Perhaps Mentally Ill

A black shooter is a thug, a Muslim is a terrorist, and a white attacker is perhaps mentally ill.

— an unidentified interviewer for RT network’s “In the Now

Now is the time for mourning and for healing. But let’s be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency.

President Barack Obama

This week’s featured post is “Please Take Down Your Confederate Flag“. But last August’s “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” is also topical again; it had picked up more than 20K new hits between the Charleston shooting and 9:30 this morning, making it the second Weekly Sift post to go over a quarter million page views.

This week everybody was talking about the terrorist attack in South Carolina

But not everybody was calling it that. Since the shooter was a white supremacist and his victims were not whites, the incident was usually referred to as a tragedy, i.e., one of those bad things that happens now and then that nobody can do anything about. Rick Perry even called it an “accident“. (I discussed this phenomenon after the 2012 Sikh Temple shooting in “White Right-Wing Christian Terrorist“.) An interviewer at RT put it like this:

A black shooter is a thug, a Muslim is a terrorist and a white attacker is perhaps mentally ill.

If the subject weren’t so serious, it would have been comical to watch Republicans and their right-wing media allies struggle against the notion — obvious from the beginning to anybody without ideological blinders — that this was a racial attack. Multiple talking heads on Fox News tried to spin the shooting as an attack on Christians, because the imaginary persecution of American Christians fits within the boundaries the Fox fantasy world, while the very real persecution of blacks doesn’t. (Larry Wilmore collected the clips and added appropriately amazed commentary. Media Matters gives the chronology, showing that witness accounts of the shooter’s racist statements were already public before Fox’ Christian-persecution spin.)

Lindsey Graham and Rick Santorum played along with that farce. (Jeb Bush merely professed ignorance: “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” — as if he shooter hadn’t announced what was on his mind.) Fox trotted out a black minister, Bishop E. W. Jackson, to make the Christian-persecution case, not bothering to mention that he is also a Republican politician. Wilmore was not impressed: “Black don’t distract,” he said. He also ridiculed Jackson’s statement that the shooter “didn’t choose a bar, he didn’t choose a basketball court, he chose a church”, suggesting that Jackson could also have listed “a chitlin farm” or “a watermelon stand” as stereotypic places where blacks congregate.

In a particularly Orwellian editorial, The Wall Street Journal saw the shooting as a chance to congratulate America on its racial progress: Unlike after the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, authorities in Charleston are not conspiring to help the perpetrator get away.

The universal condemnation of the murders at the Emanuel AME Church and Dylann Roof’s quick capture by the combined efforts of local, state and federal police is a world away from what President Obama recalled as “a dark part of our history.” Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists.

In a different context, Wilmore recently introduced The Nightly Show’sExtremely Low Bar Award“. This looks like another strong candidate: Our law enforcement system is no longer conspiring with white-supremacist terrorists, so we must have this racism thing just about knocked. It makes me proud to be an American.

The New Republic‘s Jeet Heer also looked back to the Birmingham bombing, but pointed out that the conservative media’s response then was very similar to the denial of white racism we’re seeing today. He quotes a National Review editorial from 1963:

The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur—of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro.

And the significance of this particular church to a white supremacist couldn’t be clearer: One of the oldest black churches in America, Emanuel AME was founded by (among others) Denmark Vesey, who was hanged for leading a failed slave revolt in 1822.

Discussion of the Confederate flag that still flies in front of the South Carolina state capitol, and can’t even be lowered to half-mast without an act of the legislature, is a topic I pushed into its own article. My main point there is that a symbol like the Confederate flag is so powerful that your personal intentions in displaying it don’t matter: It means what it means. Maybe you associate it with country music and good barbeque and The Dukes of Hazzard, but that just doesn’t matter. It is the flag of slavery and Jim Crow and the KKK and lynchings and Dylann Roof. You can’t make that stuff go away.

Finally, there’s the frequent statement — based on more-or-less nothing — that Dylann Roof was a “loner” or a “lone wolf”. We now have what appears to be his manifesto, and it’s filled with standard white-supremacist rhetoric and references. We still don’t know whether he met other white supremacists face-to-face or had any help planning his attack. But he clearly was plugged in to that network, through the internet at the very least.

Make the parallel to Muslim terrorists and ISIS. If a Muslim shooter had been browsing ISIS web sites and wrote a manifesto full of ISIS rhetoric, would we see him as a loner, or think of him as part of ISIS? Those same Republican politicians — Lindsey Graham, for example — who cast Roof as a disturbed loner would be demanding that a similar Muslim be grilled hard (and maybe even tortured) to identify his contacts in the movement.

and the Pope’s global-warming encyclical

Charleston dominated my attention this week, so I still haven’t finished reading Laudato Si or given its message the attention it deserves. Next week.

