The shootings in Charleston have captured a nation’s attention.
There have been some pretty laudable discussions emerging from this tragedy. I have seen three narratives emerge: A discussion about mental health, a discussion about guns, and a discussion about race.
Let’s be clear: This issue is first and foremost about race. Dylann Storm Roof does not seem to be a lunatic, or a spree killer motivated by a psychological break. His manifesto clearly paints him as an intentional white supremacist, motivated by hatred against people of color. As Paul Street has pointed out, any other social problem that we view as being connected to this tragedy is secondary.
But, that having been said, it does make sense that, if guns were better regulated, perhaps skinheads wouldn’t get them as often. And it does make sense that, if we had better mental health treatment, some very angry people might be able to talk about the real source of their problems and anger.
I, of course, look at Dylann Storm Roof and see a very consistent pattern, which is common in violence. He’s male. He’s white. He’s 21 years old, young and angry and full of spittle. He’s a skinhead, responding to what he views (correctly enough) as a huge ethnic change in Charleston. We can see how angry people, who feel like they or the people like them were once in charge and had power but have had that power taken away from them,
Just today, I read an article about fanatic violence in America, and this is what came up: “The primary character structure of who’s involved in fanatic violence are shown here to be people who were raised in authoritarian-oriented backgrounds, who find themselves marginal, and “unnecessary” persons in postmodern American society.”
That seems to be a terrifyingly accurate picture of Dylann Storm Roof.
But here’s where I find myself very much alienated from the present cultural proceedings.
In fact, ironically, I found myself agreeing most with the Economist’s analysis. Their cynical tone is grotesque, and they are utterly wrong to think that it is impossible for Americans to civilize their society, but I too saw this shooting as just part of a pattern: A pattern of compassion fatigue, of highly localized atrocities causing all of us to pour out wonderfully human responses like anger at injustice, compassion for the victims, and tears at the violence in the world. But so many of us will spend those emotions, outpouring our heart to these tragedies, and then be too exhausted to make sure that residential segregation isn’t a problem in our own neighborhoods, or that the banks in our communities are not systematically screwing over people of color. The cycle of outrage exhausts our mental and emotional resources, leading us to focus on problems we can’t do anything about. I am sure so many of you have heard people talk about how afraid they are about a world full of terror attacks and shootings, which they can’t stop or protect their family from. I have a friend who reacted to the shooting with fear that it’d spark renewed racial conflict and anger. In the social media era, we participate in a myopic, short-term cycle of bursts of outrage. It’s not just the big media institutions doing this to us anymore: We are participating in the flagellation.
The reforms that we are hearing discussed include removing the Confederate flag, having better mental health infrastructure, regulating firearms… A lot of them make sense. In particular, if we would improve our social infrastructure, from foster care to mental health screenings, millions of people would be better off.
The problem with the entire discussion is that Dylann Storm Roof, with his name that evokes the idea of quaint Southern hillbillies to many of us outside of the South, is that you can’t take very much from what he did as indicative of broader culture and broader social problems.
White liberals, and even many progressives and leftists who really should know better, have a big problem: We always like to think about the problem of racism as the KKK, as skinheads, as racist rants by comedians.
We get on our high horse and become incensed by the “N-word”, while we say little about the lack of a full employment policy that keeps quite a lot of people, people of color especially, perpetually out of work.
The compassion fatigue cycle that our media, social and traditional, lock all of us into is not conducive to changing these things.
No one can do anything about Dylann’s actions. They are now another part of our tragic racial history.
Perhaps someone can do something about Mr. Storm Roof himself. Perhaps outreach from the right people could lead him to abandon hate. (Given where he is likely to be going in the near future, this is a long shot).
But the vast majority of us getting up in arms can do very little. People in the South can have another iteration of the symbolic debate to eliminate the Confederate flag. And those of us in the North can… try to push through gun legislation, I guess?
People ride wave after wave of crises like these and iteratively lose hope. And all of us, left and right, allow it to keep happening.
How many white liberals posted something to their Facebook walls about this tragedy but have said nothing for years while the segregated schools in their communities are named Martin Luther King Jr. High?
How many of us have remained quiet while our coworkers said racist jokes, because “They’re just kidding around”?
How many of us have turned a blind eye to a homeless person, or to a person emitting that telltale aura of deep depression, instead of trying to do something about it?
Most of us are not Dylann Storm Roof. Most of us are not members of Stormfront. But every one of us has grown up in a society that has had racial and class divisions.
The average American is not as angry as Dylann Storm Roof, but they will have subconscious biases. For example: When you inform the average white American of the huge disproportions in terms of incarceration in the criminal justice system, many actually react positively, increasing their support for more brutal policies! See, they assume, logically enough without some kind of narrative that explains why the assumption is ignorant and racist, that the disproportionate incarceration must mean that black people are disproportionately dangerous. Then we have the fact that, “Between 1976 and 2011, the percentage of young whites who said they never worried about race relations nearly tripled”. Given how ignorant so many white people, even very well-educated young whites, are about privilege, can we really be so surprised that people like Roof might well think that blacks are not disenfranchised but actually an incredible danger to them?
The average mentally ill person in the United States will not shoot up a church or a movie theater. They will quietly suffer, trying to keep the chasm of their depression or their anxiety from engulfing the people close to them. They will keep coworkers and friends at bay from their pain.
And people like Dylann come from a real place. They have real anger. They see crime in their neighborhood. The statistics may be distorted, the presentation of the crime may be racialized, and the media may be overhyping the bad and underplaying the good, but there are real threats in some communities. They see that it is harder and harder for people like them to get a job. They are afraid of threats from terrorists, afraid of not being able to provide for their family. And too many people will lecture them for being racists instead of asking, “Why are you so angry?”
Because, in fact, the threats that Dylann and people like him really face aren’t from people of color by and large. The poverty and the lack of opportunity that we all face, especially the millennial generation, are a result of policies pushed forward by a very small elite, who are mostly white straight males. But the corporate media will not discuss that to any real degree, being owned by mostly white straight males. And even with parallel communication networks and parallel media being possible as a result of the Internet and modern technology, we on the left side of the spectrum have not been able to give people a coherent alternative worldview that might let them let go of their anger and put it toward something better than just lashing out and hurting.
That’s something we can actually do something about.
Those of us outside Charleston are not likely to be able to do much to help that community heal. But we can all make sure our own communities’ wounds are better salved. Every single one of us can learn more about the cultures that we live with. We can listen when we are told about segregation and discrimination. We can make sure local businesses are hiring fairly, local banks are lending fairly, local apartment complexes are renting fairly. We can raise consciousness about the anger and hopelessness so many of us feel.