It will be difficult to keep this short. There is so much to talk about, and it’s all important, that the temptation to digress is powerful, and I’m easily distracted. But I want to keep this short and to the point.
On Wednesday, Dylann Roof, a 21yo white man, walked into a black church in Charleston and murdered nine people. You can read more about the victims here and you should.
Right now, as I write this, it’s late in the day on Thursday. I’m sure there is a lot of misinformation floating around, but one thing that seems clear is that he shot those people because he is a racist.
And there are ten thousand things to say here: from the prevalence of gun violence to the friends who said nothing when Roof made racist jokes, from Roof’s claim that he was defending white women to the Confederate flag still flying all over this country.
But what I want to point out is that, for too many white people, Dylann Roof is the face of racism in this country, and that’s a problem.
When yet another white guy freaks out because he’s been called on something racist he’s done or said, it’s because he thinks he’s being compared to people like Roof. Or Bull Connor. Or James Earl Ray. He’s outraged because that’s what he things racism means.
That’s too easy, though. That’s describing the problem by it’s most extreme manifestations, while ignoring the rest. These people want to define racism by its most egregious actions, then put a floor under it. Everything below that doesn’t count. Unfair hiring practices? Police profiling? Unequal education? Refusal to cast any black actors in shows set in racially diverse cities? None of those things, the argument goes, are as important as a mass shooting. None of those things, the argument continues, deserve such a heinous label as “racist”.
Except those things are racist. Absolutely so. And being called on racist behavior is not equivalent to being called another Dylann Roof. There’s a whole range of behaviors and assumptions that make up a racist society that don’t approach the level of mass murder. And those assumptions and behaviors–and worse, the complacency in the face of continued injustice–are what makes Roof possible. He may be the highest expression of the murderous contempt that makes up white supremacy, but he stands so high because we have given a gigantic foundation.
Now is the time to mourn the victims and to speak out against racism. Now is also the time to accept that Dylann Roof is not the face of racism. He’s just the far end of the bell curve. The rest of us–me included–need to do better.