I do want to make two strategic observations that explain why I think this is a big deal:

  • Climate-change denial is geared towards confusing people about science; it’s not well set up to oppose a religious movement that defends God’s creation. Scientists are well-known evolution-pushing liberals who are easy to cast as part of a global socialist conspiracy. A diverse consortium of religious leaders is harder to tar with that charge, and fossil-fuel conservatives look ridiculous when they try.
  • What we’ve seen in regard to both women-in-the-clergy and gay rights is that no Christian denomination wants to be the most liberal group to defend a benighted conservative position. When the Congregationalists turn, that puts pressure on the Episcopalians, and when they turn the onus shifts to the Methodists, and then the Presbyterians, and so on. The Catholic Church has been the only denomination big enough to resist that kind of pressure, and now that it has taken a strong position calling for action against climate change, there’s no telling where the dominoes stop falling. American Christianity might wind up speaking with a fairly united voice on this issue.

BTW: NOAA’s May statistics still have 2015 on its way towards being the hottest year on record, replacing last year.

and still more presidential candidates

Jeb Bush’s announcement was an anti-climax, because he’s so clearly been running for months now. And I’m left with the question: What issues will he run on? His positions on immigration and education are unpopular with the Republican base. I have heard no specific suggestions for how he would fight ISIS or terrorism in general differently than President Obama. I really don’t think his blaming Obama for “the biggest debt ever” will stick, given that Obama has drastically reduced the deficit he inherited from Jeb’s brother.

I’ll get to his speech eventually in my 2016 series, probably after I do Hillary’s, but my immediate reaction is surprise at how little is in there. There are hints of a tax plan, hints of increased defense spending, but the only number in the speech is his goal of 4% annual GDP growth. Increased growth would be good — I wonder why nobody ever thought of that before.

Jeb didn’t stay in the news very long, though, because the next day Donald Trump announced his candidacy with a rambling speech that sounded like the kind of thing you’d hear from the guy on the next stool at your favorite bar. Digby warns us that we have to take the Donald seriously. But the comedians had a different reaction: Jon Stewart looked to Heaven and said “Thank you.” Larry Wilmore unwrapped Trump’s candidacy as a gift from the Comedy Gods.

Here’s what’s going to be amazing once the debates start in August: All the minor candidates are going to be looking to make headlines by saying something outrageous, but how are they going to compete with Trump? What will they have to say?

In the 2012 cycle, the crowd reactions were bad publicity for the GOP as a whole: They booed a soldier calling in from Iraq because he was gay. They cheered the idea of letting somebody without health insurance die. What is the audience going to do when Trump says that Mexican immigrants are rapists? Or voices one of his other incredible opinions? The general public may get a chance to see just how far around the bend the Republican base really is, and how every single one of the candidates panders to that insanity.

I loved Jamelle Bouie’s take on Hillary Clinton: She was a nerd before it was cool, and her public-image ambiguity stems from trying not to look like the geeky policy wonk she really is. He thinks she should “go full nerd” and be herself.

and Rachel Dolezal

I am still trying to fathom the depth of the public reaction to Rachel Dolezal, the woman who was born to white parents and raised as a white girl, but at some point in adulthood began presenting herself as black, and eventually became president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP.

In part, the story attracts attention because of its man-bites-dog character. Light-skinned blacks have been passing as white in America since colonial times, as I discussed last year in a review of Daniel Sharfstein’s The Invisible Line. (One member of a black-turned-white family Sharfstein researched was a Confederate officer during the Civil War and a Louisiana senator afterward.) But passing in the other direction is not something you hear about very often.

But even that doesn’t explain the urgency with which writers of all racial and political identities have been addressing this topic, as if Dolezal’s situation demanded our immediate action. I suppose if I were connected to the Spokane NAACP, I’d have a responsibility to form an opinion about Dolezal. And I can imagine that I might feel conned if I belonged to the constituency of the Spokane NAACP, and counted on it to represent my interests. I might believe that I had at least deserved the chance to know the details of Dolezal’s claim to a black identity before she was hired, so that I could decide for myself how confident I felt in her ability to represent me.

But that doesn’t make it a national issue either.

A lot of the ink spilled about Dolezal concerned what her kind of “transracialism” says about transgenderism, which was still on everybody’s mind after the Caitlyn Jenner story broke a few weeks ago. But the parallel between Dolezal and Jenner escapes me. Jenner broke the story herself, and all she asks of us is that we let her live her life (and maybe watch her TV show). What if Dolezal had done likewise? She might have said, “Hey, everybody, for a long time now I’ve been thinking of myself as black. So I’m going to darken my skin and frizz my hair and try to live in the black community as a black.” And then everybody could do what they wish with that information.

I don’t see anything to object to in that scenario.

