The man begged the killer to stop. “I have to do it,” Dylann Roof said. He reloaded his gun. “You rape our women and you’re taking over the country.” He looked at people cringing on the floor and picked one. Shots echoed.
On June 17, news anchors told the nation that a white male had gunned down nine Black people at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Television screens across the country showed police tape, numb faces and then him, the murderer, led away in handcuffs.
The shock of deadly racism cut short the bizarre theater of Rachel Dolezal, the now-former president of the Spokane, Washington, N.A.A.C.P chapter. For years, she lived as a light-skinned Black woman until her parents “outed” her. They showed the world a photo of Dolezal as a blonde, blue-eyed white teenager — a very different Rachel than the one people knew, with dark frizzy curls and tan skin. The Internet blew up until she appeared on television and said in a brittle voice that she only “identifies” as Black.
The media overlap of the Aryan race warrior and the race traitor showed two people driven to opposite ends of whiteness by anxiety over their identity. The American Dream is collapsing just as we tip into a non-white majority, intensifying racist nostalgia for some, dissolving it for others. The Confederate flag-waving Roof and kinky-haired Dolezal tried to solve private crises with self-recreation. Unknowingly, they exposed the fractured state of whiteness.
We’re Losing the Country
“The white man thinks he’s losing the country,” comedian Chris Rock joked in his 1996 routine “Bring the Pain.” He imitated a redneck: “Affirmative action and illegal aliens, we’re fucking losing the country.” Rock looked around, “Shut the fuck up. White people ain’t losing shit. If ya’ll losing, who’s winning? It ain’t us!”
Nineteen years later, what surprises is how Rock echoed, in vulgate, scholar Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race, in which he posits that the “white race” is a “ruling class social formation.” In other words, it’s not enough to say race is a social construct with no genetic basis. Nor is it enough to say, as historian Winthrop Jordan did, that slavery was an “unthinking decision” by European colonists, who associated dark skin with heathenism, savagery and sex.
Instead, Allen says that the “white race” was created by the ruling class, which split the working class on the color line by granting privileges to European migrants. They became a buffer against the Blacks and Native Americans even as they were exploited by the rich. Generations later, their descendants would be mocked by a Black comedian for exactly this blind spot, poor whites obsessing that they are “losing the country” to even poorer Blacks and immigrants.
Through the Looking Glass
“Americaaaaaaa,” he shouted, splaying his fingers in the style of the band Kiss, tongue out. “Hmmm. That’s kind of scary white,” I said. My friend laughed, splayed his fingers and yelled, “Americaaaaa!” I yelled back, “Americaaaa!”
We joked about all things white like Van Halen, opera, Lawrence Welk, hockey, the rodeo, paganism, NASCAR, gentrifying whole cities, the Confederate flag. It was fun until I thought of the white kids who yelled “nigger” at me from cars and the hard stares I get when I enter a diner in rural NY. And whites trying to be “down” and the white man who touched my hair until I slapped his hand. And being tokenized in all-white work spaces. I’ve faced closed, white spaces. And in reverse, I was an open playground for their hands and fantasies of “realness.”
And it’s not like I’m a stranger to privilege. I am middle-class, straight, cis-male, light-skinned and able-bodied. My social stats are off the chart. But I’ve never felt safe in my life. My mom taught me to watch for racism, to listen for it in the undertones of what people say. Growing up, I saw racism twist my friends. I didn’t have exact language for it, but I felt a weight. And somehow, whites did not feel it but reacted to me pushing it off. As if my weight was connected to their weightlessness.
Later, I pieced together a “racism radar”: on one end, the Racist White; in the middle, the Colorblind White; and at the other end, the Race Traitor White. It’s not an exact science but a necessary one. The crux was always their privilege, whether they defended it, were oblivious of it or felt guilty about it.
Pink Skins, White Masks
If you reversed time and saw cities shrink, roads vanish, people recede from the West Coast to the East, you would arrive at a point in 1619 when colonists waded to the beach. In the beginning of the New World, the white race did not exist.
In the strange mélange of the colonial era, newly enslaved Africans, Native peoples and European immigrants, many of whom were indentured servants, shared the brutal solidarity of hard lives. They wrung life from the land together. They sweated together. They slept together. And they rebelled together.
The turning point was Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, when European indentured servants and Africans marched to Jamestown and burned the capital down. Terrified of the poor uniting in arms, the ruling class first quashed the rebellion and later instituted privileges for Europeans and restrictions for Africans.
Slowly, white supremacy was built by formal law and informal custom. Africans replaced Europeans as labor. Slave Codes made it illegal for Blacks to gather and to read. Europeans entering North America found a legal and cultural scaffolding around their skin that first made them privileged, then a “white race.”
This process meant coming to see skin color as symbolic. It meant systematizing the sadism in the joy that Frederick Douglass’s slave master took in whipping his aunt. When whites began to project sex and raw freedom on the Black body, it meant contradiction. Which led to fearing contamination by Blackness. Privilege, sadism, projection and fear became the bedrock of white America.
