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.