From the 1963 Birmingham Church bombing to the 2015 Church South Carolina church massacre: Racism and its increasingly perverse forms

by Remi Joseph-Salisbury

The Critical Race theorist Derrick Bell Jr. argued that what we consider to be racial progress is often racism taking on increasingly perverse forms. Likening racism to a Cadillac, Malcolm X made similar observations. Just as new models of the Cadillac were released each year, new, and increasingly perverse, forms of racism were developed each year. Importantly just as mechanics and their tools must adapt, race activists and analysts, need to adapt to these ever new, and increasingly perverse forms of white supremacy.
The callous murder of nine African Americans as they took part in Bible study at their church in Charleston, South Carolina should bring Bell and Malcolm’s words into stark focus. The murderer was allowed into the historic African American church where he sat for a while before opening fire on his unsuspecting victims.
The murders, in the invasion of what should be a safe and sacred space for African Americans, is reminiscent of the 1963 church bombing in which four African American girls were murdered and many others injured.
Those that believe that we now have a post-racial America and a post-racial world look back at this epoch of racial tensions and celebrate how far we have come. This attack however, should dispel any myth of a post-racial state and see us refocus our critical lens on racism and white supremacy as it permeates all areas of society. It is the myth of the post-racial that represents the perversion of which Derrick Bell warns.
Whilst it is the loss of innocent life that first brings the persistence of pervasive racism into focus, it is perhaps the response to the murder that requires further attention. We see the murder described as a ‘hate crime’, a term that precludes the reality of a murder that amounts to racial domestic terrorism. This is integral to how white supremacy and white privilege operates in our contemporary epoch. Whilst David Cameron renders the extremism of a few young Muslims a problem of, and for, the Muslim ‘community’, the irony of describing Dylan Roof as a ‘lone wolf’, rather than as a consequence of White supremacy, seems to be missed by too many. For acts of terror committed by people of colour mass media and politicians move to pathologise a ‘community’. For acts of terror committed by white people, mass media and politicians move to pathologise the individual, in doing so white America is freed of its responsibility and the need for introspection of the state of US white supremacy is negated.
Dylan Roof evoked the age-old trope of protecting white femininity in his justification for murder; ‘you rape our women and are taking over our country’. He also boasted that he wanted to ignite a race war. Still there is a struggle to recognise this as an act of domestic, racist terrorism.
Just as Angela Davis spoke about the African American community having to arm themselves at the time of the 1963 church bombings, pastors and worshippers have spoken about the need for armed security at the church. Like then, this stance has drawn criticism from mainstream media. This is the grossly hypocritical way in which white supremacy has operated, and continues to operate! The U.S. obsession with the right to bear arms seems to falter under the consideration of Black people bearing arms.
We should not think that these are the only examples of ways in which white supremacy continues to operate. We see the perversion of white supremacy in education. Whilst America has seen de jure desegregation of its schools, we increasingly see the de facto resegregation. The perverse way in which school funding operates, in part as a consequence of the No Child Left Behind Act, means that schools in deprived African American and Latino areas get caught in a cycle of low attainment and low funding. Simultaneously, white suburban schools see a cycle of high funding, high attainment. The perversion of racism also operates in housing and neighbourhood policy. In areas like Ferguson the state socially engineered poverty by withdrawing all state funding and investment. When poverty (and white flight) ensued, funding for policing in the area rose, and we quickly see the close links with the criminal justice system.
We readily observe the long journey we have made from slavery but we rarely talk about the mass incarceration of African Americans. Many are a consequence of racist over policing, a racist criminal justice system, and an absurd focus on minor drug offences. Angela Davis, in her book, Are prisons obsolete?, details the inhumane conditions, perpetuated by a prison industrial complex, that sees prisoners increasingly put to work (for the profit of white owned corporations), that many African American, Latino, and working class whites are subjected to. Derrick Bell may argue here that the perversion arises as we are encouraged to put our faith in a racist criminal justice system. So we believe that the incarcerated deserve their punishments and exploitation.
It is time that America stood up to the white supremacy that operates at every level of its society, until that time, inequity throughout society, and the racist murders of ‘lone wolfs’ will be here to stay.
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