Day 405 – Charleston Massacre
Like most, I was sickened by the execution of State Senator and Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney and 8 others by Dylann Roof while they were studying the Bible in the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
After sitting with them for an hour, but not participating Mr. Roof, 21, rose up and pulled out his gun. Mr. Sanders, 26, a member of the study group tried talking him down, “You don’t have to do this,” he pleaded.
Mr. Roof responded, “Yes. You are raping our women and taking over the country” before shooting killing 9 members of the congregation in their house of worship, doors opened wide to anyone who wanted to join them.
Today is Friday June 19th, Juneteenth – I’ll come back to this, two days after the massacre occurred and I am sitting in a motel room in Van Horn, TX resting while working on my blog. There are many thoughts rampaging around in my brain case – experiences from my ride, details coming in on the massacre and reflections of my inherent white,male privilege.
Let’s start with Juneteenth. I don’t know about you, but I just heard about this in conjunction with news of the massacre. It commemorates the announcement to the end of slavery that was read in Galveston, TX 71 days after the Confederate Army surrendered and 172 days before Slavery was officially abolished by the passing of the 13th Amendment.
Today 155 years later, I’m inching closer to understanding the path from slavery to Dylann Roof’s trigger finger that is encoded in the DNA of our country. The US was founded on the principles of freedom and the pursuit of happiness from the point of view of Christian, hetero-sexual white men. That is the starting point and they put together a set of founding documents that brought into existence our country with a set of ideals, that when read universally, we are still struggling to live up to.
I’m going to sketch out my thoughts on this event by tying them into the system of wealth building inherent in America from it’s inception to today. That is, America becomes closer to its founding principles, its American-ness when all of its citizens have an equal chance of accumulating wealth by their own industriousness.
We have the huge historical problem of embracing the reality that all other citizens were defined in relation to the supremacy of white men. This precedent goes back way further than 1776, but lets leave that complexity for another time and focus on the environment for wealth building in America.
A good way to build wealth is to get someone else to produce something for you to sell for less than it cost to produce. The foundation of Capitalism and a system that, in general, I agree with. Prior to industrialization a lot of wealth accumulation relied on manual labor, the less expensive the better. The best turned out to be slaves the cost being limited to initial acquisition and upkeep. Additionally, they would be bread to increase return on initial investment and even sold as the labor needs dictated.
Human beings are notoriously bad at working for nothing on a continuous basis unless a set of societal principles is enforced to maintain control and productivity. In addition, there will always be a few in the privileged class that will question why a group of like beings are being treated differently, possibly even those whose wealth accumulation is dependent on the arrangement.
So it is important to define this labor force as the other. Not white, not a full citizen, not capable of owning land, the means of productions, etc. While at the same time re-enforcing the belief that this is the natural order of things – black people were created to be enslaved, for that is their nature. Yes, black people in Africa sold slaves into slavery. Yes, some free black men owned black slaves. Yes, some white people were slaves. Yes, I am sure there were female slave owners somewhere at some point.
To black people selling blacks into slavery in Africa – I don’t consider them Americans or held to American ideals. They are a separate matter to look into. To the exceptions, they were rare enough to not upset the structure of white, male supremacy that set up this system of wealth creation and concentration and can be ignored.
In general there are three things that people fundamentally fight dearly to protect: status, power and the means of accumulating wealth. I argue that those that enjoy those things the most will fight the hardest to maintain them no matter the spiritual, moral or cognitive cost. The human mind has a built in capacity to accommodate contradictory thoughts devoid of reasoning or factual reality. And an equally impressive system to conjure up entire superstructures of belief and justification to make contrarian thoughts and actions perfectly at ease with one another.
When established principles of wealth creation were under attack, primarily in the South because their industry was the most labor intensive it resulted in a war, our Civil War. The end of which would mark the beginning of an even larger and insidious battle to hold onto the those established principles of wealth creation for as long as possible.
Even if every slave owner had had an instant change of heart it would take a while for former slaves to grow into their newfound freedoms and for whites to absorb the ramifications of their new identity as part of, and not the top of society. For former slaves, agency would come into play and the skills needed to act upon that agency would need to be developed. For whites their fundamental worldview would be change. No longer defined in relation to blacks as supreme member of society they would just be lighter skinned Americas no different than darker skinned Americans. And if you are not different than what exactly are you while in a state of social decline? Freaked out of your mind I would guess.
