Charleston shooting

Defeating Racism is About More Than a Flag

Every now and then, a subject deserves a good rant, but someone else is better suited to give it voice. Today, Rethink the Rant is happy to host just such a voice on an important subject in a guest post from Todd Rainey.

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Rev. Clementa Pickney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor were murdered last week in an act of white supremacist terrorism. Their deaths, the latest in an ongoing series of tragedies, are a painful reminder of the threat that is white supremacist ideology.

Illustration by Sarah Green

Illustration by Sarah Green

After issuing calls for forgiveness and reconciliation, participants in the 24 hour news cycle have directed considerable energy to the confederate battle flag. The flag is certainly a racist symbol (this is not up for debate), and it has no business being flown – especially by a government.

Although the removal of the confederate battle flag isn’t the only political struggle in the wake of the attack, it seems to be one of the more salient political agendas offered in the wake of the Charleston shooting.  The flag adds insult to injury where victims of racism are concerned, but our energies against the insult must surely give equal measure to the injury that provides its power.

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The confederate battle flag needs to go. It has needed to go. The flag needed to go as much two months ago as it must go today.  Whether the flag removal campaign is the spearhead of larger movements such as #BlackLivesMatter or a stumbling block remains to be seen. I fear that without due diligence, it can easily become the latter. Political symbols serve as shorthand for larger issues. But overemphasis on the abstract symbols of racism can come at the expense of more concrete gains.  Symbols have real power, but they are given that power by some material structure. In the case of the confederate battle flag, its power is derived from not only the klansman with his gun, but the economic development plan which isolates minority neighborhoods. Addressing the symbol without attacking the power would change only the flag under which our country’s leaders will marginalize the victims of white supremacy.

The murderer in Charleston rallied behind the confederate battle flag. Yet it wasn’t the flag that turned him into a terrorist. It was media coverage of race, a toxic brew of racist organizations, and his own perverse notion of white entitlement. Surely those deserve as much attention as the piece of shit flag they band behind.

Hating the confederate battle flag is part of America’s time-honored tradition of hating racists more than it loves the victims of racial supremacist policies. It’s far easier to hate a racist than it is to love the black community from which much of white America lives separately. It’s ironic, of course; the reason racism is bad is because of those it victimizes. When forced to confront a monster of our own making, the image of the racist in american political discourse is as a stand-in for all our racial sins. By demanding change of those we label the worst sort of racists, we export our complacency in the complex web of racism, then burn the effigy as an act of atonement.

These politics are especially difficult to manage when considering the timing of the removals. Tragic as they are, these murders cannot be considered an exception to the norm in a country founded on racial violence. The confederate flag has flown over countless more deaths in the name of white supremacy. The timing of the anti-flag movement seems to suggest that only the right sort of tragedy can precipitate such a movement. And by all means, if this is the tragedy that causes it to come down, it’s a win we should take. But we should also question why this particular event has been anointed worthy of the symbolic change when so many more were made to suffer its insult, all while we remained silent.

In a world with no confederate flag, we’d still have officers that took the shooter to a Burger King after his arrest. We’d still have a judge who said that the real victims were the family members of the shooter. We’d still have a wealth gap and de-facto segregation. The racial history of this country would be as much of a stain, its segregation as appalling, and its racial double-standards as inexcusable.11141350_10153422968176880_3279347084887726016_n

We’d have one less insulting symbol. If that’s enough to satisfy your sensibilities about justice, you’ve missed the point and set the bar too low. Still, it’s a start, and I hope that its removal becomes a symbol for a deeper, more earnest conversation in the media about the anti-racist movement.

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 16a3f18Todd Rainey is an educator and forensics coach living in East Texas. A former competitive collegiate debater with a degree in economics, Todd also has a passion for history and politics. When he isn’t building a curriculum, coaching his students in competitive public speaking, chasing after his precocious daughter, or playing Go, he reads and writes about social movements past and present.

