Finley: Blaming the victim in South Carolina
South Carolina suffered a horrible wound when a racist gunman methodically gunned down nine worshippers in a black Charleston church during a prayer meeting.
Yet instead of throwing its arms around the shocked and grieving state, even before the shooter was arrested the finger of blame was pointing at South Carolina itself.
The left immediately found in the tragedy the opportunity to score political points. This lone, white supremacist embodied our great national evil. They saw in a 21-year-old ignorant fanatic a simmering hatred shared broadly across the land — but particularly by white Republicans, conservatives and southerners. Dylann Roof provided the confirmation for their core conviction that America is fundamentally bad, unjust and several steps behind the enlightened countries of the world.
From the start, Roof was identified in the media as a “right winger,” the same descriptor they assign to the tea party. Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton declared that racist rhetoric had again “metastasized” into violence, without providing a single example to support the claim of mainstream hateful talk. I even got an email from a man convinced Roof was emboldened to kill by voter identification laws. And the reckless exaggeration that African-Americans are cowering in fear of white violence rolled on.
But most of the opportunistic indignation was reserved for South Carolina, even as its stunned citizens were praying and weeping together, black and white.
Both the cameras and the self-righteousness turned quickly to the Confederate flag flying above the state’s public buildings, evidence, the accusers said, of the foundational racism that still supports the South.
That response was so predictable it’s cliche. The South is the only region of the country whose people are fair game for stereotyping and overt expressions of bigotry.
When Hollywood needs a dimwit, it gives him a southern accent. When it needs that dimwit to be sinister, it puts a Bible in his hand. The word hillbilly is tossed about as if it weren’t in the same category of other ethnic slurs.
Traveling last fall with my cousins in California, we were waited on by a store clerk with a distinctly Hispanic accent. When he heard their equally distinctive southern ones, he asked, “Are you wearing shoes? Is that your wife or your cousin, or both?” I can’t imagine he’d be so casually insulting to an African-American or Asian family.
We have become almost knee-jerk in our declarations after a radicalized Muslim commits an act of terror that it is not an indictment of Islam as a whole. And yet in an instant the terrorism of this scrawny, unaffiliated racist became the burden of all of South Carolina, and by extension all of the South.
Had the Charleston murders happened in a place like, say Michigan, where the Confederate flag is rarely seen but which for decades held the distinction of being home to one of the most segregated metro regions in the country, and one that still struggles to include African-Americans in the recovery of America’s blackest city, would the punditry have so quickly zeroed in on that history as the root cause? Doubt it.
But the media mob charged that rebel flag like an enraged bull. It has become the story of the killings, overshadowing the shared mourning. Every GOP presidential candidate is required to take a position on whether or not the flag should fly.
It is rarely noted that while the Confederate flag waves near the capitol in Columbia, inside it sits a woman of color in the governor’s chair, one of two minority heads of state in the Old South. Michigan and most of its smug northern peers have yet to elect their first minority governor.
I agree with Gov. Nikki Haley that the Confederate flag should come down; a state shouldn’t willfully offend a large percentage of its own population.
But southerners have reason to resent being judged by those living in regions that haven’t made near the racial progress the South has over the past 50 years. Maybe they cling so fiercely to their symbols of southern pride as a way of saying “shove it” to their haters.
Watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on “MiWeek” on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.