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Charleston terror and conservative response show African-Americans their place

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Image: Flickr/otto-yamamoto

Last week's ruthless massacre of nine African Americans at a church prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina is a grim reminder of America's colonial, slave-owning past. The reaction to the massacre makes a telling case study of how conservatives frame the issues of race, gender and terror and how the latter frame has shifted since 9/11 to a "Muslims vs. civilization" meme where a double standard is regularly reinforced by conservatives and the media. Lastly, it is no coincidence that a similar reframing is being conducted in Canada by the Harper Conservatives. "They hate our freedoms." 

The murders were a despicable and dehumanzing act thourougly steeped in racism. I've no idea how accused shooter Dylann Roof became so twisted and cold blooded. That it's not unimaginable speaks both to a long history of racist violence and the growing frequency of mass murder in the States. That it happened in a church shocks most people's sensibilities. That it happened in this particular church is likely of little surprise to the African-American community as it was a well-known centre of anti-slavery activities. 

The conservative frame

You would think that just about everyone would agree that this story is about race and that it should send terrifying chills up anyone's back. Alas. The conservative frame tells another story. Conservatives are "surprised" that anyone would suggest it's about race or guns or that the intent of the crime was to instill terror in a particular community. In their frame, slavery and racism are irrelevant to the discussion. "It's an issue that was resolved 150 years ago." Full stop. 

Their frame seems to defy our common sense but not theirs given the legacy of racial inequality and violence in the U.S.A. "This was just another crazed, deranged kid. We freed the slaves a long time ago. We gave them 40 acres and a mule. We gave them citizenship. We gave them the vote. They didn't take advantage of the opportunities we generously afforded them and are instead now taking advantage of hard working taxpayers to shirk their personal responsibility. Why do Black people make everything about race?What more do they want from us? We keep giving and they keep taking. Get over it." I'm paraphrasing of course but this is part of the frame that justified cuts to welfare, police violence, a disproportionate number of African-Americans landing on death row, restrictions to voting rights and myriad of other current issues. 

The "white womanhood" frame is well explained here by Chloe Angyal in the New Republic. It is worth a read. 

There is a centuries-old notion that white men must defend, with lethal violence at times, the sexual purity of white women from allegedly predatory black men. And, as we saw yet again after this shooting, it is not merely a relic of America’s hideous racial past. American racism is always gendered; racism and sexism are mutually dependent, and cannot be unstitched.

There is a sick irony that six of the nine victims were Black women who died ostensibly to protect white women.  

Slavery and Jim Crow laws were always enforced through violence

 The U.S.A. became the superpower that it is today because of the very rapid accumulation of capital based on an economy built on an early form of capitalist slavery. This economic system was buttressed by an ideology of white supremacy.  It was propped up and enforced through the use of both state-sanctioned and "privatized" violence and terror. All whites were privileged by the system of slavery even if they clearly did not all benefit equally. America fought a civil war which took a million lives -- most of them from European descent. This is the backdrop to the history of inequality and the current state of affairs south of the border. 

White supremacist paramilitary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan were an integral part of this reign of terror after the Civil War. Most of its members were war veterans. At the peak of the Klan's second wave in the 1920's they claimed 4 to 5 million members. (Julien Sher explores the KKK's activities in Canada in his book "White Hoods").

Lynchings and other forms of brutal terror were popular methods used to enforce segregation and drive African-Americans out of their homes to head north to the industrial centres. Millions left. Lynchings were popular public events that sometimes included family picnics so that the kids could witness the torture and murder of African-American men, women and children. Body parts were often collected as souvenirs. Postcards were produced (TW: link contains graphic images). Elected politicians and other prominent community members were often seen at public lynchings. Lynchings were sometimes advertised in the media. Other times, members of the Black community were forced to witness these murders and evicted from their homes under threat of death. The federal government never passed an anti-lynching law. The southern states that did eventually enact laws did not enforce them. Less than one per cent of legal proceedings related to lynchings resulted in a criminal conviction. 

There were close to 4,000 reported public lynchings in the 12 states across the American south in that period. African-Americans were lynched for close to 80 different offences including "being obnoxious, trying to vote, voting for the wrong party and arguing with a white man" as well as suspicion of murder, sexual assault and robbery. The fear of interracial sex accounted for up to 25 per cent of all lynchings. Those who fought against lynching and Jim Crow (American apartheid laws) became targets as well. 

While the U.S. south has plenty of memorials to commemorate the "Rebels" and their defeat in the Civil War, there are no monuments to the victims of lynching and racist violence. There are a handful of markers to remember individuals who were lynched. 

South Carolina, had a post-Civil War population that was approximately 57 per cent African-American. Between 1877 and 1950, there were 164 reported lynchings in 36 out of 46 South Carolina counties. 

According to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) report "Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror" lynchings and other forms of violence and oppression are at the root of America's legacy of racial inequality. 

"The lynchings we document were acts of terrorism because these murders were carried out with impunity, sometimes in broad daylight, often “on the courthouse lawn.” These lynchings were not “frontier justice,” because they generally took place in communities where there was a functioning criminal justice system that was deemed too good for African Americans. Terror lynchings were horrific acts of violence whose perpetrators were never held accountable. Indeed, some “public spectacle lynchings” were attended by the entire white community and conducted as celebratory acts of racial control and domination." (page 4)

South Carolina did not enact a law against lynching until 1947.

