There’s a brief history of the American Civil War that most people know. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, an executive order marking all slaves in the United States as freemen. It went into effect on January 1, 1863. As the Confederate States didn’t recognize themselves as part of the Union, they basically ignored it. And of course there was a big huge war that everyone knows about, which ended officially on May 9th of 1865. Really, this was basically a formality. It had really ended earlier, as Robert E. Lee had surrendered a month earlier.
What a lot of people don’t know about is how Texas handled the news. See, Texas has benefit of being far from where most of the fighting was going on and they had the gumption of… well… basically being Texas. So when the South surrendered to the North and the slaves were without a doubt free, Texas handled it in the most brilliant of all possible ways. They didn’t tell anyone. Texas is gonna be Texas. They just went about business as usual and figured “who’s going to notice?” And for a whole month, basically nobody did. So when he Union Army arrived in Texas in mid-June they discovered “What the fuck?!?!? There are still slaves here.” So, the next day, General Gordon Granger of the Union Army literally had to stand in the middle of Galveston, Texas and announce to the slaves “hey, just so you know… you’re free now.”
That was 150 years ago, yesterday. It’s called Juneteenth.
Three nights ago, a 21-year old white man named Dylann Roof decided to walk into a South Carolina church and open fire, killing nine black people while yelling racial epithets at them. He fled the scene and was captured the next morning some 250 miles away. In pretty much everyone’s minds, this is a horrible tragedy. If I have any remaining faith in humanity (and really, I don’t have much), it was reassured by the fact that unlike all the other race related incidents I’ve written about in the last year or two, I didn’t really see anyone trying to argue that the victims were at fault. When I first heard about this two days ago, and saw people talking about it online, black and white, democrat and republican, I thought to myself “Thank God!” This was not George Zimmerman. This was not Darren Wilson. It wasn’t Daniel Pantaleo. It wasn’t even the Baltimore PD. For once I didn’t have to look at Facebook and watch people try to bury their heads in the sand and defend murderers for executing “thugs.”
Yay! Score one for Planet Earth!
Seriously… why do I even bother?
Then it started to get stupid. It started with Rick Santorum and the crew of Fox News. Really, its amazing how often you can say “it started to get stupid” and blame it on Rick Santorum or the crew of Fox News. Anyway, the argument they made is that this was a war against Christianity. This horrible person has taken it upon himself for killing people just because they wanted to worship in peace. Santorum even said “It’s obviously a crime of hate. Again, we don’t know the rationale, but what other rationale could there be?”
Except, we DO know the rationale, you fucking moron. Roof has said what the rationale is. He’s not shy about it. He “wanted to kill black people.” I’m not guessing here. Those were his exact words.
But it’s not just the Santorum level of stupidity that is bothering me right now. It’s the other rationalizations. I’ve seen people posting about how he’s obviously got mental health issues and we need to start taking a serious look at this. President Obama used his statement on this to call for stricter gun regulation so that tragedies like this can be avoided. Even my wife fell somewhere between these arguments. She can clarify for herself, but basically, she believes that guns should be reserved for people over the age of 25, when the brain is more fully developed. And finally, this has called attention to the question of whether or not the Confederate flag —which is, as we speak, flying over the state capitol of South Carolina — should be banned.
No No No No NO!!!!
Is Dyllan Roof mentally ill? I don’t know. In some respect, probably most people who go on a reign of terror for no reason other than hate are not what most of us define as “sane” by social convention. But that’s not why he did it. Is his brain fully matured? My limited understanding of psychology says that at 21, it almost certainly isn’t. That’s not why he did it either. His father gave him a gun for his 21st birthday last month. His car has a Confederate flag license plate. These things didn’t make him do it either.
Dylann Roof was going to kill some people eventually. If he had to wait til he was 25 he would have done it 4 years from now. But if he hadn’t gotten a gun from his father, he would have gotten one somewhere before then. If he didn’t have a gun, he would have used a bomb, poison, a knife or his bare hands. He was going to kill someone even without his confederate flag or his apartheid patch. He was going to kill someone because he is fucking evil.
I’ve said several times before that I like the word “nigger.” I like when white people use it as a racial slur. I find it very helpful for letting me know where the racists are. I feel similarly about the Confederate flag. The problem with systemic racism is that it’s everywhere. When racism is codified into institutionalized policy, it’s much harder to see and therefore, in many ways, all the more harmful. When a guy is standing on the corner, wearing a sheet and pointy hat and yelling “nigger” next to a burning cross, he is doing me the favor of letting me know exactly where he stands. Roof is about as close to this as you can get without stopping for some tailoring at Bed, Bath and Beyond. He is a racist. He is PROUD to be a racist. Even his friends and family have admitted this.
As humans, we like to rationalize things. Sometimes we use science. Sometimes we use religion. But we don’t like to “not know” why. Several months ago, I held a debate in the English class I teach. My boss, Danielle, came to observe it. During the debate, one of my students made a statement to the effect of “back in the days when there used to be racism…” Danielle and I had a good laugh talking about it afterwards. Even in the face of numerous incidents of police shootings, Ferguson and the #BlackLivesMatter movement that were going on at the time, he couldn’t see modern racism. But the student didn’t mean to minimize racism by saying it. He simply wants to believe that we live in a different world. He doesn’t understand racism and therefore he can’t see it as a rationalization for anything. Why? Because it isn’t “rational.”
But just because something is isn’t rational, that doesn’t mean it can’t be the rationale. Dylann Roof did what he did he did because he is a hateful, evil, racist motherfucker. That’s hard to understand, because even those who might unknowingly embrace the systemic racism that is the norm in our society don’t feel that level of hate to the core of their beings. Those of us who oppose systemic racism have trouble even reconciling the existence of hatred and evil that pure. Even in fiction we try to give villains some level of logical consistency to their evil actions. They commit crimes for money, power, revenge or some greater ideology. Rarely, in anything but the most basic morality play aimed at children does a criminal act simply in the name of evil for evil’s sake. But it exists. And Dylann Roof is its poster boy.
And this is the danger of systemic racism. It is the danger of justification. Every time we try to rationalize away a Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown or Freddie Gray, we do what Texas did 150 years ago. We say “maybe if we don’t talk about this, no one will notice.” Every time we try to attack the symptoms — the flags, the epithets, the guns —we attempt to place a bandaid with cartoon characters on a gaping head wound. The reason we —and by this I mean humans, both sides — don’t see these things is because both solutions enable systemic racism by focusing on the “system” and ignoring the racism. So 150 years later, Juneteenth is just a relevant as it was then. Perhaps even more so.
But please, for the sake of all that is holy when a cartoon super villain from a children’s morality play does come along and announce himself. Lets not cloud him over too. Because once we do, when evil happens “who’s going to notice?”
Actually… maybe we already have.