Two stories dominated the national discussion on race relations last week. The first was a story about an obscure woman named Rachel Dolezal who was born white, but went on to claim Black identity. The second story was the most recent installment of our nation’s sickeningly long history of domestic terrorist attacks against Black communities. How the press and the culture processed these two stories demonstrates the persistence of the racism and double standards that still dominate our society.
The week began with a national media obsession with Dolezal, the “NAACP president” who started life as a little blond white girl in Montana. The real story here is not that one person out of 319 million Americans migrated across our ridged politically constructed racial boundaries, but that her doing so dominated the national media, and for no apparent reason.
As the story developed, “NAACP president” became the more accurate “Spokane Washington NAACP chapter president,” which later reports identified as a very part time volunteer position in a small city with a black population between two and two and a half percent. Making this story even more obscure is the fact that the NAACP historically has had white leaders, nationally and locally, making Dolezal’s declared Black identity even less of an issue.
There’s a long history of people of color passing for white in order to escape oppression and reap the institutional benefits of whiteness. Dolezal, however, went the other way, which for the media made this a man-bites-dog story. More so, it’s a story that supports right-wing racist tropes. For closeted and not so closeted (hello Fox) racists in the media, the story of this one race bender infers that white folks are now the oppressed people, with our Liberalnazi Black supremacist government making conditions so hard for Arians like Dolezal, that they now must pass for Black in order to succeed in life. So the story instantly got wings, turning a non-story about a no one from nowhere (sorry Spokane, but look out the window) into international news.
It also had wings because once this became a national story, people wanted to talk about it. People want to talk about race. It’s fascinating stuff. Race is a somewhat fluid social and political construct that historically has been used to provide economic and social advantage to one group at a cost to others. Identity also encompasses the construction of gender, making this conversation even more salient. How identity is constructed and what it means is an important discussion, no matter what its genesis. But just as the conversation got interesting, it also got trumped when a white supremacist massacred nine Black people in a historic Charleston, South Carolina church.
This was a brazen act of terrorism. It involved the assassination of an up and coming South Carolina State Senator, Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney, and eight fellow congregants at The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. This attack follows a long established American pattern of white supremacist terrorists targeting Black churches. The terrorist, Dylann Roof, left three witnesses alive to convey his message that Black people, any and all Black folks, had to die.This is how terror works. Black people cannot feel safe. Not in the refuge of a church. Not anywhere. This is the crux of terrorism. Roof prayed with his victims in their bible group, then massacred them. When a curious world flocked to his social media presence, they saw photos of Roof with a Confederate flag, and read his stated desire to start a race war.
Central casting couldn’t give us a better terrorist, but here’s where the closeted and not so closeted racist biases in the media come into play. Roof, you see, is white. So the dominant narrative reads, not “terrorist,” but “disturbed,” and part of a racist culture, but a “lone wolf.” Of course someone who prays with people for an hour and then preys on and kills them, is disturbed. I get it. So is someone who blows themselves up in a crowded market or café, or flies a plane into a building. But they’re also terrorists, like Roof, whose deranged racist mind fanaticized that his action would trigger a race war, with terrorized blacks reacting violently to his strategic provocation. Instead we saw powerfully inspiring acts of forgiveness and reconciliation on the part of the victims’ families.
The “lone wolf” trope is drawn even more thinly than the “disturbed” trope. Repeating this idea of a lone isolated actor perpetuates white denial about the extent and endurance of racism in our society. Roof grew up in a state that historically and currently suppresses the black vote. He was nurtured in a region that still names streets, highways, buildings and bridges not just for Confederate “heroes,” as Jon Stewart recently pointed out, but in the same vein, for leaders of the KKK as well. He was not a lone wolf. He is the product of a world where the banner of the white supremacist pro-slavery Confederate States of America still flies over government buildings. He is not a lone wolf. In the days after his massacre at The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, his state, South Carolina, lowered the American flag to half mast, but they kept the Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds flying defiantly at full mast.
Dylann Roof is not a lone wolf. He is the predictable product of an unrepentant culture that glamorizes and celebrates its racist history. He is the product of a dominant society struggling to preserve its racial privilege. He’s the son of a nation that, in branding him an outlier, hides and denies its own racist heritage.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.
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