At first, the white race was an exclusive club. No Irish need apply. No Jews. No one south of the Pyrenees. And yet with each crisis, the category of whiteness was expanded. It grew after the draft riots of the Civil War, during which angry mobs, including many Irish, savagely beat Blacks; after World War II, when the G.I. Bill created segregated suburbs; and after the nightmare of the Holocaust was exposed and anti-Semitism finally came to be seen as bigotry.
With each expansion of whiteness there was a conservative counter-reaction, like the 1928 Ku Klux Klan march on Washington, D.C., to protest the Catholics, Jews and Blacks. Each wave of minorities fighting to enter the mainstream was met with bitter opposition by white supremacists. And for a long time, they won.
But decades of political struggle, immigration and cultural mixing created a voter coalition of relatively liberal whites and minorities who in 2008 tipped the balance. But it wasn’t Obama’s “Hope and Change” shtick that created radical interracial solidarity. It was the 2008 financial crash, which plunged a generation of white youth into unemployment and hopelessness, that caused the spirit of Bacon’s rebellion to rise again in the tents of Occupy Wall Street. Until they were beaten raw by police, that is.
After the stomping out of Occupy, one saw a surprising amount of whites in the Black Lives Matter protests. Walking in the thundering river of people, hands raised, chanting, “Hands up! Don’t shoot,” we were amazed. But they had experienced the violence of the state on their bodies and felt a deep empathy.
And that newfound empathy seemed to resonate with an internal contradiction in whiteness. If one of the requirements of becoming “white” in America had been to amputate one’s heritage, then that loss of culture created a vacuum that led to cultural appropriation. White youth, especially in the cities, have taken up Black cultural forms — including jazz , rock and roll and hip-hop — in their rebellion against older generations. Globalization has deepened and widened this practice, so now we see it all over — in the preponderance of yoga, salsa classes and shamanism, to name a few. But in appropriating culture from the Other, one’s measure of “realness” inevitably begins to stem from the Other.
Which is why Dolezal’s passing as Black was such a scandal. Her extreme act made visible what was already happening in popular culture. Contending with broken families, unemployment and precarious futures, a lot of white youth turn to Black art to express their rage, hopelessness and maybe, redemption. And like Dolezal, identifying as Black — however flawed that act may be — allows them to rediscover the most alienated parts of themselves.
“He kind of went over the edge,” Scott Roof, Dylann Roof’s cousin, told The Intercept. “When a girl he liked started dating a Black guy.” Afterwards Roof focused on the Trayvon Martin case, projecting his wounded pride onto George Zimmerman and his jealousy onto Martin. He hit on the Council for Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist website, where his revenge fantasy became magnified by the grand narrative of race war. Soon he was taking selfies holding a gun and a Confederate flag. And then one day, Roof walked into a Black church.
“Nigger,” he shouted as he shot. That’s the last word they heard as they lay bleeding to death on the church floor. “Nigger.”
White Ruling Class Anxiety
As Roof sat in the South Carolina jail, held in the next cell was killer cop Michael Slager, who on April 4 shot Walter Scott, an unarmed Black man, in the back as he ran away. A cell phone video, taken by bystander Feidin Santana, was given to the victim’s family. They aired it and Slager was fired, arrested and charged with murder. His indictment is evidence of increasing white ruling-class anxiety.
The riots in Ferguson and Baltimore over police killings of unarmed Black men has left politicians afraid. You see it in their raised eyebrows at news conferences. As cities ignite with protest and rioters burn stores and hurl rocks at police, the sense that any urban center can explode is beginning to spread.
Talking with my friend professor Chris Hobson about this era of racial anxiety, he said, “The real example is not Rachel Dolezal, it’s Governor Nikki Haley hugging the Black senator. She is scared of losing control.”
He said that fear was sublimated into liberal pity and symbolism. After the Charleston massacre, a tidal wave of solace moved the nation. And yes, it was real grief at horrific violence, but it was also laced with panic. If the ruling class doesn’t show proper outrage, people in the streets could erupt in protest. And if they do, the cops will bring down so much violence that even if the state is left intact, it would be emptied of credibility. “So, liberal sympathy is the fire extinguisher of Black rage,” I said. He smiled and said, “Burn it down.”
The only thing that can calm rage at injustice is justice. In 1955, the two white men who killed 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi were acquitted by a white jury. Sixty years later, two white men, Roof and Stager, sit in adjacent cells, awaiting trial for killing Black people.
The New World
Whiteness is a blinding light. Lit by the early colonialists, it made Europeans visible to each other. Like moths to a flame, generations of Americans were burned by it. Now, after nearly three centuries, that flame is beginning to gutter out.
Rachel Dolezal, Dylann Roof and Michael Stager are signs of the fracturing “white race.” Dolezal solved the conflict of being cut off from one’s culture by appropriating another. Roof was caught in the backwaters of white supremacy, too young and weak-minded to see that the promise of racial glory was a chimera. And Slager was caught by surprise when he learned that the cop badge is no longer a license to kill.
Each of them represent a fracturing, however glacial, of whiteness. And with each break, we recreate the New World, a landscape of fluid people who share the solidarity of hard lives. If we ever arrive at a post-racial world, it will be one where the scars of racism and classism will be our tribal tattoos, and this time, when we rebel together, we’ll win.