"[T]he 'poor whites' of our South who were always despised, and frequently insulted, by the slave lords around them, and who owed their base condition simply to the presence of slavery in their midst, were yet pusillanimously ready to side with the slave lords in all political moves for the upholding and perpetuating of slavery, and did also finally shoulder their muskets and pour out their lives in an effort to prevent the destruction of that very institution which degraded them." - Mark Twain, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
The gruesome slaying of 9 innocent people in a South Carolina church was not a random event. It was not a quick decision in the heat of the moment, like what happened in Ferguson. It wasn't an obvious misuse of force like with Eric Garner. The Charleston shooting was the avoidable result of deep rooted racism, feelings of superiority, and a filtered version of reality. It was a cultural outcry.
I am not talking about gun laws, at all. I am talking about the reality that racism not only exists in younger generations, even those that didn't live during segregation, but that the form of racism that exists is as bad and violent as ever.
Race is a tricky subject to say the least. Its much easier to avoid it than confront it. Just starting to write this I realize I may offend someone, but that's a chance that I'm willing to take to be part of a discussion that needs to happen. It would be simple to say “I don't think in terms of color” or “I'm color blind” but that is sort of like burying your head in the sand. If you've been paying attention then it's not surprising that racism still exists, even racism deep enough to lead to violence. But, so long as we use P.C. terminology and point out that we do have a black president, we can just pretend the problems are all solved. Hooray! No more racism! Sadly, it's just not true.
I'm a white male. I was raised in a working to middle class protestant home. I've lived my entire life in predominantly white places. Even spending 10 years of my 30 living in college towns I've experienced low racial diversity, overall. From a young age I heard jokes and comments that at the time didn't register, but that as I aged I realized were deeply racist. I'm not talking about every family member or adult/community member around me, it was only a few, but those few were neither ashamed nor apologetic. To them, that's just how you're supposed to talk about anyone that isn't white. Obviously, it had an impact on me just like any other experience in childhood would.
Based on the defining years, I am a millennial. From what I have seen that's 1982-2004, or 2000 as a cutoff. Either way, I qualify. I was born in 1985 so I'm on the older end of the spectrum but still a representative. I'm a white male from the middle of the country. Educationally speaking I skew toward the high end but life experience wise I'm a pretty solid middle of the road type. My childhood includes a divorce and custody issues, a reasonable and fairly normal upbringing by any account, and most of the same technological availability that has become synonymous with being a millennial.
I was born the same year Nintendo became available in the US. I have never known a world without computers in some form. I'm old enough to remember the internet as a special and new creation but still young enough to take it for granted. I have looked things up in encyclopedias, but not in recent memory. JFK, LBJ, Dr. King, Malcolm X, segregation, and the Civil Rights Act of 1965 are all things I know from history class and documentaries. I was too young to know or understand anything about the Rodney King riots, just old enough to understand the OJ verdict, and had no second thoughts about a black man running for President. That's a millennial experience in a nut shell. As far as racial issues are concerned most of it is “history” for us. It's true that on average you're likely to find our generation is extremely progressive in matters of race. But that doesn't mean racism is over, and it's silly for people to think it is.
Voting Against Interests.
The Charleston shooting is a prime example of that. Racism is still very real, even in the millennial generation. What I would suggest is likely true, based solely on my own observations, is that what racism does exist is deeply rooted and likely to come from people that feel marginalized and attacked. Their feelings don't have to be based in reality, they just have to exist. Beliefs are tricky that way, they don't require reality to justify their existence, only that the person holding the belief justifies it. The old maxim holds that the truth exists independent of their beliefs, but their belief (specifically of persecution) is overriding reality. The shooter in Charleston is a prime example. That's why I suggest that this modern form of racism is actually less about color and more about culture and belief. The reality of marginalization is hard, and often brutally honest. Poor white people in any state aren't being marginalized because they are white. They're being marginalized because they are poor. Just like other poor people. Socioeconomic factors are huge in development of belief structures and acceptance of particular social mores.
Yet, this very group continues to elect “leaders” that sell policy stances to the highest bidder and are capable, willing, and able to use those very cultural mores to rile up a base to vote against their own interests. This isn't a race issue, it's a cultural and class issue.
The U.S. Class System.
The U.S. has evolved over hundreds of years from the outcropping of a few groups seeking religious asylum (notably this ignores the reality that before these groups the native population was already here, and doing just fine) to becoming an arm of the great British Empire, to a bunch of rag-tag colonies hoping to gain independence through unification of force and ideals, and into the new world's empire.