The Confederate Flag Needs the Indiana Treatment

Earlier in 2015, Indiana did a very stupid thing. Despite the rising tide of support for LGBT rights, they passed a law enabling business owners to discriminate against members of the LGBT community, thinly veiled as protection of religious rights. The response was swift. People from around the country exploded in outrage. Municipalities and states indicated they would no longer fund travel to Indiana. Scheduled national conferences threatened to cancel their events. Leaders of major corporations threatened the same, with prominent figures publicly chastising state leadership for their actions.

It didn’t take long for Indiana to backtrack, adding provisions that would protect the same community they had set out to marginalize. Why? Because money talks louder than ideals in this world, unfortunately. It’s not enough for something to be the right thing; there has to be a cost for doing the wrong thing.

In South Carolina last week, we were reminded that there is something very, very wrong with the way racism is tolerated in this country. A young man who had been incredibly vocal regarding his racist worldview ended the lives of nine black parishioners at the historical Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in an attempt to start a “race war.” His views, despite violent rhetoric, had not raised any alarms until it was far too late. The proud bearer of the Confederate Flag had already completed his murderous mission.

In the wake of this brutal attack, South Carolina also did a very stupid thing. Well, arguably, they had been doing said stupid thing for years: flying the Confederate Flag along with Old Glory at their state capitol. With the Stars & Stripes at half mast, the antiquated Battle Flag stood unmoved but by the wind, and people across the nation cried foul. How tone deaf and cruel to fly the symbol that had represented the Charleston shooter’s hatred at full mast while the mourning had only just begun?

In rapid fashion, #takeitdown began to trend. Politicians who had initially come off as ambiguous or defensive on the matter found themselves needing to backtrack as backlash mounted. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley started by dismissing the matter out of hand until she, too, found herself calling for its removal.

Those who wish to see the flag remain present arguments just as transparent as those embraced by proponents of Indiana’s “religious freedom” law. It’s a symbol of heritage, they say. It’s a celebration of history, they say. It’s emblematic of Southern culture, they say.

These arguments are neither new nor persuasive. One need only contemplate whose heritage it celebrates (hint: certainly not that of the Black enslaved lives which prompted its creation) to recognize that this line of reasoning is privileged garbage at best and explicitly, disgustingly racist at worst. The basis of the argument is also ironically incorrect from a historical standpoint, as the prevalence of the Confederate flag technically surged in the 1950’s in response to mandated desegregation — another act of racially charged rebellion in the South. It’s really just bullshit no matter how you slice it. The same folks claiming “Southern Pride” as a justification for embracing the Confederate Flag would be appalled by Germans flying swastikas in the name of historical.

Well, for the most part.

Despite the heat facing South Carolina, though, the take down of the Confederate Flag is far from a sure thing. Its removal would require support from a supermajority in the legislature, and given that politicians are always looking to the next election, this issue gets tricky. 73% of White people in South Carolina — a demographic which makes up more than 68% of the state — want the Rebel Flag to continue to fly. Politicians taking a stand against that big a swath of the electorate would be gambling with their futures.

But revisiting battles earlier this year, let’s remember that money talks. It’s time to give South Carolina the Indiana-treatment.

Boycott South Carolina. Stop traveling there. Cancel those vacation plans today, and tell the venues WHY. Stop giving money to companies with a hub there. End your services with Verizon, skip Denny’s, get your new appliances from anyone other than GE, and tell them all WHY. Hey Angie’s List? Salesforce? Where you at? Seattle? No more travel, alright? Collectively, we can pull the purse strings tight enough to make tolerating a symbol of bigotry as a matter of public policy an untenable position, just as was done with LGBT discrimination in Indiana. It works. And it’s time.

Let’s get it done in South Carolina, but don’t stop there. The Palmetto State is far from the only offender in terms of Confederate imagery. Hell, the Confederate Battle Flag is ON THE STATE FLAG in Mississippi, with other variants present in state flags of Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee, Alabama and North Carolina. In Maryland, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia and Tennessee, states profit off of the sale of Confederate Flag license plates. Let’s turn up the heat this summer, shall we?

