enterprise. He personified not reconciliation, not wisdom, only the Lost Cause. One word describes that entire course of action. It is treason, and Lee should have paid the price for it–Roger M. Williams

  • A very complex issue, this flag thing and building and monument naming but iI suggest you read David Brooks today on Robert E Lee and while you are reading it substitute Himmler for Lee in the text. what is in a symbol? A yellow Star of David, a swastika, a confederate flag , plenty .

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