In the process, lots of heady notions of freedom and equality have had their turn in the spot light. Yet for all the talk of democracy, freedom, and equality it's clear that since reconstruction and the industrial revolution the U.S. has shifted into a very clear cut class system. It was already there to some level, even during the Revolutionary War, but greater population density brought on by urbanization resulting from industry expansion was the ultimate incubator.1 Now, we function within a system that walks and talks like a democracy at first glance (though it never really was one) but that acts in a very different way. Voter apathy grows as monied interests dominate. You're either part of the big alliances that run the show or your just going along for the ride. “My vote doesn't matter” is uttered too often, and in a way it's correct. As Orwell (may have) said: Every vote is equal, but some are more equal than others.
Either way if you're in the lowest two or three classes your value as anything more than a consumer is limited, and your political worth is marginalized beyond understanding.2 It's a perfect equation for power and the powerful, and a losing equation for the working poor and lower classes. That's the breeding ground for a person that thinks they're being pushed aside by another competing group. The boogyman for the Charleston shooter was skin color, but I'm suggesting the root cause was something else. We lash out at what we don't understand and we latch onto the things that make us feel correct and safe. I'm not suggesting that the Charleston shooter wasn't motivated by race, that is clear, I'm simply suggesting that the source of that motivation is deeper in its origin.
Race, Culture, and Science walk into a bar...
During the last 100 years in America the laws have changed, social mobility has been altered, and race as an idea of separation has been intellectually destroyed. We have new scientific findings on DNA and race that have enlightened us beyond the idea that the tone of your skin is the basis of who you are. Most Millennials can explain that if you take two people who have never met, one from Africa and one from the US, and compare their DNA, then compare that same DNA with a person from across the street, you are just as likely to have more in common with the person from half a world away than the person right across the street. Yet, racism, racial tension, and bigotry in general still exist. Why?
I won't pretend to answer this question in full. I'm not confident it can be answered. But I have a theory, for what that's worth. I think racism is cultural. I'm not the first to suggest this, I know that. It's not new and it's not radical to say that hatred of others is learned and not inherent. The comedian Dennis Leary said it perhaps the simplest way when he jokes that his young child doesn't hate anyone and that the child's list of things he hates is short: Naps, end of list. Leary's joke is on point.
Think of it this way, if you teach your child that the word spelled D-O-G is pronounced as “Cat” then your child will believe you. It's that simple. Kids have basic programming to eat, sleep, poop (so much poop as I've recently learned) and grow. Most of the rest of it is put in later. Humans are like super computers with a basic operating system, but just like your personal computer you add programs to it that influence its behavior. Most millennials have had a phone call with a parent helping them with computer problems and most have probably said something along the lines of “Well don't click on things like that any more, that's why you got the virus” or “Emojicons are great, but downloading them for free from an email link is probably why you got that virus.”
That's what racism is. It's a virus that is added, or contracted, by the user. It's environmental input. Personally, I had multiple environments and luckily the one spewing racist hate was limited and vastly overwhelmed by the other. Current belief's aside I spent many years in my youth at bible school and camps learning about Jesus, and I came to understand him as a pretty tolerant fellow. Yet, as comfortable as I am with race and the idea that we really are all scientifically same, that little bit of negative input still impacts me.
I don't think that any of this is an excuse for the Charleston shooter's behavior, or his racism. Just an explanation to help understand the root cause, to avoid a repeat. Correcting a behavior is not the same as taking away the impulse. If I stop smoking cigarets in public and only smoke them when I'm alone, with no one around to see me, am I still a smoker? The answer is YES! Just because a person doesn't walk around using racial slurs doesn't mean the root cause has been annihilated. That's what is being missed in this matter and in the broader discussion about the millennial generation, and this shooter, being the first “color blind” generation.
I'm a microcosm of my generation and of society at large. It's been 150 years since the official end of the military conflicts of the Civil War, but the ideology at the heart of that bloody period of history remains. Millennials aren't color blind. Racism isn't cured. We've just learned from an early age that you're not supposed to say certain things out loud. It's a good start, but it's time to attack the root. It's about culture. And it's about time we stop pretending it's not a problem.
- Adam Sommer
1. It's another argument all together that the U.S. was already an oligarchy and was set up that way intentionally. Many people's notions of our “founding fathers” leaves out the brutal reality that they were the wealthy and educational elite in their time, and plenty were slave owners.
2. Most of us are we just don't know it or want to know it. Poverty for a family of four in 2015 is considered $24,250.00 per year. 95% of Americans earn $150,000.00 per year or less as a family. 5% earn more than that and only 1% earn $250,000.00 per year or more. Here's a good article on this subject: http://money.usnews.com/money/personal-finance/articles/2012/09/13/where-do-you-fall-in-the-american-economic-class-system