Thoughts on Charleston

So much excellent stuff has been written on the murders in Charleston, I hesitated to weigh in. But one part of the story that I thought could use some amplification is the politics of safety and security in this country, from the backlash of the GOP through today, how that intersects with the politics of racism. So I took it up in my column for Salon. I’m not sure I said exactly what needed to be said or what I wanted to say: for some reason, the precision and specificity I was aiming for here proved to be more elusive than usual. So if you find that the article misses its mark, I’ll understand.

Here are some excerpts:

In response to Wednesday’s murder of nine African Americans at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, President Obama said, “Innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”

I’ll admit: When I first read that statement, I thought Obama was talking about the police. Unfair of me perhaps, but it’s not as if we haven’t now been through multiple rounds of high-profile killings of African Americans at the hands of the police.

Indeed, until Wednesday’s murders, it seemed as if the national conversation about public safety had dramatically and fruitfully shifted. From a demand for police protection of white citizens against black crime—which dominated political discussion from the 1970s to the 1990s—to a scrutiny of the very instruments of that presumed protection. And how those instruments are harming African American citizens.

It’s tempting to seize on this moment as an opportunity to broaden that discussion beyond the racism of prisons and policing to that of society itself. In a way, that’s what Obama was trying to do by focusing on the threat posed not by the state or its instruments but by private guns in the hands of private killers like Dylann Roof.

But that may not be the wisest move, at least not yet. So long as the discussion is framed as one of protection, of safety and security, we won’t get beyond the society that produced Dylann Roof. Not only has the discourse of protection contributed to the racist practices and institutions of our overly policed and incarcerated society, but it also prevents us from seeing, much less tackling, the broader, systemic inequalities that might ultimately reduce those practices and institutions.

To assume that the state can provide for the safety and security of the most subjugated classes in America without addressing the fact of their subjugation is to assume away the last half-century of political experience. If anything, the discourse of safety and security has made those classes less secure, less safe: not merely from freelance killers like Dylann Roof or George Zimmerman, who claim to be acting on behalf of their own safety and that of white society, but also from the police. As [David] Cole writes, the proliferation of criminal laws and quality-of-life regulations that are supposed to make poor and black communities safer often serve as a pretext for the most intrusive and coercive modes of policing in those communities.

Far from providing the ground upon which a more expansive vision of social policy can be built, the discourse of safety and security ensures that politics never gets off the ground at all. When we make the safety and security the sine qua non of politics—whether in the form of Nozick’s minimal state or Williams’ “Basic Legitimation Demand”—we start refracting all political problems through that lens….Berkeley Law Professor Jonathan Simon goes further, claiming that our entire society is now organized around the principle “governing through crime.” Social problems are treated as crimes, citizens as victims or criminals, and solutions as punishments.

In 1833, John C. Calhoun, a slaveholder and a racist who had been Andrew Jackson’s Vice President and was now representing South Carolina in the Senate, defended the honor of his state by claiming that “no State has been more profuse of its blood in the cause of the country.” Calhoun was referring to South Carolina’s sacrifices during the American Revolution, but his comments can be usefully read against the grain of this week’s events.

Dylann Roof shed blood for the sake of a racism that, if not quite the cause of the country, is nevertheless not exclusive to South Carolina or the South. To counter that bloodshed, we need to move beyond a politics of safety and security that would seek only to punish or prevent it. For that politics of prevention and protection, of safety and security, has indeed become the cause of the country. A cause that is all too friendly to racial inequality—and all too hostile to a politics that might overcome it.

Read more here.


  1. Karel Rose June 21, 2015 at 10:33 am | #

    You didn’t miss the mark at all. I have shared your comments all around. I agree completely. -Karel Rose

  2. xenon2 June 21, 2015 at 1:13 pm | #

    Even after Sandy Hook, the people of Connecticut decided they would rather keep their assault rifles and hand guns, than prevent another massacre.I was astounded.

    Having a database of people who should not have guns, will do nothing to solve the problem.Shooters are typically males, ages 16-25, who have no serious records of any kind.They are attracted to schools, theaters, churches, shopping centers.Or, if there is some history, it’s kept quiet, as in Aurora or Newton.

    There is a danger in conflating 2 issues: police violence against blacks and mass shooters.Thanks to cell phones, we have seen a lot of police violence towards unarmed black children and black men, usually resulting in death.What is needed, is an independent prosecutor, someone from a distant state, who doesn’t have to work with the police and courts.A change in venue may be necessary, but I note that it failed for Tsarnaev.I thought surely here was a case demanding change in venue.

    Roof was absolutely wrong about black men raping white women and blacks taking over the country.Black people have, on average, 25% white ancestry.How did it get in there? Blacks are 13% of the population and blacks are losing power, every minute.I suggest that Roof’s desire to kill black people, grew up as a cultural meme, haphazardly. It could as well have Ayn Rand or al-Qaida or Jonestown or ISIS.People in the South are simply more open about their prejudice. Up North, we are likely to have a completely apartheid educational system and be ok with it.

