How do we get real about racism in America?
Let’s Talk About Charleston
This week we talked about the young white man, Dylann Storm Roof, who — self-deputized to protect white America — gutted one of the South’s most historic black churches.
His act added nine more names to the roll of black Americans killed in the year of Ferguson and Staten Island and Baltimore, and it re-opened a race conversation that is already a part of the 2016 presidential contest. It also recalled the terror face of American racism, in the tradition of the Ku Klux Klan and the Birmingham bombings, and a very familiar expression of anger, grief, and helplessness.
We wanted to know what it would for America to undertake the kind of urgent searching that was forced on Germany and South Africa, Rwanda and Northern Ireland? Can we have truth-and-reconciliation, American style?
Claudia Rankine, America’s poet of racial trauma in the award-winning Citizen, suggested in a moving essay this week that we emulate the mothers of the dead. Black lives matter when we mourn black deaths like family. For Rankine, racism persists in violent, public ways because well-intentioned people fail each other in private:
People have beliefs that come up when they see a body that doesn’t look like them, and it has nothing to do with the person in front of them. But the person in front of them has to receive the assault of that language and has to negotiate it. And so the next time the person has to enter that room, they have to brace for more of that. Whether or not it comes. So it becomes a third thing in the room. And this is often — you know we’re not talking about Fox News. We’re not talking about Don Imus. We’re talking about friends. We’re talking about colleagues. We’re talking about quotidian moments, like going to the grocery store, when you don’t expect that your day is going to have to include negotiating anti-black racism.
Heather Ann Thompson, a historian who spoke to us about the shadow of the Attica prison raid and the social stain of mass incarceration, told white America to step up and claim responsibility for what is done in our name each day: by police, by economics, by the political systems that we trust.
That means reckoning with the Young Men With Guns who also claim to act in our name. The war-zone journalist Åsne Seierstad spoke with us about Norway’s national confrontation with Anders Behring Breivik. Her new book about the 32-year-old fascist who killed 77 people four summers ago is called “One Of Us.” This week Americans debated whether to call Dylann Roof “a terrorist,” but — listening to Seierstad — we decided it was more important to call him “son”:
What happened in the media here in Norway, there would be words used like “monster.” The discussion also went along the lines of “he’s sick,” implying we’re healthy.” Nothing wrong with us, he’s the sick one.” Whereas, in the end, the court ruled that he was not sick. He was clinically sane. He was guilty of his crime. We had to look at him, but we also had to look at us… There’s a difference between the Left and the Right. The Left would be more inclined to say… “He didn’t grow up in a vacuum. His ideas came from something. They came from racism in the society, they came from anti-Islamic thought in the society. So we have to look at us, and how discussions are being run in the society.”
After Ferguson, after Newtown, after this week, the question echoes: what’s it take to make a change? Our guest Kwame Anthony Appiah — philosopher of cosmopolitan tolerance, against racism, and a new podcaster! — says the pain and activism of the past year gave Americans a closer-than-ever look at our violent history and our sorry selves. But, Appiah says, it will take more than sense of history — a de facto truth commission — to be be a better people. We need a sense of shame:
Our friends all around the world think that the way we are in relation to things like the mass incarceration of black people is a stain on our national character. And they find it hard to be friends with us because they see that we have allowed this thing to happen and we don’t seem to be inclined to do anything about it. [We need] to have what our founders called a “decent respect for the opinion of mankind” and to realize that a lot of what we do in the world is undermined by our failure to deal with our longstanding problem of race
playwright and poet, whose book Citizen: An American Lyric won the 2014 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry.
professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of the forthcoming book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy.
professor of philosophy at New York University, author of The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, and one of The New York Times Magazine's new panel of "Ethicists", who record a podcast each week.
Norwegian journalist and author of One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway.
Claudia Rankine, New York Times Magazine
Our leadoff guest, the poet behind Citizen, raises the dead bodies of black Americans as a sorry reminder of the state of the union:
We live in a country where Americans assimilate corpses in their daily comings and goings. Dead blacks are a part of normal life here. Dying in ship hulls, tossed into the Atlantic, hanging from trees, beaten, shot in churches, gunned down by the police or warehoused in prisons: Historically, there is no quotidian without the enslaved, chained or dead black body to gaze upon or to hear about or to position a self against. When blacks become overwhelmed by our culture’s disorder and protest (ultimately to our own detriment, because protest gives the police justification to militarize, as they did in Ferguson), the wrongheaded question that is asked is, What kind of savages are we? Rather than, What kind of country do we live in?
Tony Horwitz, TPM
The historian/journalist dives into his collection of Confederate paraphernalia from his past book, in which old racism mingles with new political understandings of Southern identity and (mis)readings of Civil War history, in symbols like the embattled battle flag:
I’m not very optimistic that the debate over South Carolina’s flag will bring a deeper reckoning. Furling the statehouse flag may bring temporary relief to South Carolinians, but what we truly need to bury is the gauzy fiction that the antebellum South was in any way benign, or that slavery and white supremacy weren’t the cornerstone of the Confederacy. Only then, perhaps, will we be able to say that the murdered in Charleston didn’t die in vain, and that the Lost Cause, at last, is well and truly lost.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic
The much-cited Coates was shocked when the Confederate flags at Southern capitols started to come down in the wake of Roof's killings:
Nikki Haley deserves credit for calling for the removal of the Confederate flag. She deserves criticism for couching that removal as matter of manners. At the present moment the effort to remove the flag is being cast as matter of politesse, a matter over which reasonable people may disagree. The flag is a “painful symbol” concedes David French. Its removal might “offer relief to those genuinely hurt,” writes Ian Tuttle. “To many, it is a symbol of racial hatred,” tweeted Mitt Romney. The flag has been “misappropriated by hate groups,” claims South Carolina senator Tom Davis. This mythology of manners is adopted in lieu of the mythology of the Lost Cause. But it still has the great drawback of being rooted in a lie. The Confederate flag should not come down because it is offensive to African Americans. The Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans.
Karl Ove Knausgaard, The New Yorker
The Norwegian of the moment—a novelist we've discussed on the radio—reckons with Anders Behring Breivik. He was Norway's greatest criminal and, all the same, also the kind of boring, insecure, pathetic male that Knausgaard thinks and writes about in My Struggle:
A few months before Breivik carried out the assault, he visited his former stepmother and told her that soon he was going to do something that would make his father proud. His mother had left his father when he was one, and it had been years since Breivik had spoken to him. He wanted to be seen; that is what drove him, nothing else. Look at me. Look at me. Look at me.