The Charleston Attack Was Terrorism

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The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (Original photo by Cal Sr: Used under Creative Commons Attribution license.)

Less than 48 hours ago, a mass shooting took place at the historic  Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston. Since then I have read many articles, Tweets, and statuses about this tragic attack. And, while there is still a lot we do not know, we do know this much: this was a terrorist attack motivated by racism and white supremacist ideology. From the Wikipedia entry:

Dylann Storm Roof (born April 3, 1994) was named by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as the suspected killer… One image on his Facebook page shows him in a jacket decorated with the flags of two former nations noted for their white supremacist policies, apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia… According to his roommate, Roof expressed his support of racial segregation in the United States and had intended to start a civil war…He also often claimed that “blacks were taking over the world”. Roof reportedly told neighbors of his plans to kill people, including a plot to attack the College of Charleston, but his claims were not taken seriously.

Before opening fire, Roof spent nearly an hour with the Bible study group. According to Gawker, “Roof told police he ‘almost didn’t’ kill nine people at Emanuel AME Church Wednesday night ‘because everyone was so nice’ to him,” but eventually he said “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” With that, he opened fire “while shouting racial epithets” on the 12 unarmed worshipers. He killed nine of them and intentionally left one survivor. Two others, one a five-year old child, survived by pretending to be dead. During the carnage, he reloaded five times.

Roof was caught yesterday morning after being tipped off by Debbie Dills, who is white. Dills spotted him on her way to work in North Carolina, called her boss (who called police), and then tailed Roof for another 35 miles until police arrived and arrested him. Roof waived his extradition rights and was brought back to South Carolina where conservative Republican governor Nikki Haley has called for prosecutors to pursue the death penalty. I mention the race of Dills and the politics of Haley for a simple reason: I am deeply saddened that many people, perhaps because they are accustomed to the terminology of Critical Race Theory, seem to believe that the kind of white supremacy behind Roof’s actions is endemic within American society, or at least among white conservatives. It is not. I do not say this to defend political allies, but in the interests of bridging wounds.

I believe we are all in this together. I will not pretend for a moment that we all suffer from racism or sexism or other forms of intolerance and bigotry equally. Clearly we do not, and the long history of violent racial terrorism in the South–which is my home–should not be whitewashed or ignored. I do not believe that we should assume Roof was a lone wolf without first conducting an aggressive investigation to determine what group–if any–lent him material support or advocated his heinous course of action. Calls to take down the Confederate flag are legitimate. So are calls for white people–even those horrified by this action–to engage in some soul-searching about how we view white killers vs. black killers in the mainstream media.

I want to make it clear that in my view there is nothing ambiguous about who Roof is or what he has done. He is a monster who committed an atrocity. I am concerned that there are those who–in understandable shock and outrage, perhaps–believe that Roof has far more allies or sympathizers than he actually does . I am worried that an act like this–which, although the black community obviously bears the tragic cost directly–somehow will be seen as political when it is not. In addition to the personal tragedy faced by the victims and their families, this is a blow struck against the dream of equality and tolerance and understanding, and that is a dream that I believe can be shared (or sometimes neglected) by all Americans.

I pray for Roof to face justice, for his victims to be able to find some measure of peace, and also for us as a nation to find a way to draw closer together rather than farther apart.

1.5 Million Missing Black Men

A recent piece from The New York Times describes what can only be called a staggering, haunting, and horrific picture:

In New York, almost 120,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are missing from everyday life. In Chicago, 45,000 are, and more than 30,000 are missing in Philadelphia. Across the South — from North Charleston, S.C., through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi and up into Ferguson, Mo. — hundreds of thousands more are missing.

They are missing, largely because of early deaths or because they are behind bars. Remarkably, black women who are 25 to 54 and not in jail outnumber black men in that category by 1.5 million, according to an Upshot analysis. For every 100 black women in this age group living outside of jail, there are only 83 black men. Among whites, the equivalent number is 99, nearly parity.

African-American men have long been more likely to be locked up and more likely to die young, but the scale of the combined toll is nonetheless jarring. It is a measure of the deep disparities that continue to afflict black men — disparities being debated after a recent spate of killings by the police — and the gender gap is itself a further cause of social ills, leaving many communities without enough men to be fathers and husbands.

Perhaps the starkest description of the situation is this: More than one out of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life.

…The disappearance of these men has far-reaching implications. Their absence disrupts family formation, leading both to lower marriage rates and higher rates of childbirth outside marriage, as research by Kerwin Charles, an economist at the University of Chicago, with Ming-Ching Luoh, has shown.

The black women left behind find that potential partners of the same race are scarce, while men, who face an abundant supply of potential mates, don’t need to compete as hard to find one. As a result, Mr. Charles said, “men seem less likely to commit to romantic relationships, or to work hard to maintain them.”

