The Charleston Shooting and the Problem of White Supremacy

Ending Racism Requires Naming and Rejecting White Supremacy

Curtis Clayton holds a sign protesting racism in the wake of last night's shooting at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church June 18, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

"Where can we be black?" With a tweet and a question, Solange Knowles, musician and sister of Beyoncé, plainly identified why nine Black people were murdered by a white man at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina: blackness is a problem in the United States of America.

Early Black American sociologist and activist against racism, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote of this in his celebrated 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. In it, he described having the impression that the white people he encountered never asked him the question they really wanted to ask: "How does it feel to be a problem?" But Du Bois recognized that though his blackness was framed as a problem by white people, the real problem of the twentieth century was "the color line"—the combined physical and ideological divisions that separated white from black during the Jim Crow era in which he wrote.

The Jim Crow laws were instituted by state and local governments throughout the South following the Reconstruction Period, and were designed to create racial segregation in public, and included schools, transportation, restrooms, restaurants, and even drinking fountains. They followed the Black Codes, which followed slavery—each in service of preserving a hierarchy of rights and access to resources on the basis of race

Today, the racist hate crime in Charleston reminds us that though slavery was legally abolished more than 150 years ago, and legalized segregation and discrimination in the 1960s, the racist hierarchy that these were premised on thrives today, and the color line that W.E.B. Du Bois described hasn't vanished. It may not be written in law, and may not be as plainly demarcated as it was fifty years ago, but it is everywhere. And in order to really deal with it, white people must recognize that the problem that defines the color line is not blackness. It is white supremacy, and it takes many forms.

White supremacy is the war on drugs, which has terrorized Black communities across the country for decades, and fueled the mass incarceration of Black men and women. It is a middle-aged white woman verbally and physically assaulting a Black teenager for daring to bring guests to her community pool. It is the belief that intelligence correlates to skin tone, and teachers presuming that Black kids are not as smart as their white peers, and that they need to be punished more harshly for disobedience. It is the racial wage gap, and the fact that racism takes a real toll on the health and life expectancy of Black people. It is white students given more time and attention by university professors, and those same students claiming racial harassment when a Black professor does her job and teaches them about racism. It is innocent Black people regularly gunned down by police in the name of protecting society. It is "all lives matter" said in response to the important and necessary assertion that Black Lives Matter.

 It is a white man murdering nine Black people in a church ​because, "You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go." It is that same man captured alive and escorted by police in a bullet proof vest. 

It is all these things, and much more, because white supremacy is premised on the belief, whether conscious or unconscious, that blackness is a problem that must be managed. In fact, white supremacy requires that blackness be a problem. White supremacy makes blackness a problem.

So where can Black people be Black in a white supremacist society? Not at church, not at school, not at pool parties, not walking the streets of their neighborhoods or while playing in parks, not while driving, not while seeking assistance after car accidents, not while matriculating and teaching at colleges and universities, not when calling the police for help, not when shopping at Walmart. But they can be Black in arenas and ways sanctioned by whites—those of entertainment, service, and incarceration. They can be Black in the service of white supremacy.

To deal with the problem of the color line, we must recognize that the murder of Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa C. Pinckney, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, and Sharonda Singleton was a vicious act of white supremacy, and that white supremacy lives in the structures and institutions of our society, and inside many of us (not just white people). The only solution to the problem of the color line is the collective rejection of white supremacy. This is work that all of us must do.