A white gunman opened fire in a black church in Charleston after sitting in the congregation for an hour. He killed nine black people. This was not a hate crime. Nor was it the actions of a mentally ill man. To date, neither mental health experts or the killer’s medical history has supported this customary explanation by the media for white men who commit mass murder. Britain’s Prime Minister, David Cameron explained it best when he said “The cause is ideological”.1 America became the land of the free for white people who presided over a reign of terror toward non white people. That white supremacy remains a tenet of American life. The Charleston terrorist was following suit. Although the families who have forgiven the Charleston terrorist are brave, America has to understand that its past still haunts and influences the present.
The Confederate Flag is a symbol of the racist ideology that says “its…the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man”. Racism as a social construct was born out of the evils of slavery. To sustain the immoral practice, slave owners developed a two-tier society that has been branded into American culture.
The public shackling, beating, burning, whipping, 2 mutilation, and hanging of slaves for no reason at all or the smallest infraction was intentional. Additionally, women were raped and sexually assaulted. Those who did not die resisting carried the physical scars.
This brutality and humiliation was to instill fear and obedience. Slave owners understood the dangers of slavery and the need to be extraordinarily vicious. They understood that slaves had to be “completely submissive and under the master’s absolute control.3
To this end, America created its first type of police force, the slave patrols. Government sanctioned, they were “an unequivocal manifestation of white fear.4” Patrolling in small gangs, respectable and poor whites, armed with guns and whips rode at night. They searched homes for books, guns and any evidence of a possible uprising. They broke up groups of blacks congregating 5 and checked the passes of slaves. They also enforced curfews and recaptured run away slaves. The patrols did not need a reason to beat up, maim or kill black people. As Lieutenant Governor Drysale of Virginia said a “…strong militia could simultaneously appear terrifying to ‘Slaves, [and] formidable to the Indians.”6
Slave patrols were a civic duty that all white men of military age had to serve in. It created a bond between white people across class lines and a division between poor whites and blacks. A group that unchecked, would have had an affinity with black people. Only 25% of white people owned slaves. The poor whites, struggled to eke out an existence on poor arable land or in feudal type systems. Malnutrition and infection were rife and they were often jailed for debt.
The Government compensated slave owners for any loss or damage done by slave patrols. They were distinct from Slave Catchers, who caught runaway slaves for a living. Catchers earned $50 per slave or $55 if the slave was whipped. Given that a day’s labour was paid at $1, this illustrates how violence towards blacks was encouraged.
It was stated in the Dred Scott case that the black man had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” For more than 250 years society was democratically structured with blacks existing without rights and subservient to white people.
The abolition of most types of slavery, 7 in 1865 did not change the premise of white supremacy, but it tried. The Reconstruction period after the civil war introduced citizenship for all and voting rights for all men. 8 However, the racial hierarchy was so thoroughly entrenched and white people were intransigent. Black people were succeeding under Reconstruction and this lead to resentment.
Based on the prevailing ideology that white people are superior to black people, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) emerged in 1866 with the aim of keeping black people oppressed, through violence. Most importantly, the KKK was a reincarnation of the slave patrols but acting outside the law. They burnt down black churches and schools, lynched black people, rape black women and forced freemen to work on the plantations.
They were so vicious that the first Grand Wizard, Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest resigned. The ferocity and violence of their terror campaign lead to Congress passing the KKK Act. 9
The KKK was not the only type of white militia that terrorized the black population, but they were the biggest and most vicious. What was common to all these groups were that they passed down from generation to generation the practice of violence to control and oppress black people. Use of the gun is a key feature and this perhaps explains the importance of the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms.
The 1960‘s civil rights movement has tackled many issues but the ideology of black people being second-class citizens still remains. It is visible in the disproportionate killings by law enforcement,10 disparities in sentencing, education, poverty and the media.
The culture of a society can be seen through its media. The supremacist ideology that was part of the American psyche during slavery is reinforced today by negative representations. Black characters are the gangster, thug, drug dealer, maid, comic relief, and sidekick to the white protagonist or leeches to white Middle America. Even President Obama has been portrayed as uncivilized.
These representations of blackness are familiar and accepted. They fuel the belief of white supremacy. This explains the act of terrorism perpetrated against nine black people in Charleston
Great inroads have been made in America but it still straddles two competing ideologies; that of White Supremacy and that of equality as advocated by Reconstruction but which remains incomplete. In 1944 George Stinney Jr, a black boy aged 14, was executed in South Carolina for killing two white girls. He was exonerated 70 years later. In 2014 Tamir Rice aged 12 was shot dead after a 911 caller said he saw the boy with a gun that was ‘probably fake’. In 2015 a white man whilst in a black church in Charleston guns down nine black people. That is story of white America. Excessive brutal violence against black people.
- Although he was speaking of Islamic State. ↩
- “The poor slave was sick from his ill treatment some four or five months, and when he recovered there was a running sore left on his body, from the deep cuts of the whip, which never healed.” Thirty Years A Slave by Louis Hughes. ↩
- People Without Rights An Interpretation of the Fundamentals of the Law of Slavery in the U.S. South – Andrew Fede. ↩
- Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas Sally E Hadden. ↩
- The Diversity Act 1705 – it was illegal for six black people or gather unless there was a white person was present to monitor. ↩
- ibid 4 ↩
- 13th Amendment – ‘except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted,’ ↩
- Civil Rights Act of 1866. ↩
- Third Force Act 1871. ↩
- 3.54 black people are killed against 1.3 white people per million by the police in America. ↩