Racism and Collective Memory

Grieving about the Emanuel A.M.E. Church murders

My chest literally aches for the people of Charleston, S.C. and every African-American whose fear of racially motivated violence has been affirmed, once again. I live in an integrated neighborhood–an increasingly rare place in America–and I feel like I have to tread carefully around my neighbors. In response to the “Don’t Shoot” movement, my wife and I wonder if we need to wear “Won’t Shoot” T-shirts to signal that we might be white, but we are not so frightened that we are about to open fire at random.
I was prompted to write this because of the eerie tenor of the murderer’s comments this time: declaring that black men rape white women, and that ‘black people are taking over’. Yes, this killer seems to be insane, but his rantings are consistent with not just white-supremacist ideology, but in a subtler way with general white-American prejudices. This is not news. The pervasiveness of American racism has been a dominant theme of American historiography for at least the last 50 years. But I wonder: How does this racist narrative persist? I have, unfortunately, dealt with a friend in the middle of a paranoid psychotic break. But even as his grip on reality began to slip, he was trying to work out the validity, the veracity of his own narrative. This Charleston killer may have been insane, but he had to be drawing upon a set of narratives that are considered valid by some sort of social group. Maybe that is a tiny group, and their conversation is more extremely racist than the majority of the population. But the intensity of their racism is only a matter of degree–but not different in kind–from the prejudices held by a large proportion of white Americans. If the ravings of a madman were unconnected to prevalent American attitudes, this whole incident would only be a horrible personal tragecy for the immediate families of the murdered and wounded. But it has national implications because the murderer sought to justify his actions based on a version of a conversation that is widely shared among whites.

I will call this the myth of the Threatening Black Man. What is the relationship between this myth and actual historical events? In many ways, the TBM is an inversion: whites actually did and still do perpetrate mass violence against African Americans. Today it takes the form of segregation in communities, discrimination in job and life-opportunities, police profiling, and our prison system. But the violence is not obvious to non-Black Americans, indicated by surprising tone-deafness about crime. A good example of this tone-deafness is a recent interview of Judd Apatow on NPR’s Fresh Air. Apatow marveled at the crimes he got away with as a teenager in Long Island. Every time he reflected on how he got away with something, I kept thinking “because you’re white.” Neither he nor Terry Gross mentioned how radically different the outcome would have been if he had been black. Apatow was shooting out the windows of cars and stealing radar-detectors. Trayvon Martin was coming back from buying Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea. Which one faced deadly force and died for their actions? Which one faced no consequences at all? Who is actually criminal, and what consequences do they face?

How does the myth of the Threatening Black Man persist in the face of both history and present fact? Maybe for recent white Americans the tone of gangster rap is taken as more real than actual history. But that would not explain why the promulgators of Motown were stereotyped as dangerous, 40 years ago. Maybe this inversion is some form of expression white shame? In which case the Guilty White Liberal is an inadvertent hazard, because each reminder of actual white violence may provide inversion-fodder to enhance the mythical Threat of the Black Man. I don’t know. I haven’t found a convincing answer for how, under any circumstances of ignorance or madness, a white person could somehow convince themself that the Threatening Black Man is a real and valid justification for unprovoked white-on-black violence.

In practice, African-Americans murdering whites is so rare that it hampered the identification of the two “beltway snipers” in 2002. When the actual pattern of a serial-murderer became apparent, investigators assumed there was a psychotic gunman. And, based on prior experience and actual statistical data, they assumed the killer was white. Those assumptions indicated what white police officers assume about actual psychotic killers. Yet, in the collective American psyche, the Threatening Black Man plays a huge role. Darren Wilson could describe his fear of Michael Brown, jr. as a “monster,” even though Wilson was a Peace Officer who was trained–and swore an oath–to be a public servant. The the fact that Wilson thought he could say such things and not have every interviewer, every friend, and his own mother scream at him in outrage is amazing. And yet Wilson was correct in his assumption that he could publicly get away with his self-portrayal as the frightened victim. It was not just the Grand Jury that acquitted him. Enough Americans accepted his narrative that he lives safely as a free man in America today, when so many African-American men today remain in danger of whites who murder with impunity.

Names of Americans to remember

Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, 41, pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, father of two;
Cynthia Hurd, 54, regional manager of the St. Andrews branch of the county library;
Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49, the mother of four daughters;
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a coach of the girls’ track and field team and a speech therapist:
Tywanza Sanders, 26, who had graduated from Allen University as a business administration major last year;
Ethel Lee Lance, 70, who had worked at the church for more than three decades;
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr., a retired pastor from another church in Charleston;
Myra Thompson, 59;
Susie Jackson, 87.

These people–these Americans–these human beings–should be remembered and honored. The story of black liberation continues, and I don’t want this essay to only focus (as so often happens) on the madness of whites. I also seriously doubt any white-supremacist is likely to read anything I write. So I address my fellow Californians about what we can do about the persistence of racism in our own communities. First of all, we need to keep asking those awkward, reality-based questions that unravel stereotypes. Statistically, collectively, there seems to be something psychotic and pathological happening at a collective social scale. It would be too easy to just say that ‘whites are crazy’ and stop the questioning there. George Zimmerman, John Allen Muhammad, and Seung-Hui Cho remind us that all humans are vulnerable to cowardice-based violence and psychosis. So mental health, and collective work against social phobias, are projects that we need to tackle collectively as Americans.

What we can all do, at any time an in any place, is push back against the cowardly racist narrative about whites as victims. Think of racism as a form of blood-poisoning, or a curse, that we all acquired at birth. It is a hatred and fear that enslaves us; makes us less than fully human. We need to heal this poisoning in ourselves and those we care about. We need to face it aggressively in the people closest to us as an act of love. Guilt and shame will only prolong racism; if we hide it, we will end up holding onto it. Facing it bluntly when we look in the mirror, and into the eyes of our friends–that is the path to our own emancipation.


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