Dylann Roof makes for a very convenient white supremacist. He has broken our hearts but does not challenge us much. We can easily distance ourselves from his ideological idiocy and label him an unbalanced young man who latched onto something hateful. But white supremacy in “these yet to be united states,” as James Baldwin puts it, is far more complicated and tenacious than we’re inclined to acknowledge.
If you can hold in your head the words “white supremacist abolitionists,” then you can understand the complexity of race and white supremacy in America. Some white abolitionists gave their lives for black freedom, but they were not free of white supremacist assumptions. President Lyndon Johnson, who passed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act but frequently used the n-word, is another excellent example. The noun “racist” is a very small box to put us in. White supremacy is in the water, and we are the fish, and many of us can no more discuss it than a fish might contemplate the wetness of water.
What about black people with certain white supremacist assumptions, which are common enough in history? Recall “the paper bag test” or the skin-lightening concoctions for sale in black publications. Ponder what black people once commonly meant by “good” hair or skin, or “nice” features. Think of the white liberals in the civil rights movement, willing to risk all in the battle against white supremacy, and yet sometimes too eager to take over instead of just taking part. We can’t just call everyone with a white supremacist assumption lurking in their heads “racists” and be done with it.
We all need to examine and re-examine our ideas, given that most of us grew up amid white supremacist delusions. If we live in denial, clinging to the pretense of our own purity of heart, we’re not likely to be able to stomp out white supremacy, which is a tenacious and subtle poison. (Sometimes not subtle, as in Charleston.) As the Rev. Dr. William Barber said the other day, “The perpetrator has been caught, but the killer is still at large.”
It’s not just the card-carrying white supremacists, the kind who run neo-Nazi websites, who are the problem. Instead, white supremacy is an idea that has been one of the most prevalent notions in our history – that God created people in a hierarchy of moral, cultural, intellectual worth, with lighter-skinned people at the top and darker-skinned people at the bottom. We can stomp out this idea in time, I believe, but not until we see its pervasiveness and complexity.
The more overt expressions of white supremacy are the easy stuff. We’ve gained ground against them, despite what has just happened in South Carolina. Even fairly enthusiastic believers in white supremacy nowadays usually deny they practice racism. That’s because the civil rights movement changed America to where it is disadvantageous to admit overt white supremacy. We’ve made progress, even if the poison persists in both overt and covert forms.
Unconscious white supremacist fears make it hard for some police officers to tell the difference between a phantom fear and a genuine threat, lead some to pull a trigger too quickly and lead others to justify it, lead still others to shoot first and dodge questions later. The Black Lives Matter movement is confronting this head on, and it has been an interracial movement almost from the start, though it has a strong, progressive African-American leadership. North Carolina’s “Moral Monday” has visionary black leadership, but as many white people as black are active in it, and they’re taking part, not taking over. These movements are notable for black pride and also for their willingness to accept allies of all colors. So maybe we are getting somewhere, in our halting and fumbling way.
But we can’t just pretend that any of us live cleanly beyond the influence of white supremacy. We have to fight it everywhere that it lives, including our own heads. President Johnson was just a recovering white supremacist like most of us, flawed but explaining to the nation, “it is not just the Negro, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
I have come a long way, and I am trying to be a good soldier in the struggle. But I am not arrogant enough to say that I got across the river and didn’t even get wet. I have met the enemy, and he is not just Dylann Roof.
Timothy B. Tyson is a senior research scholar at Duke University and education chair of the North Carolina NAACP.