June 26, 2015


Like Mallory Ortberg, I just woke up and found out. Bree Newsome, who appears to have skipped the sugary cereal and cartoons this Saturday morning and went straight to acts of marvelous civil disobedience, went up a flagpole and came down a hero. Nikki Haley, who apparently was waiting on more Fortune 500 CEOs to say that a 150 year-old symbol of white supremacy probably shouldn’t be hanging around the legislative headquarters of an American state, has dawdled since calls to take down the Confederate battle flag have proliferated. (I, for one, would be thrilled if CEOs of companies with a presence in South Carolina – BMW, Volvo, Michelin – played a bigger role. The South was all about foreign intervention during the Civil War: here’s your chance to make good, y’all!)

It has been a remarkable ten days. Beginning with the assassination/cold-blooded murder of nine African-Americans at church by a white supremacist on June 17 and ending with the physical and unlawful removal of the Confederate battle flag from the campus of the seat of South Carolina’s government on June 27, it feels as if political punctuated equilibrium is beginning. Dylann Roof, the Last Rhodesian – or, if he had been a little more perceptive, he would have recognized that he is only the Latest Rhodesian – opened fire in a terrorist attack. The motivation is pretty clear: start a race war which will burn down the false facades that niggers have built up in this country. Shed light on reverse racism, show the cunning ways of the niggers as they turn everything into some racial situation which serves only to benefit them at the expense of Whites. The Latest Rhodesian, if he were even more perceptive, might have come to the conclusion that using the nation’s most hated racial slur was problematic. And a little more perception would have revealed that he was blaming people who have been spit on for 400 years and told it was cool rain for their own benefit. But perception is expensive.

Since then, Dylann Roof has been condemned by all sides. The “lone wolf,” the terribly disturbed young man whose hatred caused the tragic deaths of peaceful African-Americans. The grace of the African-American community in Charleston and at Emanuel AME and across the nation has prompted a byword: forgiveness. How marvelous their forbearance!

On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Affordable Care Act is, yes, still legal. On June 26, in Obergefell v. Hodges, surely a case that will force Pearson to rewrite their history textbooks for their next hilarious boondoggle, marriage equality was “so ordered.” As Nate Silver has noted, the fact that many Americans have actively changed their minds and attitudes regarding the LGBT(QIA) community. Social media and American architecture were suddenly coruscating rainbows left and right. Some were not impressed. Those unimpressed were reminded of how 2015 is different even from 2005.

Barack Obama, later on the 26th, was in Charleston to deliver the eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and minister who was the most prominent victim of Dylann Roof’s terrorist attack – suicide bombing – at his funeral. Since Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech, back when he was a senator trying to cover his butt because of the things his black preacher said that whitefolks didn’t much care for, things have changed. Michael Brown was in middle school in 2008. In 2015, Michael Brown is, like another famous man with the surname, a-mouldering in the grave. In 2015, when it has become abundantly clear even to people who don’t watch the evening news that black men are in danger of being gunned down at any moment by the boys in blue who serve and protect someone else’s interests, the topic of race is being lifted higher in the United States than it has been since the 1960s. On June 26, 2015, Barack Obama delivered Clementa Pinckney’s eulogy and sang “Amazing Grace,” and that fabulous organist joined in, and there was doubtless something like catharsis in the room and on the airwaves. It was a story of grace that President Obama delivered, not forgiveness.

So why isn’t this a watershed moment?

I’m in a Master’s program in Education at a prominent liberal arts university in South Carolina. Most of the people in the Education program went to the school in question – if you choose to undertake their Master’s program after undergrad, you don’t have to take the GRE and you are automatically accepted. But this university does have competitive pricing for their program, bless them, and so we attract a fair number of people from outside that class of hereditary wealth and privilege that my school seems to attract like flies to honey.

The class I’m in presently is about the culture of schooling and education in America. For anyone who has taken even introductory ed courses, there are certain givens about culture and schooling which go together. For example, a child’s social class is the single best predictor of his or her success in school. Next comes the mother’s level of education. Everything after that is practically negligible. (Being a good teacher, which is presumably the point of pursuing a Master’s in Education, is as much as 15% of the reason for a child’s academic success/failure in a given year.) Another given is that our culture defines who we are; it’s part of the reason that American schools are a symptom of what’s wrong with America, not the way to fix what’s wrong with the country. There’s a certain amount of fatalism that any self-aware educator has to ascribe to, because otherwise s/he’d go insane.

Of course, if the student’s background – social class, race, religious affiliation, family and friends – define who s/he is, then the same is true for the teachers as well. Unfortunately for us (the United States), our teachers tend to be middle-class honkies. Our students are not, especially not in South Carolina, middle-class honkies.

We talked, in the first week of this class, about what “Southern culture” might signify. The class, which has about 25 people in it, was split between people who identified themselves as Southern and those who did not. (The non-Southern group was a little smaller, but not by much: there were Yankees like me in the group, but also children of Yankees and a surprisingly self-aware Floridian.) The Southern group talked about what they thought made up Southern culture. Friday night football and college sports. Pick-up trucks and tractors. A connection to the land. Tradition. Hospitality. Sweet tea and fried chicken and other staples. Half an hour of this, and only one person so much as mentioned that black people might be in the South and they might matter too.

Alice Walker used to object to the notion that the South lost the Civil War, and she had a point: certainly a significant number of people in the South didn’t lose that war at all! One of the things I suggested to my group was the Southern culture was white. My school is majority-minority, made of students who were born in South Carolina or Georgia and had always lived there. Weren’t they Southerners, too? So why isn’t speaking Spanish part of Southern culture? How about AAVE? If “y’all” and the Rebel yell are Southern culture because people who lived and died in the South used them, then the language of my students – their churches, their food, their sports, their transportation, their values – ought to be part of that discussion too. The best thing I can say is that while the self-identifying Southerners in my class didn’t bring up the Confederate battle flag as part of the culture they identified with.

The North and the other regions of the country are similarly guilty. Deray (whose surname is as superfluous as Malcolm’s at this point) tweeted a cartoon which had two panels. The panel on the left showed the Stars and Bars. The panel on the right replicated the pattern, but with “white neighborhoods” and “white schools” in separate quadrants from “black neighborhoods” and “black schools.” New York City’s school district is the most segregated in America. There are sins across the nation that beg atonement.

When the non-Southern group spoke, I immediately brought up the fact that no one from the Southern group had really gone into the legacy of the South in terms of its racism: the epicenter of American slavery, the region which fought to keep the slaves, the land that Martin Luther King, Jr. had marched as surely as William Tecumseh Sherman. The room rang with justifications for minutes afterward. “Those were our parents,” they said. “Our grandparents. That doesn’t define us anymore.”

About a week later, Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel AME and murdered nine people because they were black.

I haven’t asked them what they think about him. I can guess, certainly. Probably something about “despicable” and “racist” and “lone wolf.”

The thing about wolves is (he said, channeling Barry Lopez), is that even the lone ones had to come from somewhere. They were whelped by mothers and they learned how to hunt from their fellows. There is no such thing as a lone wolf. Dylann Roof was not born and left in the woods to raise himself. He had parents. He had Lexington, South Carolina. He interacted with his peers, his fellows, his Southern culture, and what he divined from that was that White people are good and black people are bad and deserve to die. And the fact that otherwise motivated and intelligent educators appear totally unmindful, or worse, defensive, about people like Dylann Roof shows that we have a very long way to go.

Yesterday was one of the most important days I have ever borne witness to. And so far, I like today. It’s just a question of how many todays we’re willing to string together. Which flagpole will tomorrow’s Bree Newsome have to climb?

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