Dylann Roof’s struggle for true whiteness

The Charleston shooting was about race, class and a wellspring of black flourishing

June 22, 2015 3:30PM ET

The black church in America remains one of the greatest catalysts of African-American well-being in our nation’s history. Since the formation of black Christian congregations on slave plantations, it has served as a place for spiritual formation, black dignity, training and education, organizing for social justice, sustaining marriage and family, caring for the poor and so much more.

Sadly, African-American flourishing, enabled in part by the black church, was reinterpreted as a threat to the achievement of true whiteness by working-class and lower-class white people. This narrative of race and class may explain why Dylan Roof chose a black church, as opposed to anywhere else, to express his racial animus.

In “Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness,” sociologist Matt Wray argues that, historically speaking, being a white person in America is a class status that someone had to earn, even for lower-class white people. Before the Jim Crow era, as South Carolina Anglican minster the Rev. Charles Woodsman expressed in 1766, people such as Dylann Roof were viewed with disdain by white elites as people who “delight in their present low, lazy, sluttish, heathenish, hellish life, and seem not desirous of changing it.” The so-called white trash, Wray writes, “reveals itself as an expression of fundamental tensions and deep structural antimonies: between the sacred and the profane, purity and impurity, morality and immorality, cleanliness and dirt.” 

To be accepted as white in America, people must do all they can to prove that they are not black.

Lower-class white people and European immigrant groups, as historian David R. Roediger explains in “Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White,” had to work really hard to distinguish themselves from black people in order to be perceived as truly white. Not to live up to the cultural expectations of whiteness, regardless of one’s actual skin color, was to invite utter disdain from educated land-owning elites. Find ways to project the negative attributes that white elites had for “white trash,” “rednecks” and “crackers” became a group-forming mission across America. Roediger notes that one of the first words immigrants learned after they arrived in America was “nigger.” To be accepted as white in America, people must do all they can to prove that they are not black. Jim Crow laws made this acceptance local law.

As long as lower-class white people could have a class of people beneath them who were considered more immoral, violent, lustful and lazy, they could have greater access to the means of acquiring dignity, social standing and the American dream. After all, to be white in America was to be of primarily English stock, educated, a property owner, a participant and shareholder in America’s political and economic power centers. Lower-class white people were told that the one group standing in their way of achieving social true whiteness were “Negroes.” From the formation of the Klu Klux Klan to the introduction of Jim Crow laws to the normalizing of white supremacy, white racism had as much to do with achieving whiteness — with class standing — as with racial animus.

Such racialized class conflict places black flourishing — and white backlashes against it — in perspective. Consider the racist website registered on Feb. 9 in the name of Dylann Roof. “Integration has done nothing but bring Whites down to level of brute animals,” the website says. “Who is fighting for these White people forced by economic circumstances to live among negroes?” it asks. “Too many blacks here,” it complains, railing against “affirmative action,” the alleged “lower IQs, lower impulse control and higher testosterone levels in generals” of “negroes.” It then issues a call to “drastic action.” In the antebellum and Jim Crow South, such drastic actions took the form of domestic terrorism against black people and their churches.

Over the past few days, unsurprisingly, pictures of Roof with the Confederate battle flag surfaced on the Internet. The Confederate flag to men like Roof is a symbol of achieving a white dignity and respectability that was taken away by the war of “Northern aggression.” Lower-class white people need the Confederate flag as a sacramental sign and seal reminding them that they are not what elites have always believed them to be: lazy, stupid, immoral and dirty. The flag says, “No, we will define our white dignity on Southern terms.” Unfortunately, those Southern terms were forged during a history of black subjugation and violence. The greatest resistance, however, to the evil terms of the Southern states’ right to white supremacy was the black church. “Mother Emmanuel” was at the head of those churches. Dylan Roof murderously revisited the historic Southern, lower-class struggle for true whiteness on June 17, 2015. Hopefully not only will he fail but he also will ignite public resolve to address such animosities and atone for America’s greatest sin.

Anthony B. Bradley is an associate professor of religious studies at The King’s College in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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