    Suppose the only weapon available to Roof was a knife? There were other people there, who could have over come him.America is a gun-culture.We make guns.We import guns.We have shooting ranges.We love our guns.

  3. jonnybutter June 21, 2015 at 3:37 pm | #

    I saw a tweet yesterday that sort of broke my heart, or cracked it. I can’t seem to find it again, but it was written by a clearly stunned AA tweeter, to the effect that focusing on guns now is akin to having focused on the dangers of rope back in the lynching days – i.e. missing the point.

    I certainly understand disappointment with president Obama’s semi-pusillanimity on this (although the tweeter didn’t mention Obama). And clearly the main topic here is racist terrorism and its symbiotic role in most of US history, not guns. But in fact, guns absolutely should be focused on too in this situation precisely because guns make this kind of terrorism much much more likely. Lynching with rope takes a mob, and *that* kind of mob action is no longer acceptable, even in SC. Guns make it all too easy for one pathetic asshole to kill a lot of people in a hurry in a ‘foolproof’ way. What would little Goomer Von Hitler Jr have done if he hadn’t had access to modern firearms? Probably nothing, or at least not a mass killing. So Obama is not quite wrong. It is also not quite wrong to point out that this Roof is mentally ill, since murderous racism must be a form of social mental illness (if it’s not, than what is it? Pure unfathomable inhuman evil of the contra-Arendt Nazi kind?). I don’t see why he can’t be a racist-fascist *and* be mentally ill. It is significant that *open* racist fascism of the American-white-person variety is rarer now than it was in the 1920s. So terrorists of this kind *do* tend to be lone wolves more or less, and if they couldn’t get guns fewer would be able to ‘consumate’ their sick hatred in a mass killing like this. What would this POS done without a gun? So guns really do matter – the pastor killed in this incident was actually *involved* in gun control issues!

    The racism problem we still have is not primarily about deranged murderous racists like Roof, and it’s not even mainly about the persistence of the casual racism you still find quite a bit of, particularly in the South (but not exclusively there) – although that is part of it and getting closer: the bedrock problem is apparently-well-meaning-white-person-blindness to systemic, institutional, everyday hiding-in-plain-sight racism – e.g. policing in AA neighborhoods, segregation, the criminal ‘justice’ system – white blindness to what really needs very little effort to see. It needs quite a bit of effort to *not* see.

    I thought Corey’s was a good article. The stubbornest obstacle is white magical thinking which suggests that historical racism and the (strange) fruits thereof can be simply suppressed – i.e. stuffed wholesale into jails and graves – rather than faced and dealt with (‘politics’). Not to mention the fact that everything authority does to black folks it tends to do to any poor people – and at the drop of a hat, that can mean YOU – which also keeps things bottled up, and has always done, in a divide et imperia way. A floor or base is of great use to a brutally hierarchical system. Positing the absolute bottom of the heap defines the rest of the system.

  4. prism June 23, 2015 at 4:18 am | #

    As the singer Morrissey commented during a concert, if Roof had been black, he would certainly be well dead by now.

  5. Russell Scott Day June 24, 2015 at 9:51 pm | #

    I can see why you had difficulty feeling as if the piece was concrete and united. I have the difficulty of fearing that I would be disallowed firearms myself and therefore am squeamish about gun control.
    For your own country would you not want all of the citizens to be capable of using a defensive weapon?
    I know for my own model nation I want all my citizens to be armed. I’ve considered that the police ought not be able to have any weapons that any other citizen.
    Think for a moment: Would you really object if the people who work at the airport were armed? It isn’t insane at all for the captain of an airliner to carry a gun. The captains of ships have carried weapons and had the key to a gun locker for a long time.
    It is a sign of disunity in the US that there are so many C.S.A. KKK monuments put up throughout the C.S.A. states. Those monuments are as much to blame for the idea carried amongst youth in these states that the C.S.A. was a worthy and heroic cause.
    Northerns never saw the youths dancing around these monuments on Memorial Day perverted to honor C.S.A. heroes. I’m for either knocking them all over to win the war between the states in a real an final way, suspecting it would take soldiers of the Union to do it.
    Now I think they could be craned away to the state of the Union that contributed the most soldiers to the fight of free labor to free slave labor. This is was the war was really about. The men, workers, dirty white men working as the “mechanics” were violently opposed to the spread of slave labor into the new states that they later, after the war, often moved to for better lives.
    Of course in No More Lies, Dick Gregory’s history it was the American Indian the freed whites were free to wipe out as they did across the nation from the first.
    Democracy as mob rule helpless in the face of human nature went with persecution of the minority. Ah well, it is a Republic? It just failed and why not, the american Indians fought against it, and for their rights and their land.

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