“What if sensational acts of hate violence, which media accounts often represent as aberrant, actually reflect existing community norms?”
Early in the morning on Saturday, June 27, 2015, ten days following a mass killing in a historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Bree Newsome, a young Black artist and activist, refused demands from law enforcement authorities to come down from the flagpole she was climbing near the memorial to Confederate soldiers on the grounds of South Carolina’s capitol.
Instead, she continued to the top of the pole to take down the "Stars and Bars" or "Southern Cross," a potent symbol of the Confederacy carried as a battle flag by Robert E. Lee. It was the only way to take down the flag at this particular site; it cannot be raised or lowered by the usual cord and pulley mechanism. The flag flies until two-thirds of the predominantly white state legislature votes otherwise.
Once Newsome was down, arrested, and charged (not ironically) with defacing a public monument, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle publicly expressed concern that she was making it harder for them to remove the flag. “Citizens please engage legally, or we lose!” a Charleston Democratic state representative tweeted.
But Newsome’s carefully planned direct action captivated the public imagination.
Hate. White supremacy. Is there really any difference? Does it matter what we call it?
Yes. If #BlackLivesMatter, and they must, it matters profoundly.
Prior to the Charleston killings, growing documentation of race-based law enforcement practices and the highly publicized stream of extralegal killings of unarmed Black people by white police officers in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, New York City and elsewhere, made it nearly impossible to deny the existence of structural white supremacy.
Mass media attempted to deny or obscure this reality by endlessly parsing the character of the young men and women who were killed for evidence that they were responsible for their own deaths or “explaining” the actions of some police officers as the work of “bad apples” or “rogue” cops. Often these acts are not even considered violence.
Then came the horrific mass murder of nine people—six women and three men, including a beloved, activist pastor and state representative—in South Carolina, in Charleston’s historic Emmanuel AME Church on June 17, 2015. Dylann Roof, the young white man charged with the killings, had written a racist manifesto and posed in pictures posted online with a Confederate flag and other symbols of white supremacy.
Not long after the Charleston killings, several Black churches in the South were burned—the latest in a long tradition of Black church arsons that extend far back into American history.
Instantly, almost all of the media and politicians doubled down on their promotion of the hate frame, which always diminishes the real nature and significance of the infliction of systemic violence on Black people by white people.
Some reporting reinforced a story of a “lone wolf,” possibly mentally ill, young white man motivated by irrational racial hatred stoked by extremist group propaganda. Almost comically, if it were not so tragic, Fox News framed the shootings as persecution of Christians and a product of liberal hatreds. Liberal media interpreted the killings in a broader social and economic context, but almost always attributed them to “hate” and wondered whether Roof could or would be charged with a hate crime. The church arsons were framed not as explosive symptomatic outbursts of white supremacy—which is normative and structural in American society—but as "hate crimes."
Think of a frame as a conceptual path that guides how we might think about an issue and what we ought to do about it. The “hate” frame emphasizes the “irrational prejudice” of criminal extremists and “bad apples.” It focuses on the actions of individuals or fringe groups who are viewed as aberrant and whose ideas and actions violate standards of decency and justice endorsed by respectable institutions and people. It misdirects, distorts discussion about white supremacist violence, inevitably understating its nature and reach, and inviting “respectable” people to imagine, erroneously, that we are not complicit in this violence.
These reports locate white trouble “in the dark corners of the internet, at members-only conferences, backwoods barbeques and, on rare occasions, at rallies in small towns.” They invite us to imagine that the only people who advance white supremacist ideas and practices are ignorant, uneducated bigots—fanatical white nationalists, Klan members, and neo-Nazis. But structural white supremacy is not dependent on hatred for its existence; all it requires is indifference to its existence and persistence. Good, respectable people who don’t hate often give tacit support to structures and practices that maintain white supremacy.
The hate frame, post-Charleston, now dominates discussion of white violence against Black communities. It has obscured attention to and discussion of extralegal police killings and other structural forms of violence that disproportionately affect Black communities.
Much of the current media discussion focuses on removing flags and other symbols of the Confederacy from public display. There is a veritable stampede of politicians (even those who have disingenuously held it as a symbol of Southern pride devoid of any historical racial animus) to embrace removal.
South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, a Republican Tea Party favorite, had declared her support for doing so before Bree Newsome started up that flagpole. “This flag didn’t cause those nine murders,” she said, “but the murderer used this flag with him as hate to do it…this is an issue of hate.”
Indeed, removal of the flag from the South Carolina state capitol grounds seems assured. Representative Mike Forrester, a Republican from Spartanburg stated that the flag is just “causing too many problems…I think it needs to be in a place of honor, but probably not on the Statehouse grounds.” Others contend that an honorable symbol of Southern pride and heritage has been co-opted “by those who harbor feelings of racial enmity.”
Just as maddening is a description of the flag by a presumably more liberal blogger as “one of the last hallmarks of white superiority.”
Many liberal pundits and politicians are also calling for the removal of public monuments to pro-slavery leaders of the Confederacy—to Robert E. Lee, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and others—and the Confederacy itself. Those monuments should come down.
While some activists fear that removing a symbol of oppression will be wrongly construed as actually dismantling the violence that symbol represents, it is possible to link those removals to the much deeper, more difficult, more challenging work that awaits. The Black Youth Project 100 of New Orleans made that clear in an open letter to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who called for the removal of the Lee Circle Monument, reminding him and the city at large “that much like our demands to end the state-sanctioned violence against Black and Brown bodies—the call to remove racist symbolism from our city is far from new.” In this statement they placed state-sanctioned violence against communities of color squarely back on the table, signaling that they intended to hold newcomers to these conversations accountable for their words and actions.
Transformation, we argue in Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics, is only possible by a refusal to accept the dominant civic imagination as the only available terms of debate. This cannot be accomplished by electoral politics and language alone. Imaginative, energizing forms of cultural expression and direct action that offer upsetting insights and disturb, in cultural critic Lewis Hyde’s words, “established categories of truth and property” are also necessary.
Bree Newsome's action was a vivid demonstration of disruptive imagination. She didn’t wait for mostly white legislators to achieve consensus on the matter. After conferring with a small group of friends and colleagues, she just took it down. Consider that symbolism: a young, Black woman having the courage to act where even well-intentioned white people have refused to do so over too many years.
“The Confederacy,” says Newsome, “is a southern thing, but white supremacy is not. Our generation has taken up the banner to fight battles many thought were won long ago. We must fight with all vigor now so that our grandchildren aren’t still fighting these battles in another 50 years. Black Lives Matter. This is non-negotiable.”
“Stopping hate” isn’t nearly enough. That goal puts blinders on our vision for structural and cultural transformation and hobbles action toward dismantling respectable, structural forms of white supremacy.
Are we up to the task?
About the Authors
Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at CriticalMassProgress.com. She lives in Missoula, Montana.
Michael Bronski has been involved in gay liberation as a political organizer, writer, and editor for more than four decades. The author of several award-winning books, including A Queer History of the United States, he also coauthored “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People and Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics. Bronski is Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media in the Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.