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Don't blame the Confederacy

As a disclaimer, I don't often write about race, and this post expresses a controversial opinion which is shared (at least in part) by a lot of people who are vile and hold mostly unacceptable opinions. I think that the point I'm making is correct and that I'm expressing it in a clear and reasonable way, but if anything in the post makes you think otherwise, then please tell me and I'll see what might need changing.

Last week, a 21-year old man took a gun and killed nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina. He's now been arrested, and in the aftermath it's been discovered that he has a history of support for the ideology of white supremacy: he posed with the flags of the Confederacy, Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, posted a racist manifesto on an anonymous website, and was arrested in a car with a Confederate States of America bumper sticker.

For a while after the shooting, before most of this history was unearthed, some people - mostly American conservatives - tried to insist that the attack was not 'about race'. There were howls of protest, because of course there's a huge amount of evidence that it was about race, in the sense that the white shooter targeted black victims and was clearly filled with racial hatred. But the comments in response to this short-lived conservative claim that most caught my eye were the ones that said: well, if you want to know what Dylann Roof was doing and why he did, just ask him - look at what he said and did before and during the attack.

That is misguided. Think about how we - not everyone, obviously, but the same people who are now talking so much about white supremacy - respond to acts of Islamic terror. After the Charlie Hebdo attack, it was said that the shooting didn't happen because of the poisonous influence of Islamic extremism, so much as because of French racism and its effects in disenfranchising young Muslims in France. When people join ISIS, we often cite evidence suggesting that most recruits are either new converts to Islam or only newly religious, to argue that something else causes people's attraction to violent radical Islam, and that religious belief is not the ultimate explanation.

All of that is true. In general, there is a story about fundamentalist violence which goes roughly like this. Violent ideologies are quite common, and come from all sorts of religious and political backgrounds. They don't get traction because people read and literally believe religious texts, or because the ideologues are unusually persuasive or the recruits unusually suggestible. Violent fundamentalism succeeds in recruiting people when those people are the victims of economic and socio-political alienation which makes the ideology attractive: it gives them an in-group to feel they belong to, with which their bonds are hardened by extreme violence; it gives them out-groups to demonise and blame for their deprivation, and a - supposed - method for solving their problems by atacking and defeating the groups that - supposedly - cause them.

This story is true. The evidence for it doesn't just come from Islamic extremism, but also from the history of violent Punjabi separatism or of the Kashmiri uprisings in India, from the three-decade civil war in Sri Lanka, from a slew of identity conflicts in Africa (which are obviously not all alike, but I know less about them) and - yes - from the history of 'poor whites' in the USA. We should say the same thing about all of them. In one sense, the perpetrators obviously commit their crimes because of their beliefs - racist, political, religious - but in a deeper sense, they are only driven to those beliefs and to act on them for basically unrelated structural reasons; in one sense, they are obviously horrifically immoral and should be held responsible for their actions - but in another sense, those actions have very different root causes which can't be addressed just by blame and punishment.

Dylann Roof dropped out of school after repeating the ninth grade, became addicted to drugs, was unemployed, and (from what I can gather) came from an at least somewhat unstable family. In South Carolina, and living in a majority African-American community, that turned him to white supremacy. But if he'd lived those same circumstances in Iraq, he might very well have joined ISIS; if he'd lived them in 1980s Glasgow, he'd probably have joined a football hooligan gang; if he'd lived them in Sri Lanka, he'd probably have become an ethnic nationalist. If we believe that eliminating economic and social alienation would stop Muslims in Western countries travelling to join ISIS, we should also believe that it would have stopped Dylann Roof.

This point is one that has only held true for a couple of decades at the most. For the vast majority of its historical life, white supremacist violence has not been the violence of disenfranchised or alienated people latching onto a fundamentalist, identity-based ideology that Islamist terrorism and so many other ethnic and religious separatisms are. It's been the violence of a majority which dominated politically and economically and deliberately, unapologetically used violence to maintain that dominance. A white man who committed a mass killing against black people 150 years ago, and perhaps even 60 or 70 years ago, could be made sense of just by noticing that nothing in his life would give him any compelling reason to think that was wrong. Today, for all that the effects of white supremacy are maintained by legacies of - and continuing - economic and political discrimination, nobody would have openly told Dylann Roof that African-Americans are inferior or that the murder of black people is acceptable. He got to that belief - part of a fundamentalist ideology publicly repudiated by nearly all Americans - because he was driven to it by the same factors that drive people all over the world to violent fundamentalism. This was a terrorist attack, and it should be treated no differently to other ones.

There is, though, one, really important difference. If you, wrongly, identify the deepest or most important cause of Islamic terrorism as being the persuasive influence of Islamist ideology, then a whole lot of people get caught in the crossfire: followers of Islam whose beliefs, you claim, are closely linked to a set of beliefs which causes intense suffering. Saying that helps to marginalise those people and exacerbate the problems which give violent Islamism its reach. If you identify the deepest, most important cause of the Charleston church attack as the ideology of white supremacy, there are no innocent people whose unproblematic beliefs are being hit by collateral damage - only other, more or less subtle, believers in white supremacy. So it is less of a problem to criticise and condemn white supremacy in the aftermath of this attack than it is to criticise and condemn Islam and its religious texts after acts of Islamist terror. But the reason for that isn't that white supremacy was the root cause of Roof's actions - it's that white supremacy is simply, always, a despicable and oppressive ideology, and Islam is not. That'd be true whether or not Dylann Roof had murdered nine people in its name.

That leads to a second important point: none of this has any bearing on the debate now happening about the legacy of the Confederacy. My point is that we shouldn't believe the ubiquity of Confederate symbols in South Carolina was what drove Roof to violence. It's still true that that flag, those bumper stickers, those highway names are symbols of a government which was set up to enslave and kill African-Americans, and they should be got rid of. It's still true that they are a constant suggestion to African-Americans that they are inferior and held in lower regard. That's especially true the week after a white man went on a killing spree against black people, citing the racist ideology of a short-lived nation - seeing the flag of that nation still flying over the state Capitol is an unspeakable act of political aggression against African-Americans in South Carolina. All that is true, even if you don't believe that the presence of the flag played any deep role in causing Dylann Roof's attack, and instead treat it - as it should be - the way we treat all fundamentalist terror: as the unforgivable actions of deeply immoral people, but also as actions whose true causes lie deeper.