On Wednesday night, a gunman opened fire in a Charleston, South Carolina, church, killing nine people. Now, police have arrested 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof, who they say is suspected of the murders. By all indications Roof is a white supremacist, and "not just from his actions," as Vox’s Zack Beauchamp points out: A photo of Roof found on Facebook shows him wearing a coat with the Rhodesian and apartheid South African flags patched on—two race-torn nations, both of which are historically symbols for white supremacists in the United States.
Despite media reports dismissing him "mentally ill" and a "lone wolf," Roof speaks to a larger, more foundational bigotry that continues to fester on American soil. Racism is learned; it is not biological. To isolate this South Carolina shooting from, say, police killings in Baltimore, or discrimination in the school system, or calls for a Confederate flag license plate would be to ignore the larger picture of America’s complex racial disposition.
For more, Pacific Standard spoke with University of Houston professor Gerald Horne, whose research addresses racism in U.S. history.
Why are the Rhodesian and apartheid South African flags symbols for white supremacists?
Well, as you may know, both Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa had substantial support in the U.S. during their tenure as regimes, including at the highest level. As I noted in the book I wrote on the war in Rhodesia, the fact is that, in my estimation, thousands of Euro-Americans traveled to Rhodesia to fight against African majority rule. Today, with declining economic prospects for many in what is termed the white working class, and with many of that group voting against their own interest in any case by voting for the right wing, at a time when we are all told that China is in the passing lane, there's rising racial anxiety amongst many in the so-called white community that the press doesn’t necessarily cover. And so these sentiments continue to be inflamed and fester.
And then, of course, you have the peculiar history of South Carolina, which may have the bloodiest racial history in the United States of America—an ignominious record that includes the largest slave revolt in British colonial history, the Stono Rebellion in 1739, not to mention the fact that at the church where the terrorism took place was founded in part by Denmark Vesey, who led a major slave revolt in South Carolina.
Then there was the repeated election of Strom Thurmond, perhaps the leading white supremacist in the 20th-century United States, who ran for president in 1948 on the so-called States' Rights ticket—that is to say a Jim Crow segregation ticket—and winning quite a few votes. Then we also know that despite the kind of history we’re routinely fed, when the movement against Jim Crow was launched, there was a massive resistance against it. This country has a long and disreputable racist history. But what tends to be stressed for whatever reason are the people who were not supportive of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism, as if they were the major trend, which is demonstrably false.
What about today? We don't talk about racism in such an overt form—
I don’t know who "we" is. Black people talk about it all the time. It's one of our favorite topics of conversation. That’s part of the problem of the media. I’ve been talking to a lot of reporters today, and one of the things that has become clear to me is—and I’ve been telling all my friends—when [reporters] call you, they basically want you to say what they think, as opposed to what I think. And then if you don’t say what they think, then they don’t print what you say. It's quite a game they have going.
What I just told you for example, they don’t want to hear what I just said, even though I’m a respected historian. The country leans to the right, but black people don’t lean to the right. That’s the fundamental problem. And so a black intellectual like myself, I’m given this kind of credibility and esteem in the black community, but in the country at large, at best I’m a non-person, which I celebrate because of course it could be worse. They could come for me with a gun, too. And so they don’t want to hear what I just said about putting a global context about the rise of China and white working-class people voting for the right against their own interests. They want me to say something like, "Oh, I’m so sad that this happened." Of course we are sad, but that’s all [reporters] want to hear. They don’t want an analysis, they don’t want to hear any anger; they want you to confirm their political sentiments.
I promise not to cut that from this interview. How does white supremacy exist today?
Well, look at all the police killings. We should think of it as a coincidence? That all these police killings we keep seeing on tape are black? That’s just a wild coincidence, and it has nothing to do with the history of slavery and Jim Crow, or black people fighting against the slave holders' regime, and that lingering culture that’s created as a result of that kind of rebelliousness? The fact that a disproportionate percentage of those on death row are black that has nothing to do with anything? That has nothing to do with white supremacy? The fact that the major victims of red-lining and the bankers that led to the crisis of 2008 were black, that has nothing to do with white supremacy? The fact that black preschoolers are more likely to be suspended from school than other preschoolers, that has nothing to do with anything? Another wild coincidence!
Where are the breeding grounds for this type of violent white supremacy?
The breeding ground is U.S. history. I mean, my grandfather was a slave. My grandparents were in Mississippi, which is the heart of darkness for black people to this very day. There’s never been any sort of truth and reconciliation, like you’ve had in even Canada in the last few weeks, about their treatment of indigenous populations. As a result, the U.S. is pressured to move from slavery to Jim Crow, and then from Jim Crow to what we have today, without any sort of interrogation of what were the lingering after-effects.
Is there much research on white supremacy? The field seems a bit sparse.
There’s a number of academics who work in this field. I think the problem is that their research is not paid attention to because it doesn’t fit the uplifting, heroic myth. There are all sorts of people working in the field on both the theoretical and practical levels.
So when public discourse tries to address racism, it's ignores the research, and it's ignoring the history?
Oh, absolutely. In the context of [the South Carolina shooting], this will be spun as a lone range gunman, who just sort of fell from the sky. It had nothing to do with the history or the environment; he’s crazy. Just saying somebody is crazy and deranged isn’t sufficient. What kind of environment were they brought up in? What was the soil from which they sprung?
What other concrete measures do we need to address this?
What I’ve been telling folks in the black community is, historically, we’ve had friends in the international community. At the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva just a few weeks ago, scores of demands and requests on police killings of black people in the U.S. were put to the U.S. authorities, which they have to respond to. What I’ve been telling black organizations and communities is that they need to be hooking up with the United Nations Human Rights Commission. External pressure on the U.S.—that’s one thing that needs to be done sooner rather than later.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.