...the decline of lynching in the studied states relied heavily on the increased use of capital punishment imposed by court order following an often accelerated trial. That the death penalty’s roots are sunk deep in the legacy of lynching is evidenced by the fact that public executions to mollify the mob continued after the practice was legally banned.(page 6)

Republicans lead the charge 

I am not suggesting that Roof's alleged murder spree was a form of lynching. It was neither mob-inspired nor a public event. However, his objectives appear to share the same goals -- to terrorize the African-American community and "show them their place". 

All indications -- including the selection of the Emanuel AME church, Roof's pro-apartheid jacket patches, his proud display of the Confederate flag (and gun), his comments at the church to one of the two survivors who he left alive as a witness, the alleged "manifesto" and comments leaked from the police department -- indicate that racism was at the root. 

Republicans were quick out of the gate to dismiss the suggestion that racism, terror or guns had anything to do with it. They instead put the blame on hatred of Christianity, mental illness and/or drugs.

Republican presidential candidates tried to change the channel away from the obvious. Jeb Bush said yesterday that he doesn't "know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” 

Rick Perry's first reaction was to call it an "accident" and used the opportunity to attack Obama and gun control.

Lindsay Graham related his niece's impressions. She went to school with the alleged killer.  Graham "referred to Roof as "twisted" and "whacked out kid" in the brief interview with CNN. He added that his niece told him that she didn’t remember Roof making any racial remarks." He also said, "but it's 2015, there are people out there looking for Christians to kill them." 

The exception to the rule seems to be the only African-American Republican candidate, Ben Carson, who couldn't bring himself to deny the obvious. Whether that's because it was a vote loser in the Black community or because he was sincere is up for debate. 

Charles Cotton, National Rifle Association board member, blamed Pastor and South Carolina state Sen. Clementa Pinckney for his own death and those of the others because of his vote for gun control. 

“He voted against concealed-carry,” Cotton said of Pinckney. “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

None of the Republican candidates have suggested that this was an act of terror. Had a Muslim person been even accused of even thinking about doing what Roof did, do you think we'd hear the same reaction? 

This reframing exercise has several facets. Anthea Butler at the Washington Post identified some of them. 

  • "black children often morph into potentially menacing adults after they’ve been victimized, while white mass shooters are portrayed as children, even if they’re well into their 20s".  Media reports and police statements repeatedly referred to Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot by police in Cleveland while playing with a toy gun last year, as a “young man.” But James Holmes, who was 25 when he shot dozens at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, was frequently defined by his youth in media profiles, which described him as “a normal kid,” a “typical American kid” and “a smart kid.”
  • the go-to explanation for Roof's alleged actions will be mental illness

Waving the flag

The Confederate flag debate has been re-ignited and with it the respective framing of the two sides. To the African-American community -- and beyond -- it is a symbol of slavery, racial violence and treason. (It evokes an emotional response that I'm familiar with when I see the Nazi swastika.) The conservative frame is that the flag was a symbol of pride and heritage and that the Civil War was fought over the principle of "states rights", not slavery.  It was about the "right" of states to allow slavery. That's very different than fighting to maintain slavery. Confused yet? In their frame, 150 years after the war ended, some still refer to the war as an invasion by the U.S.A.

Check out this debate on the flag in which its defender calls removing the flag a form of "cultural genocide" against whites. 

That the flag still flies on government property is an indication that old ideas die hard. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, (an Indian-American (her parents are from India) and Tea Party favorite) had a change of heart and will now ask the Republican-led state House and Senate to remove the flag from the statehouse grounds. That provided cover for the Republican presidential candidates to flip-flop. However, removal of the flag requires the agreement of two-thirds of both levels. 

Private property owners would remain free to fly the flag. Major retailers such as Walmart are removing the flags from their stores. People are beginning to boycott stores that are still selling the flag. 

The Mississippi state flag still contains the Conferederate "brand" as does the Georgia flag. Texas offers vanity license plates with  the symbol although that could come to an end soon. Virginia's governor announced they will stop issuing license plates with the flag. 

I'll give the last word on the flag issue to Dr. Cornel West. See the bottom of this post for the video. 

Republican frames bleed into Canada

In February, I wrote a post called, Are Harper Conservatives giving neo-Nazi terror a pass? It was in the wake of the arrest of three people for an alleged plot to shoot up a shopping mall in Halifax on Valentine's Day. Guns were seized. Within a day or two, Justice Minister Peter Mackay showed up in Halifax to declare the alleged perpetators as merely "murderous misfits". 

Mackay: "the attack does not appear to have been culturally motivated, therefore not linked to terrorism." Chicago Tribune

Case closed. Move along. Nothing to see here. These youth were not Muslim so how could it possibly be "terrorism? I suggested that closing the case might have been premature since the social media accounts of all three of them were overflowing with images of guns, Nazis and neo-Nazi imagery. 

Don't expect to hear about an exhaustive police or CSIS investigation that might look for links to other potential real threats from the larger pro-violence, white supremacist movement in Canada or the U.S.A. According to Peter Mackay they are not to be considered as terrorists - just misfits. 

As we get closer to the October election, expect this kind of framing to take up more and more space as Harper makes the case that only he can protect us from the terrorists. There's no doubt he's already making use of the ample powers in Bill C51 to sow fear and reap votes. Expect more arrests that neatly fit their frame and silence on those that don't. As for Charleston, I couldn't even find a story about Harper sending condolences to the families in Charleston although I only did a quick search and could be wrong.


Image: Flickr/otto-yamamoto

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