In addition, the entire southern economy would have to be restructured as massive streams of wealth changed course or dried up completely. With former ways of wealth accumulation gone, definitions of success, heritage, self-realization would all be shaken to their core. Not a lot of fun as you could imagine.
This process was not going to be over in a few years or even a few generations, this would be long terms process even if everyone was on board from the signing of the 13th Amendment. As you probably know plantation owners were not on board at all, on the contrary a lot of effort was spent devising ways of keeping black people in their proper place, as a means of wealth accumulation for white men primarily in the South but in every state of the Union.
Not every white man, not in every place and not in the same way, but the general theme holds that this system of wealth accumulation was not going to go down without a fight. Jim Crow laws were passed, men in white sheets began terrorizing black people, church (a focal point of black life and leadership) were burnt to the ground, minor slights were grounds for lynching, black people were thrown in jail on a whim only to be leased to white men as convicts. The list goes on and on.
There was a mass exodus from the south to the north by blacks to escape the terror, the lack of protection by the law, the unfair treatment in business dealings, labor and housing. And in the north while not as overt as in the south the system of wealth accumulation still heavily swung towards white men.
Redlining was a major means of concentrating blacks into ghettos in inner cities as government home loans were systematically denied to blacks home buyers and predatory lending practices were in full bloom. There was some success in fighting back, but it was the exception and not the rule. A lot of black people missed out on the wealth building that occurred during the governments drive to get as many “proper” Americans into home ownership as possible.
A major side of effect of having a system that has historically concentrated wealth towards whites is the inability of non-whites to progress. Of course there are many examples of successful non-whites, but what I am talking about is the aggregate. When a group is systematically denied the same opportunities of accumulating wealth it changes the trajectory of the entire group over time and I argue that is what we are still dealing with today.
Also, the grotesque nature of the system of wealth creation our nation was founded upon in addition to the complacency that a lot of white people, myself included, have historically had to the substantial, but not complete irradiations of inequality causes many white people to think racism is a thing of the past.
Or say things like, “I didn’t own any slaves and we fixed that a long time ago anyway, so what does this have to do with me?”
Well, if you think equality is an important principle as opposed to just lip service than hopefully Charleston massacre will linger in your mind for a while.
I’m working to make it my own.
I embrace the mass murderer Dylann Roof as a part of my society.
He isn’t a monster, or a lunatic or crazy. From what I’ve read so far he had a hard, but not abnormally hard upbringing.
He was obviously confused about his path in life and sense of self and I can identify with that who hasn’t been at some point in their life.
It appears he found comfort and identity with white supremacists – those white folks that look fondly on that original system of wealth accumulation and all non-whites as something less than themselves. Dylann took it upon himself to neutralize a threat he saw in his malformed world view. A group of black people engaged in Bible study that most likely would have been more than happy to talk to him about his troubled life. In a church that has long history of being the focus of both black leadership and empowerment and white hatred and destruction.
In the end, no one but Dylann is responsible for his actions.
He bought the gun, he searched out the flawed supporting evidence, he chose the church, he sat around the table for an hour of Bible study hearing their words maybe even looking them each in the eye.
Then he got up and shot –
State Sen and Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney – dead
Tywanza Sanders – dead
Cynthia Hurd – dead
DePayne Middleton-Doctor – dead
Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons Sr. – dead
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton – dead
Susie Jackson – dead
Ethel Lee Lance – dead
Myra Thompson – dead
At the same time I feel there is a lot we can do as thoughtful Americans to work towards reducing the chances of it happening again.
I suggest looking at the bigger picture of our system of wealth accumulation, it’s origins, bias and how it has created the country we live in today.
For bonus points expand your inquiry even further to equality between men and women the ultra rich and the rest of us.
This is all super complex and many other factors come into play, but I thought maybe this blog post could be a useful launching off point it has been for me to write it.
I believe the health of our country depends strongly on everyone having a fair shot at accumulating wealth.
A long, but great article to get you thinking – The Atlantic, The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates