Back at the beginning of the millennium, the news was a-twitter with a lukewarm debate about whether or not South Carolina should keep the Confederate flag flying over its capitol building. I was in high school at the time and assigned to argue the issue from the side of the flag-supporters in history class. I read about truck-driving good old boys who emblazoned the stars-and-bars across their bumpers because it’s not about hate, it’s about heritage. It’s about honoring our great-great-grandfathers who were sent off to fight and die in the bloodiest war in American history, they insisted, and most of our ancestors never owned slaves. The epic novel Cold Mountain was topping the bestsellers lists at the time and echoed this sentiment, portraying the war as a senseless tragedy and most Confederate soldiers as confused young boys who merely wanted to fight for local honor.
While these arguments did convince me that many flag-wavers of modern times do not share the racist agenda of others, I argued for the flag in the debate on a technicality. (There wasn’t enough support to remove the flag in the state legislature, and such a move could not bypass the legislature, etc., etc., etc.)
Years later, the issue arose again in a college class, where there was little sympathy for the flag-wavers.
“What about the point that it’s just about honoring the fallen soldiers and Southern heritage?” I asked.
The only black student in the class replied, “I’m from the South and black people are just as much part of Southern heritage as anyone else, and we are not represented by that flag. The Confederacy fought to keep blacks separate from whites and that flag certainly does that.”
Fast-forward a few years later to a birthday bash at my apartment here in Berlin. A friend of a friend is saying goodbye to me and the other hosts, and someone notices a button pinned to the jacket of the date she brought along.
“What’s that?” my friend asks, pointing.
The guy holds up the button and replies nonchalantly, “White power.”
We are all speechless as he turns and leaves.
One friend can’t stop glaring at the spot where the guy used to be. Neo-Nazism has been on the rise where he comes from – that is, the former East Germany – ever since mass unemployment followed the fall of the Wall. That kid was simply one of many who grew up in shrinking towns with few prospects and who had decided to transform his frustration into racial pride.
What should we have said to him had we not been so paralyzed with shock?
That the button is not okay.
That bronze plaques just a few doors down from my apartment mark where Jewish people were dragged from their homes and shipped off to be murdered in Latvia.
That of course most young swastika-wavers didn’t ever set foot anywhere near a concentration camp.
That to them, in the words of one German friend’s grandmother, the Nazis were about “organizing nice get-togethers for the young people and the local community. Most of them weren’t killers!”
That another friend’s grandfather said, “I never had anything against the Jews. I always said hello to my Jewish neighbors!”
That you don’t have to watch Judgment At Nuremberg to know that the best way to allow genocide and ethnic cleansing and slavery and other human rights atrocities to happen is to encourage everyday people to shrug off arrests and killings as “unfortunate tragedy,” to encourage them to sit comfortably with their prejudices while insisting, “I wouldn’t personally harm anyone,“ and, “We couldn’t do anything about it if we wanted to!”
Not one of my German friends would ever wear Nazi insignia to honor their country’s history or their grandfathers, many of whom were confused young boys hauled off to the battlefields, convinced they were simply fighting for their nation’s honor.
Those who do wear such paraphernalia are most often found in the modern Nationalist Party of Germany, which today lists “getting over the Holocaust” as one of its main political goals. We’ve apologized enough! they insist. All this complaining about Nazi Germany is overdone! White guilt is the real problem of our times.
Several of these goals are shared by the Council of Conservative Citizens, which years ago presented France’s National Front party with a Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol, which right-wing pundit Ann Coulter argues is “not a racist” organization, which Dylann Storm Roof cites in his manifesto as the first organization he referenced at the beginning of his militancy.
Moments after the kid and his white power button were gone, a German friend finally sighed, “That’s an embarrassment to my generation.”
And Dylann Storm Roof’s agenda is an embarrassment to mine.
I’m not directly responsible for his actions. But I’m an heir to the last Western country to abolish slavery on its soil. And I’m the beneficiary of loads of white privilege in the U.S. and around the world. And I belong to a generation whose ignorance about racism is perhaps the greatest facilitator of it. As Gene Demby of Codeswitch notes:
Roof will read to many as some sort of fossilized outlier, a remnant of a vanishing tribe…
[But] it turns out that even as this generation is on the whole “cool” with interracial marriage and dating, there’s a lot of daylight between the way white millennials and those of color feel about a bunch of other questions about race… Young white people were nearly twice as likely to say that the government pays too much attention to the problems of racial minority groups. They were also nearly twice as likely to say that discrimination against white people has become as big a problem as discrimination against minorities…
In the Oxford journal Public Opinion Quarterly, researcher Vincent Hutching combed through public opinion surveys taken before and after several presidential elections and found that “younger cohorts of whites are no more racially liberal in 2008 than they were in 1988.”
And really, why would they be? America’s public schools are more segregated now than they were 40 years ago. Americans continue to live in very different worlds; a 2011 study showed that ethnic identity outranked income as a predictor of where people live…
There’s also good data suggesting that white millennials have a far rosier view on race relations than their contemporaries of color. This too makes sense when you think about the schools, the stark housing segregation, the fact that on average white people have hardly any friends of color, and, perhaps more importantly than we realize, the fact that they just don’t have much experience talking about this stuff. (In fact, it’s safe to assume that Roof has spent far more time discussing race than most people his age.) As Politico’s Sean McElwee put it, the data that’s out there “suggests that millennials aren’t racially tolerant, they’re racially apathetic: They simply ignore structural racism rather than try to fix it.” …
A big Pew study on multiracial Americans released in June found that most of the country’s multiracial adults are likely to identify with one race — usually a non-white one — often because of their own experiences with race-based discrimination.
Indeed, I grew up frequently believing racism was a thing of the past, unaware that my white privilege was what permitted me to do so. I winced but did not reflect when I heard classmates say, “I don’t get what black people’s problem is. I mean, what more do they want?”
Three weeks ago, North Carolina high school students on a trip to the Gettysburg battlefield took some selfies with the Confederate flag, titled them “South will rise,” and uploaded them to Instagram. After garnering racist remarks (“I just bought my first slave”) and then finally outrage, the poster issued a non-apology:
I’m sorry that my picture offended people and especially since my initial caption (that I changed once I realized people took it seriously), but I’m currently on the Civil War trip learning about the history of our country and this just so happens to be a pretty fucking important part of it. We were reenacting Pickett’s charge in which the South lost 85% of their soldiers. These aren’t the Confederate flags in fact, they’re the North Carolina regimental flags. I’m proud to be a part of my state and I’m sorry my photo was so offensive but I find it appropriate in that I’m honoring heroes that fought to protect their home and families.
We cannot take credit for our ancestors’ achievements if we refuse to learn from their failures.
The plaques near my apartment were hammered into the pavement of our street to say one thing to everyone who passes by: Never again. You don’t have to consider the differences between the Holocaust and the American slave trade to know that both count among the darkest episodes in human history.
You don’t have to consider the difference between casual racist remarks and full-blown hate crimes to know that they enable each other. Roof has proven himself to be a bloodthirsty killer. He is also a high-school dropout craving something to believe in, and ended up drawn to white supremacy. And there are many, many like him throughout the United States, here in Germany, and around the world. If we do not confront the insidious ideas they are willing to kill for, if we do not address the newly uncovered fact that blacks shot by police in the U.S. are more than twice as likely as whites to be unarmed, if we don’t get flag-wavers to listen to those they frighten, then we are doomed to witness this happen again and again.