It is very difficult to find any positive takeaways from a neo-Nazi white supremacist rally or a racially motivated mass shooting. But in the wake of President Trump’s equivocal response to the former, one may be able to identify a silver lining in those otherwise dark clouds. The nation has almost come to a virtual consensus that participating in racial violence in support of Adolf Hitler’s views is not good, and that shooting innocent worshipers because of their skin color is also bad. It seems a bit odd that in the year 2017 there should still be any debate about either statement, but the graciousness of Roof’s surviving victims and the ambivalence of President Trump’s response have helped galvanize people of all races against these particular acts of racial hatred. America’s current moment of near-unity over the distastefulness of the Charlottesville riots closely mirrors Charleston’s response to Dylann Roof’s heinous acts.
Without seeking to diminish the importance of this moment, we should also pause to reflect how low the baseline has become for such cross-racial consensus to occur. Almost all of us can now agree that espousing Nazi views and shooting innocent people because of their race is worthy of condemnation, but if this is all we can agree on, then it doesn’t get us very far. Remember, our state’s own U.S. Senator Tim Scott had to explain just this past week to President Trump why neo-Nazis and those who protest their views are not equally responsible for the violence which occurred in Virginia. This is partially because overt displays of racial hostility have fallen out of acceptance since the Civil Rights era. Prior to then, people proudly posed next to the bodies of lynched or burned African Americans without second-guessing the inappropriateness of that image. If you have any doubt as to this sentiment, Google “lynching of African Americans in the South” and see what images pop up on your computer. The same crowds that celebrated the extra-judicial killing of African Americans can also be seen proudly bearing posters with racial epithets when young African-American children were being ushered by federal marshals to desegregate public schools. Back then, there was no hint of embarrassment over being photographed while berating children whose parents merely wanted the same educational opportunities as other Americans. This was barely 50 years ago.
When technology finally allowed the broadcasting of these images, and all Americans had the opportunity to see acts of racial violence on TV and in print, many didn’t like what they saw. The horrific image of Emmett Till’s mutilated face on the cover of Life magazine, the bludgeoning of marchers in Selma, Ala., and the unleashing of Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses shocked many who had never seen such brutality up close. People eventually came to the consensus that beating, hanging, and burning black people simply because they demonstrated for equal rights was wrong.
So over the filibuster of mostly Southern senators (most notably our own Senator Strom Thurmond), Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the 1960s, and legally sanctioned racial discrimination no longer was en vogue. African Americans soon found out, however, that they had another more insidious foe to combat: covert racism. They also discovered that they would still be facing discriminatory housing practices, disproportionate prison sentences, and renewed efforts to disenfranchise them from the right to vote despite the sudden distaste for public acts of racial violence. Whereas Klansmen and hostile mobs were very easy to spot and condemn, discriminatory bankers, juries, and law enforcement personnel were much harder to identify. To the extent that systemic, but less obvious forms of discrimination by such groups continues to harm African Americans to this day, the argument can be made that more damage has been inflicted by these overall than openly violent mobs or fringe white supremacy groups ever could.
Dylann Roof, President Trump, and the Charlottesville neo-Nazis have unintentionally given us a fleeting moment of almost-universal agreement on the unacceptability of violence in the name of white supremacist ideology. But we should be mindful of the continuing obstacles to true racial equality. Whether it is shame, guilt, or a genuine desire to correct past wrongs that now motivates some in the white community to protest acts of violence alongside African-Americans, the more important question is whether or not that sense of cooperation extends to less visible forms of racial discrimination. If partners in the fight for racial equality are only willing to call out mass murderers and neo-Nazis when they do the unspeakable, but sit idly by when voter identification laws, disparate sentencing guidelines, and police brutality continue to harm countless black communities across the country, then we really haven’t broken any new ground. Rather than forging ahead through our newfound unity, we are simply protesting the obvious, and that isn’t real progress at all.