But beyond your wallet, make sure you bring your beliefs with you in the voting booth. Demand that your candidates, at a minimum, oppose the governmental use of the Confederate Flag and vocally indict its personal display. For the record, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum all fail this test. They’ve said it should be up to the people of South Carolina to determine its appropriateness. You know, the people who favor its continued presence at the Capitol. Don’t cast your vote for someone who would tolerate that sort of bigotry. I mean, really, even Mitt Romney got this one right. It’s not that difficult.

It’s not enough to use a hashtag. It’s not enough to be saddened or outraged. Put your money and your vote where your mouth is, because it’s overdue. If you can honestly look at the events of the past two years and say with a straight face that racism is not a current, widespread, urgent problem in this country, you’re either delusional, a liar, or a proponent of racism apologia yourself. The time for tolerating emblems of racism under the guise of culture never really was, but it certainly isn’t today.

We can’t just take it down, folks. We have to take it all down. Even that only scratches the surface of the work to be done in this country on the issue of race, but it’s a start. So let’s begin.

The Devil Goes to Charleston

Nine lives were ended too soon in Charleston last night. They were taken by hatred, by the barrel of a gun, in a house of worship, on a night dedicated to better understanding the intersection of faith and those now stolen lives. In their wake is a torrent of sorrow and white hot rage, a kaleidoscope of confused emotion that will probably never get properly sorted out. How does anyone make sense of the senseless?

I could write (again) about gun control and the fact that firepower allowed this young man to kill more people more quickly than he might have been able to otherwise, about how whether he got the gun legally or not doesn’t change the fact that the current gun regulation regime makes these tools of destruction too accessible to too many. But I’m really tired of writing the same thing over and over. I know you’re tired of reading it.

I could write (again) about the inherent danger of inhabiting a black body in this country, where — by police violence or structural violence or the violent inclinations of a man with vitriol in his heart — your life is at risk based on a genetic composition of melanin with ties to a history of endangerment. But others will give voice to this fear that is not mine, that I cannot ever fully comprehend, with far greater eloquence than myself. I’ll leave those words to them.

I could write (again) about the disparity in the way this story is already being told, the framing taking place by reporters and pundits and politicians to cast these acts as deranged instead of arranged because this man’s melanin composition is fair and his dress is straight out of White suburbia, about the fact that he will not be called a thug and only a select few will call what he did an act of terrorism, though inspiring terror was his intent. But I literally just wrote that last week. Last. Week.

The fact of the matter is that the crime that took place last night exists at a juncture where entitlement and weapons and race and a culture of violence intermingle like matches being shaken about in a powder keg. We’re playing with an element whose boiling point is unknown, but we have to know by now that the pending explosion could level entire cities. We must know that.

But whether you’re looking at Ferguson, Cleveland, or McKinney; Chicago, New York, or LA; Aurora, Newtown, Dallas, or Charleston, there is one factor that rears its ugly head more times than we’re comfortable counting: toxic white masculinity.

Toxic or hegemonic masculinity is a gendered perspective that positions men as dominant actors over subordinate women, and glorifies that power as something that must be protected at all costs from anything that could potentially undermine its hold. That means rejecting or attacking anything perceived as feminine, and behaving in an aggressive, sometimes violent, manner to reassert dominance. Feminine need not be female, of course. It is anything that could be perceived as open, vulnerable, or weak in the eyes of the actor.

When race gets added to the mix (and make no mistake — it’s been a constant ingredient for centuries now), toxic masculinity doesn’t just reject the feminine anymore; it rejects difference in any form. Any deviation from the norm — a norm that has placed white males in a position of historic privilege — is a threat that must be taken down. Toxic white masculinity would have you believe that women are trying to steal your manhood, that minorities are taking over the country, that Sharia Law is a heartbeat away. It would have you believe a war is raging. Maybe it is… but it is white males who have claimed the role of aggressor. The rest of us are just trying to survive.

