Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Racism and the Charleston Shootings: Individual and Collective Responsibility

Over the last few days I've seen the following meme reappear on social media. It shows up every once in awhile, usually when someone has done something horrible. This time, it's resurfaced in reaction to discussions about the tragic mass shooting at a black church in Charleston. Here's the meme:

This meme troubles me a lot. I'm a fan of individual responsibility and accountability. My worry is that this meme, in the name of accountability, functions to immunize us from it.

Let me explain. Clearly, the person directly responsible for the deaths in Charleston was the shooter, Dylann Roof. And he should be held accountable. He should be put on trial and, when convicted (which he presumably will be), sentenced harshly.

But when this Reagan quote resurfaces, as it has a tendency to do in the wake of horrific crimes, its purpose is not to encourage holding the agent of the crime accountable. It's purpose, rather, is to point the finger away from ourselves. "Hey, everyone! Look over there! Look at that deranged racist, that agent of horror."

If the trick works, we avoid having to look collectively towards ourselves and the ways in which we as a society contribute to the conditions that breed such agents of horror.

In Matthew 7:3, Jesus offers the following rhetorical question, intended to inspire us to look to ourselves, to see our own sins and not just the sins of others: "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?"

Of course, Dylann Roof's sin is more than just a speck or sliver. People are dead because he pulled the trigger of a gun, again and again and again. He shattered lives. And none of us did anything as bad as that.

But there is a sense in which Dylann Roof is just a speck of sawdust. Because there is in America today the plank of racism, and what Roof did is a sliver off that plank.

"But I'm not a racist! I'd never do anything like what Roof did! What he did horrifies and outrages me!"

I like to think that every reader of this post thinks these very things, and thinks them sincerely. But racism isn't something that springs up in the hearts of individuals all by itself. Racism is learned. Racism isn't an individual thing but a cultural and systemic thing that takes root in individuals.

And all of us play some role in shaping our culture, for better or worse. All of us can take responsibility for fighting to make our society less racist, for identifying the subtle social forces that marginalize black Americans every day, for working to dismantle the hateful ideologies that make them targets for overt acts of violence.

I'm resistant to saying things like, "All of us a racists," because I think this sort of statement generates more heat than light. But even if we aren't all racists, racism is first and foremost a collective phenomenon, not an individual one. Social structures and cultural patterns conspire to make life harder for black citizens than for white ones--and these structures and patterns are bound up with implicit racial biases that most people don't even know they have. These biases are planted in our subconscious minds by broad cultural forces, coloring our choices and our thinking in ways we aren't aware of, ways which are at odds with our conscious values and commitments.

The grim truth is that many white people who aren't racist, who abhor racism, are victims of systemic and cultural racism in a different way than blacks are victims. White Americans who want to promote equality and justice are too often infected, against their wills, with cultural forces that compromise their own best intentions. That's why I prefer to say that those who harbor implicit racial biases are victims of racism, as opposed to being racists. But implicit racial bias is a problem, even if those who harbor those biases aren't individually responsible.

The evidence of this is clear all around us, and documented in study after study: Well-meaning preschool teachers who earnestly read "Martin's Big Words" to their students on Martin Luther King Day are nevertheless more likely to perceive black and white children differently in the classroom without even knowing it. They are, especially, inclined to perceive them as more responsible for their misbehavior. Liberal college professors who preach against racism in the lecture hall are nevertheless less likely to respond to inquiries from prospective graduate students if they think they're black. When I step on an elevator with a woman, she never unconsciously clutches her purse more closely to her body. But this happens to a black friend of mine regularly.

Why does this happen? What are the cultural forces in play? And how are these forces related to the forces that still today perpetuate the more overt forms of racism, like what we saw on display in Charleston? Dylann Roof didn't spring out of the ground. His racist ideology didn't come out of nowhere. What stew of social influences made him ripe for the more overt racism that found voice in his hateful manifesto and eventually drove him to kill? And what can we, collectively, do to change those forces?

These are questions that we need to tackle. If we want to stop tragedies like the Charleston shooting, we need to wrestle with how individual hate crimes are related to broader social patterns, patterns that won't go away just by punishing individuals. Unless we all take collective responsibility for the social force that is racism, that social force will keep giving birth to new Dylann Roofs.

Quoting Reagan may make us feel like we're off the hook. And that's the problem. We didn't shoot those people. And we may not harbor racial prejudices ourselves. But racism is a collective, structural, ideological, and cultural reality. And the only way to end it is if all of us take responsibility for asking the right kinds of questions, for listening to the stories of our black neighbors, for tackling the complex, thorny social issues that keep racism alive.

There's a plank in America's eye. We need to work together, all of us, to pull it out.


  1. Why do lone African American madmen never walk into white churches and commit mass murders?

  2. Cuz John, they are too busy walking into beer distributors and shooting up the white people. Google Omar Thornton for further details.

  3. I am "off the hook." I won't take responsibility for other wrongs unless I can start taking credit for their rights.

    1. If you're serious about wanting to take credit for collective right actions--or, more properly, take your share of the credit--then you'll want to follow the suggestion in my post and do your part in the collective project of eliminating racism from our society. You can start by earnestly introspecting to find the ways in which societal racism has infected your attitudes and biases. If, contrary to what's generally true in our society, you find that it hasn't infected you at all, then you are especially needed in the fight against racism--and your efforts are likely to be even more helpful, such that you can take a bigger piece of the credit.

  4. I'm a working class white person, meaning I go out everyday and contribute to the tax base. I've done my part. I'm too tired and too poor to be able to afford the luxury of self-hatred and genetic guilt.

    No, I had no part in the shooting in Charleston, anymore than you as a progressive had in Omar Thornton's racist rampage.

    1. At no point do I or will I advocate either self-hatred or genetic guilt.

      That we are collectively responsible for the social conditions that contribute to horrific crimes doesn't entail that any of us carries the weight of Roof's specific crime on our shoulders. Roof carries that weight. The collective responsibility for the social conditions at issue is shared broadly over very many shoulders. Were we all to carry our share of the weight, the load would be very light. The problem is that we don't, and so the weight is felt more heavily by those who remain.

      While some of us, because of our jobs or roles in society, have more time and resources to contribute to the problem of racism, I believe that all of us have a responsibility to honestly introspect, to say no when we hear racist ideas promulgated, etc.

  5. I did a quick search here; unsurprisingly, you didn't have anything to say about killing of 8 white people by a man named Omar Thornton.

    I guess some animals are more equal than others.