The transgender community is already discussing how they feel about Jenner’s celebrity, which will likely offer her a de facto spokesperson role, if she wants one. But to make the case similar to Dolezal, Jenner would have to be angling for a role not just as spokesperson for transgender people, but for women. I see no sign of that at all.

If you do feel compelled to form an opinion about Dolezal, here’s an interesting thought experiment: What if one of her parents had crossed the racial line in the other direction? Then Dolezal would be reclaiming some forgotten black grandparent, but her life might have been almost exactly the same. She might have been raised as a white girl by parents everyone believed to be white, and have had all the same experiences, giving her no additional insight into the black experience in America. Intuitively, it seems like the grandparent would make her claim to blackness more authentic. But why? Is it really just genes?

In the section above, I was using a couple of abstract principles that someday I’ll have to flesh out on my philosophical/religious blog, where I post far less frequently. First, judgment is not an end in itself. Judgment is a tool for guiding action. If you can’t foresee playing a role in some relevant decision-making process, then you don’t really need to have an opinion, and there’s no inherent virtue in forming one. Sometimes thinking a case through is a worthwhile exercise that sharpens your mind. But it can also be a way to avoid other topics that really do demand your judgment. (On my Facebook news feed, I found it instructive how fast discussion of Dolezal dried up as soon as the Charleston shooting gave us a serious racial issue to think about.)

Second, the standards of judgment should serve the purposes of judgment. Just as judgment is not an end in itself, high standards are not ends in themselves either. So the answer to the question: “Do I believe Dolezal is really black?” depends on why I need to know. If it’s up to me to decide whether she gets some kind of affirmative action benefit, then I’d set a fairly high standard, and would probably say no. But if I’m her neighbor, and the question is whether I’m going to accept her for what she aspires to be, then I’d apply a lower standard and probably say yes.

And finally, if you go full Zen on the topic, all our identities are false. We talk about “true” and “false” identities, as if we were dealing with a binary category. But authenticity is a continuum like anything else. (That was the philosophical theme of my Jenner article.) Anybody’s identity is only authentic up to a point.

All of which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience:

The first thing the intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else. But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique. Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus dispose of it. “I am no such thing,” it would say; “I am MYSELF, MYSELF alone.”

I can’t help wondering what James’ crab voice sounded like when he gave the original lecture in Edinburgh in 1901.

and let’s close with something cute

It’s been a tough week. We need this.

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  • Neil  On June 22, 2015 at 11:54 am

    Great insight as usual, but Spokane NAACP, not Seattle.

  • Tammer  On June 22, 2015 at 2:00 pm

    Great! but – it’s generally accepted that the term is “transgender” not “transgendered”. Similar to “colored” vs “people of color” but steeped with it’s own history.

    just for a quickly found example:

  • Tim  On June 22, 2015 at 2:01 pm

    Good articles, as usual.

    I wanted to point out that your Obama quote at the top was investigated by Politifact: and was “Mostly False”

    • JELC  On June 22, 2015 at 3:02 pm

      I’m not completely happy with that politifact ruling. By its own numbers, the US has a much higher rate of mass shootings per population than almost any of the other countries at 1 per 2.4 million people over the 14 years surveyed. The next highest was Finland with 1 per 2.6 million people, and then Norway with 1 per 5.15M, and switzerland with 1 per 8M.

      But Finland had 2 shootings, and Norway and Switzerland had 1 each. So it’s hard to say with any validity what the rate of mass shootings was in those countries. Additionally, the countries with higher per capita death tolls (the metric they used) seemed to essentially be the result of one or two highly successful shooters rather than any kind of pattern in shootings.

    • JELC  On June 22, 2015 at 3:03 pm

      And no country with more than 10M people had anything like the rate of shootings that the US did. (sorry, forgot this the first time)

    • weeklysift  On June 23, 2015 at 6:50 am

      Reading the Politifact article, I’m not all that disturbed by it. The countries whose mass-killing rate exceeded ours all had 1 incident each (Norway, Switzerland) or 2 (Finland). This seems like one of those accidents of small numbers — as if you looked at the last few years and determined that New Jersey has a high rate of hurricanes.

    • weeklysift  On June 23, 2015 at 7:14 am

      I also have to wonder why the researchers chose these countries: Norway and Finland, but not Japan and Russia. And what if they had bunched countries up to produce more comparable populations? Say you look at the U.S., other English-speaking countries, the EU minus the British Isles, Japan-South Korea, Russia, and China. That would eliminate the small-sample effect. Russia’s mass-killing rate might be comparable to ours because of Chechan terrorism, but otherwise I suspect our rate would dwarf the others.

  • unclejeems  On June 22, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    Just a couple of notes . . .

    First, we bandy the term “race” about all the time without giving it much thought. But it doesn’t signify any biological distinction, as I understand it. The application of the terms we use for race distinctions–black, white, yellow, red, Caucasian, Mongoloid and so forth–is an entirely sociological construct. As far as I’ve been able to learn–correct me if I’m wrong–the genetic differences between someone from Africa and someone from Europe is tiny. As far as biology is concerned, we all actually belong to the same race.

