After Charleston, what now? Stop tolerating intolerance

Raymond Smith of Charleston kneels in prayer the front of the Emanuel AME Church before a worship service Sunday.
Raymond Smith of Charleston kneels in prayer the front of the Emanuel AME Church before a worship service Sunday. AP

Over the last year, our nation has witnessed an intergroup dynamic that has been stunning to watch. Now we are reeling from a racial mass shooting at a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C. Why so many incidents of racial violence over the last year? How did we, America, get to this tipping point?

We got here because it took us too long to notice that as a nation we are well past being diverse. America is now a neo-diverse nation. But since it took us so long as a country to notice all of the social change, all around us, we have been using outdated ways to try to adapt to our nation’s neo-diversity.

Tolerance is not enough. Tolerance gives prejudice and bigotry a pass; tolerance lets bigotry hibernate. Hibernating bigotry is negative feelings about a group that people hold but do not express in behavior until the right stimulus comes along.

We, as individual citizens of this nation, have been too passive in our encounters with language bigotry in our everyday lives. “It’s just a joke,” people say, and we take it as so. “Oh, they don’t really mean that; they’re just joking,” we say to ourselves and others to let it pass.

In an interview, a friend of the now confessed, not crazy, premeditated killer of those nine people in Charleston, said, yeah, he used to say some racial things … make some racist jokes… but nobody took him seriously … we thought it was just jokes, but now…

We have been too tolerant of intolerance. In our everyday lives, we encounter and let pass spoken slurs and expressions of outward hostility toward Americans from different groups. But we have failed to understand that letting others speak in the language of bigotry against any group allows hostility to live and hibernate. We think it harmless until the right stimulus disturbs it and that grizzly, hibernating bigotry awakes with a roar and kills.

Three American-Muslim students are shot to death execution-style in their home. In a church, at Bible study, targeted because of their race, nine black people are shot to death in cold blood. We act surprised, but it is we who have kept that bigotry cool and comfortable by not taking seriously the language bigotry – of “the joke.”

What now? Despair is wrongheaded. As a black person who grew up in the Jim Crow South of legal racial segregation, I saw and lived through the tremendous and violent struggle for change during the 1960s as part of the Civil Rights Movement. So although racial murders are not new, something has changed. What is new is the attention these murders are getting and the widespread outrage that is moving through our nation – not just the outrage of black people, but outrage among the many different groups of our neo-diverse America.

That is the beginning of my continued hope. Yet outrage is not enough. We need thoughtful self-reflection that can lead to individual and group action.

What now? Now we have to stop showing tolerance for intolerance. Too often we tolerate language bigotry (verbal expression of stereotypes and anti-group prejudice). We have to speak up and object to the intolerance that comes up in our everyday social interactions. Yes, there is a lot of hard interpersonal work to be done in the midst of all the tension of the current tipping point of our neo-diverse America. But there is something each of us can do in our everyday social interactions to tip us in the right direction. It is time we start to speak up and stand against stereotypes and bigotry because stereotypes and bigotry are enemies, killers of the American Dream.

Rupert W. Nacoste is Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor of Psychology at N.C. State University.