Arguments over racial disparities are sensitive and more often than not heated (just take a quick look at your Facebook feed regarding Baltimore). Blame is placed in various places, from systemic and institutional racism to individual choice and accountability. I have my own opinions (largely a mixture of the two), but that isn’t what I’m interested in with this post. Put aside the finger-pointing, the outrage, and the judgment for a moment. Just look at those numbers and think of the human faces behind them. And then weep.

Racism, Partyism, and the Outgroup

996 - Slate Star Codex

This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read on the topic of social psychology, in-group / out-group bias, and political polarization: I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup. It is long, but well worth the read. The central thesis is that the out-group doesn’t often look like what we think it does, starting with the central example of racist Nazis who were more willing to collaborate with extremely foreign cultures like Chinese and Japanese than with much more similar cultures like German Jews. As the author writes:

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

That’s pretty interesting, but what really blew my mind were the following observations / revelations:

1. Tribalism > Racism

You’ve probably heard of the Implicit Association Test, which is a way to experimentally detect racist attitudes. The IAT is famous for demonstrating racism even in people who think they have no racist attitudes. What I had never heard before, however, was that a tweaked version of the IAT was used to compare racist attitudes to “partyist” attitudes:

Anyway, three months ago, someone finally had the bright idea of doing an Implicit Association Test with political parties, and they found that people’s unconscious partisan biases were half again as strong as their unconscious racial biases (h/t Bloomberg. For example, if you are a white Democrat, your unconscious bias against blacks (as measured by something called a d-score) is 0.16, but your unconscious bias against Republicans will be 0.23. The Cohen’s d for racial bias was 0.61, by the book a “moderate” effect size; for party it was 0.95, a “large” effect size.

Subsequent research confirmed that “partyism” is stronger than racism and that it exists “in the wild” and not just in laboratory experiments. I had no idea. I changed the name from “partyism” to “tribalism” for reasons that will be explained in the next section…

2. “White” and “American” are code for “Red Tribe”

Building on that observation, the author argues that the real divide in this country is not along racial or cultural lines. It’s between a Red Tribe (conservative) and a Blue Tribe (liberal):

Every election cycle like clockwork, conservatives accuse liberals of not being sufficiently pro-America. And every election cycle like clockwork, liberals give extremely unconvincing denials of this… My hunch [is that] both the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe, for whatever reason, identify “America” with the Red Tribe. Ask people for typically “American” things, and you end up with a very Red list of characteristics – guns, religion, barbecues, American football, NASCAR, cowboys, SUVs, unrestrained capitalism. That means the Red Tribe feels intensely patriotic about “their” country, and the Blue Tribe feels like they’re living in fortified enclaves deep in hostile territory.

He then points to the litany of anti-white articles that came out during the Ferguson controversy and observes that these anti-white articles were almost universally authored by… white males:

White People Are Ruining America? White. White People Are Still A Disgrace? White. White Guys: We Suck And We’re Sorry? White. Bye Bye, Whiny White Dudes? White. Dear Entitled Straight White Dudes, I’m Evicting You From My Life? White. White Dudes Need To Stop Whitesplaining? White. Reasons Why Americans Suck #1: White People? White.

He argues that actually criticizing your own in-group is very, very difficult to do. Whenever someone appears to be castigating their own in-group with glee and relish, chances are very good that they aren’t actually attacking their own in-group after all. Given the fact that we already know that partyism (Red Tribe vs. Blue Tribe) is stronger than racism (black vs. white) and the reasonable evidence that “America” often means “Red Tribe,” it’s not much of a stretch at all to assume that these uses of the term “white” also mean “Red Tribe.”

Taken together, these two observations amount to a subtle but profound shift in how we look at political polarization and racial and cultural division in the United States. And, although I’ve hit the highlights, I really do think you should read the whole thing.


Looking for Racism on the Right: A Case Study

2014-05-23 Townson U

There’s a story percolating through the right wing blogosphere right now about the victory of Townson U in a national debate contest “by repeating N-word and babbling nonsense.” The fact that the winning team consists of two black females is never mentioned explicitly, but race is obviously a part of this story. The (unspoken) gist of it appears to be something like: black students who are not actually competent at debate got an award because of political correctness. To back that up, the blog posts feature transcripts and YouTube videos of the debate, like this one.

That video contrasts the two young ladies in a news story, where they speak articulately and calmly, with clips of their emotional and quite frankly weird speech during the debate. It’s an ugly video because of what it implies instead of having the courage to say. The cuts are obviously designed to undermine what the young ladies say to the reporter with seemingly contradictory excerpts from their debate performance. For example, the reporter asks, “Once you know the topic, what’s next?” One of the women replies, “Well, you do a lot of research.” And then there’s an immediate cut to the debate right at the point where one of the speakers is stuttering heavily. Race is never mentioned, but the point is clear.

Now, I approached this story without any special inside info. I’ve never debated competitively, nor have I ever seen a competitive debate. But I decided to do the one thing that the conservative bloggers apparently decided to skip. Research.

