Home / General / Is it a good idea to try to shame conservative/white/southern Americans about the history and persistence of endemic racism?

Is it a good idea to try to shame conservative/white/southern Americans about the history and persistence of endemic racism?

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stars and bars

Rick Hills argues that it isn’t:

It is completely predictable in our polarized nation that there are two competing narratives about the Charleston Church massacre. One narrative is that the actions of Dylann Roof, the young murderer, reflects and is inspired by a toxic and pervasive brew of wistfully nostalgic white supremacy and racist paranoia that swills around the internet and spills out into the open in Freudian slips and occasional acts of terror . . .

The second narrative, mostly from conservative sources, is that pervasive contemporary racism had nothing to do with the Charleston massacre. . . .The less implausible version of this narrative is that Dylann Roof was indeed a vicious racist but that his racism is an atavistic expression of a long-extinct ideology rather than a reflection of widespread contemporary attitudes and fears.

Hills finds the first narrative compelling, and the second so implausible that he assumes its mass media manifestations via Fox and the WSJ editorial page are products of intellectually dishonest ideological marketing campaigns, rather than sincerely-held views. But then he comes to a surprising conclusion:

Nonetheless, if I were to judge these competing narratives by their utility rather than their honesty, I confess that I prefer the Fox News spin. My reason, elaborated after the jump, is that Fox News’ approach has a prayer of creating a cross-racial rural coalition rooted in church and guns. By contrast, Stewart’s Naming & Shaming strategy seems not only futile but dangerous to me: Convince “mainstream” Southerners that their condemnation of racist violence is inconsistent with their embrace of Stonewall Jackson and the Confederate flag, and you might find that they dump the former rather than the latter. . .

[Jon] Stewart’s Naming & Shaming strategy invites the scolded listener to consider whether this general bundle of cultural loyalties (for instance, an affinity for Confederate flags) is causally associated a tendency towards racist violence. It seems to me intuitively obvious that there is such a link. Such a Naming and Shaming strategy, however, poses the risk that, rather than jettison their general cultural commitments to Southerness, the target audience will instead circle the wagons. Maybe it is just my paranoia, but it is not obvious to me which horn of the dilemma white South Carolinians would choose if they were convinced that there was an inconsistency between their general celebration of “Southern-ness” and their condemnation of a racist church-shooting.

The Fox News strategy, for all of its intellectual dishonesty, has the single virtue of reenforcing the aversion to racist violence by tying that aversion to the target audience’s other cultural commitments. “If you love the NRA and attend church regularly,” the Fox News interview implies, “then you should rise up to demonstrate against the anti-Christian Dylann Roof and arm Black churchgoers against others of his ilk.” Painting white supremacists as anti-Christian rather than pro-Confederate, in other words, seems like a smarter way to peel off Southern support for the frequenters of Stormfront.org and similar venues. Likewise, painting black churchgoers as potentially pro-gun seems to me to be a smarter way to ground a cross-racial rural coalition than insisting that white Southerners tear down their statues of Robert E. Lee, re-name their streets that now commemorate Confederate generals, and lower the Stars and Bars.

It’s an interesting argument. Leaving aside for the moment whether Hills’ pragmatic calculus happens to be correct in this particular case, it’s worth considering the extent to which an ongoing culture war over things like the symbolic politics of flying the Stars and Bars over the South Carolina capitol building, or demands that national politicians apologize for slavery, etc., actually serve progressive political interests. I’m not posing that question rhetorically, but merely flagging Hills’ argument as an example of the fact that it’s a real question.

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