It’s easy to point out the obvious examples of toxic white masculinity, of course. It’s Elliot Rodger raging over his inability to relate to women’s inability to see his worth. It’s Eric Casebolt kneeling on the spine of a barely clothed Black child, self-righteous adrenaline pumping through his veins. It’s Darren Wilson seeing Black and thinking Devil and doing the work of a God none of us recognize. It’s James Boulware wreaking havoc because the system momentarily labeled his criminal behavior appropriately. It’s Adam Lanza, Wade Michael Page, Jared Loughner, Charles Carl Roberts, Jeffrey Weise, Mark Orrin Barton, Dylan Klebold and so many more who felt the need to prove something in one way or another and did so through fire.

Those are the easy ones. Not every example of toxic white masculinity is a mass murder. You’ll find it in the politicians who are anti-choice and believe single mothers should be shamed, because any manifestation of female sexuality outside of their approved constructs threatens their sense of authority. You’ll find it in the pundits insisting that the galling racial disparity in the criminal justice system is a function of flaws in the cultures of People of Color instead of flaws in the system built by the privileged. You’ll find it in the homophobic slurs that litter locker rooms, more putrid than the stench of the discarded uniforms strewn about the floor. You’ll find it in the dad bod enthusiasts who hold up Maxim as the standard by which the female form should be judged. You’ll find it in jokes told by bros young and old about welfare queens and drag queens and everyone in between who is not them, followed by angry missives about the PC police when someone dares to call them out on it.

The cherry on top of this mountain of suffering is that the same toxic white masculinity that causes so much damage to others hurts the group that practices it, as well. It’s just hard to feel any sympathy for them when you know the pain they cause everyone else. Especially today. Especially after last night.

Toxic white masculinity was in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last night. A boy believing himself to be a man proved the inverse as he attempted to project his power with gunpowder and lead, and nine people paid the ultimate price for his performance. It was nine lives too many past the already nauseating body count. How many more have to die before we stop talking about lone wolves and start talking about a systemic problem?

There will be those reading this who balk at the idea of saying there’s any problem with white men in this country. I can hear the counterarguments roiling in their minds, desperate to defend the norms that give them a privilege they don’t have the language to identify. Before it starts to seep from your mouths, would-be debaters, let’s talk about this.

If you’re sitting there thinking that women or People of Color or other minorities participate in the same kinds of behaviors, you’re partially right and partially unaware of the significance of cultural context when evaluating communication. But for the part where you are correct, it’s important to note that toxic white masculinity, while primarily something observed in white males, is not reserved for them. Women can be misogynists; some gay men can be the worst offenders. Black people can promote respectability politics. And because masculinity is not static or tied to sex, the aggressive behavior associated with toxic white masculinity can manifest anywhere. Like the disease it is, it branches beyond the usual suspects and infects other parts of our world.

If you’re sitting there thinking, “Not me!”… you’re probably wrong. But on the off chance you’re not, you really shouldn’t expect praise. So you’re a decent human being? Congratulations, I guess?

I will concede that not all white men partake in toxic white masculinity. I shouldn’t have to say that, but knowing how conversations like these go, I will. The important takeaway from that fact is that toxic white masculinity is not an incurable scourge. It can be dismantled, and that starts with us admitting there’s a problem in the first place. And I mean all of us.

Because complacency here is like not taking your full regimen of antibiotics; that infection is gonna pop back up if you’re not vigilant. When we chant All Lives Matter over the voices of color begging us to stop killing them; when we nod along while politicians insist all Mexican immigrants are drug dealers and rapists; when we keep laughing at the same tired jokes that trade on the suffering of others; when we recognize the problem and see it in action and do and say nothing because we don’t want to rock the boat — we let that infection live on. And the body count climbs.

So say it with me: ENOUGH. Enough lives lost and shattered in the name of a mindset that props up systems which fail us at best and kill us at worst. Toxic white masculinity can no longer be tolerated. Burn it to the ground.