    Second, as others have pointed out, the phenomenon of “passing” has been known in the US for generations. It was especially helpful to light-skinned people of African American descent during Jim Crow–being white had distinct social and legal advantages. And so there are probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of American who identify as white, who have black ancestors.

    And third, given the rate of what used to be derided as “miscegenation”–mainly white men fathering children with black women, but also the other way round–in the South (see Strom Thurmond), a large percentage of Americans of African descent–who identify as black–have European ancestors.

    (Many white southern men maintained two families–one white and the other mixed “race.” And of course many of the same men marched with the KKK.)

    And so the news that a white woman had been passing as black in the United States should hold, in the context of American society, very few surprises. Whether she or her parents know it or not, she actually may have African American ancestors–if her family has been in the US three or more generations. And as far as I’m concerned, since the term “race” means little or nothing anyway, her “racial” identity is anything she wants it to be. And I think the NAACP’s reaction to her announcement assumes just that.

  • Paul  On June 22, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    Hi, Doug,

    Regarding R Dolezal, I agree that there’s no need for judgment unless there’s something we need to do about it. I did feel that the condemnation was mistaken, and I defended her on that ground….

    Regarding the parallel between Dolezal and Jenner, how about this example: Suppose instead of an publicity hog in the urban north, suppose a transgender man in the deep south decided to assume her real identity and appeared as a woman in another part of the country. Suppose she volunteers for NOW, and eventually is elected president of the local chapter. She’s giving an interview to local press and, referring of her childhood, says, “when I was a little girl…” The reporter takes out a picture and says, “does THIS look like a picture of a little GIRL to you?!”

    Paul Kilduff Baltimore MD

    • weeklysift  On June 23, 2015 at 6:42 am

      I wouldn’t regard your hypothetical transgender woman as an example of some horrible evil, but I’m still unsettled by representing people who might not want your representation if they knew the truth about you.

  • JW  On June 24, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    I thought the RT excerpt gave a good summary of our media’s double standards in reporting on shootings: “A black shooter is a thug, a Muslim is a terrorist, and a white attacker is perhaps mentally ill.” And many articles have made the point that it would be hypocritical not to label the Charleston massacre a terrorist attack, as we so often do with crimes committed by minorities.

    But I have not seen any articles suggesting that maybe we should instead try to discuss more hate crimes in the terms that are usually reserved for white perpetrators.

    It is true that many recent mass shootings have been motivated by extreme forms of racism, religious animosity, sexism and other deeply entrenched prejudices. All of these attitudes appear to be, to varying degrees, widely held by many Americans, and this a major problem. And the prevalence of these attitudes is probably what fuels the extreme ideologies of the people who do commit violent hate crimes — even if the race/sex/religious-based ideological hatred is really proxy for economic frustration, social rejection, alienation, or other more complex sources of distress.

    But generally white people who are racist are not consciously racist, and probably generally those who are wilfully racist would not condone mass homicide. Certain news outlets that target their news primarily toward a white majority take this for granted, which is maybe why they spin the Charleston massacre as the actions of a deranged lone-wolf actor instead of a race-based crime by a white terrorist. But on the other side, it’s not clear what we gain in this case, or in any case, by spinning the attacks in broad demographic terms.

    Maybe instead of emphasizing why we should call this attack white terrorism, we should re-emphasize why we should change the language we use to describe attacks by non-white people — for example, quite the “Islamic terrorist” fear-mongering that has served to stoke ethnic tension and poor treatment of Muslim Americans. What if we always reported mass murders as though the perpetrators were members of an extreme lunatic fringe — and with an extreme violent streak — and not representatives of any particular demographic group? What if we always assumed that their actions were abhorrent to their communities? What if we always assumed that their families and friends were probably reasonable people who are probably mortified and emotionally devastated by the event? We should not oblige any mass shooters by letting their crime aggravate racial polarization.

    Racism is real and we should be talking about it. But it may not be so constructive to make a homicidal white supremacist the poster boy for white racism. Probably most minorities experience racism in much more subtle and insidious ways, and we should remember that isolated extreme acts of violence do not represent some of the most significant manifestations of racism in America. Probably most of us are guilty of (at least) unconscious racism — so if we are going to be willing to confront our own failings in this respect, we need to get past the conception of a “racist” as a ranting homicidal extremist. This point was well made in the Sift.


  • By The Yearly Sift: 2015 | The Weekly Sift on December 28, 2015 at 10:12 am

    […] I also feel good about refusing to jump on the Jeb-Bush-inevitability bandwagon. I won’t claim to have seen Donald Trump coming, but back in June (when Jeb announced) I was skeptical: […]

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