It’s amazing what people will say when they think you may agree with them. For example, if you’re a white bald guy, living in the suburbs and approaching middle age, people will consider you “safe.” They will see that you like to keep your yard tidy, go to Home Depot a lot and watch sports and assume that you probably think a lot like they do. They will think that they can say what they want when it’s just the two of you talking. And boy, they will say it.
You’d me amazed at how many people – good, otherwise respectable people who would never breath a racist breath publicly – offer the most vile sentiments when they think they’re among friends. I saw this often growing up in West Virginia, but it is by no means strictly a southern thing. The sentiment Dylann Roof is reported to harbor – “blacks are taking over the world” – has been said to me in those exact terms in my old law office, on the sidewalk of my pleasant and friendly little suburban neighborhood and over drinks at nice and friendly bars in downtown Columbus, Ohio. It and other things like it have been said to me by people who publicly denounce racism and offer no outward suggestion that they’re anything other than perfectly nice, perfectly open-minded people.
Of course these people and most people like them would never commit an act of racial violence. But take this extraordinarily common sentiment, allow it to fester uncommented upon and, quite often, supported and echoed in private conversation, and add in a couple of other factors, and it’s not hard to see how events like Wednesday night’s massacre can take place.
- Add in a government that, unlike most, publicly endorses racism in the flags it flies, the laws it passes (or fails to pass) the politicians it elects and the manner in which it whitewashes history and society;
- Add in defacto segregation which prevents the folks who harbor these sentiments from interacting with black people, thereby allowing them to be more easily dehumanized;
- Add in a culture which teaches young men that everything a man says and thinks – especially everything a white man says and thinks – is correct;
- Add in a culture in which mental health is something people shouldn’t talk about and mental health care is something people should be ashamed of seeking;
- Add in comically free and easy access to guns and the belief that violence is a legitimate means of solving problems;
- Finally, add in a legal system which has shown, over and over and over again, that crimes against black people are not terribly serious and in many instances will go unpunished.
When you take all of that together, it’s not hard at all to see how, eventually, someone will do what Dylann Roof did. It’s not a function of some crazy outlier of a person harboring crazy, outlier ideas. It’s an extreme act, to be sure, but it’s an act born of oh-so-common sentiments, held by far more people in this country than anyone wants to admit, and goosed by some factors that are totally within our control.