I started with two hypotheses that might explain the apparent contradiction between assumptions about what a national championship debate team might sound like and the jarring YouTube footage. Either this was in some sense an “urban” form of debate or, more likely, the timing rules of competitive debate forced competitors to adopt really strange, unnatural speech patterns. It’s not hard at all for me to imagine, for example, that competitors are judged purely based on the content of their argument and not so much their delivery and/or that the expectations for content delivery are much different in a competitive setting.

I started with the first one because while it seemed less likely, it would be easy to check. Is the Cross Examination Debate Association a minority-focused group? No, it is not.Founded in 1971, it is “the largest intercollegiate policy debate association in the United States.”

So I went to my second hypothesis and decided the simplest thing to do would be to check on the winners from last year. If I got a video of some white competitors using roughly the same kind of speech, I’d kill two birds with one stone. Clearly, if last year’s competitors were white, there wouldn’t be some kind of obvious minority-preference and secondly, if this is how the teams from last year sounded then it would strongly indicate that what we’re hearing has nothing to do with race and is just the way competitive debate works. I searched YouTube and, on the first try, hit the jackpot. Here’s a video called: “More CEDA 2013 Debate Highlights.” A couple of things to note before you watch it:

  1. It features two teams consisting of three white women and one white man.
  2. It represents the “highlights,” so ostensibly this is what competitive debaters find impressive.
  3. It does, indeed, feature the exact same speech: very fast, slurred technical terms, rapid-fire breathing, and weird stuttering.

So let’s recap. In 2013, and probably in many years before that, white kids won a debate contest that, by its competitive nature, seems to require participants to speak in really, really weird ways. No one cared. In 2014, black women won the debate contest using the same tactics, but suddenly conservative writers noticed, and they wrote off the bizarre-sounding speech as “unintelligible gibberish” without checking to see if that’s just how debates work.

So: assumptions about folks being less intelligent and/or less capable of speaking standard English because they are black. Yup, that looks like racism to me.

Am I missing something here?

Racism: A Definition and a Critique

A couple of weeks ago I came across an extremely articulate explanation of perhaps the dominant perspective of racism from the American political left. The explanation comes in the form of an online Powerpoint at the Tumblr of Women of Color, In Solidarity.

It’s a fairly short and straight-forward presentation, and I’m deeply appreciative of how starkly it lays out the case against white privilege, starting with this definition of the key terms:

2013-11-06 Racism Definition

So here we have a very precise definition of racism: it is the institutionalization of discrimination (which is itself the acting out of prejudice). This definition has one very important and straightforward consequence: reverse-racism (i.e. anti-white racism) cannot exist.

2013-11-06 No Reverse Racism

In simple terms: individuals may have anti-white prejudice and may even act on that prejudice (which is anti-white discrimination), but because this discrimination is not built into the structure of our society it’s not institutionalized and therefore doesn’t qualify as racism by definition. The author slammed this point home with one more emphatic slide:

2013-11-06 Tragedy of Victimization

Once again: this is a clear and unambiguous perspective on race and–within its assumptions and definitions–it is consistent and logical.

But it is still deeply, deeply flawed. The flaw will seem subtle at first, but as it ripples through the larger argument it will have profound implications. And the flaw is this: the assumption that the cause of discrimination is animosity

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Orson Scott Card and His Imitation of Fox News: Paranoia? Hyperbole? Satire?

After reading novelist and political commentator Orson Scott Card’s bizarre “thought experiment,” titled “Unlikely Events,” I really am quite mystified. In the article he plays a “game” in which he imagines President Obama becoming a fascist overlord ruling with an iron fist over America and being a figure akin to Hitler. Although he tries to reassure his readers that, of course, he doesn’t believe this stuff, and that he’s just wearing his hat as a “fiction” writer, yet he still also insists that “it sure sounds plausible, doesn’t it? Because, like a good fiction writer, I made sure this scenario fit the facts we already have — the way Obama already acts, the way his supporters act, and the way dictators have come to power in republics in the past.” He says that “the writer’s made-up characters and events must seem truthful. We must pass the plausibility test.”

But then Card shovels in comparisons to Hitler and every other dictator he can think of. When people start comparing their ideological rivals to Hitler, they have shown their refusal to speak with nuance and distinction. They have immediately lost the argument, in my mind. He then throws in a huge number of broad generalizations and hyperbolic statements such as this:

Obama is, by character and preference, a dictator. He hates the very idea of compromise; he demonizes his critics and despises even his own toadies in the liberal press. He circumvented Congress as soon as he got into office by appointing “czars” who didn’t need Senate approval. His own party hasn’t passed a budget ever in the Senate.

In other words, Obama already acts as if the Constitution were just for show. Like Augustus, he pretends to govern within its framework, but in fact he treats it with contempt.

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