Smiling Faces, Terrible Racists: The Dangerous Culture of White Possession in the Carolinas
The horrific murders are tragic, but they're not surprising. You could even say they're just the latest in South Carolina's long history of violence and hate.
Just about every time I'm in the Carolinas, something racist happens to me.
A couple years ago, while I was visiting my sister in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, I had the nerve to honk at an SUV that almost sideswiped me. For this, I was chased down Highway 54 for a couple miles by an enraged man resembling Larry the Cable Guy, whom I could see in my rearview mirror, pounding on his steering wheel like a cartoon gorilla. As I pulled up to a stoplight, the man cut me off, stormed out of his SUV, and screamed at me through my closed window. "You think it's funny now, boy?" he shouted, his face purple, the tendons in his neck strained. "You think it's funny now?" He backhanded my window violently, returned to his car, and sped off.
My mother was sitting right next to me.
A few years before that, while I was eating with some friends at a Huddle House (a 24-hour diner chain) in Greenville, South Carolina, a man who also somehow resembled Larry the Cable Guy—orange goatee, squat stature, baseball cap—stood up from his table to yell out at me, across the restaurant: "Hey, you know karate?"
I lied and nodded. He gave me a thumbs-up.
Last summer, when I was walking in downtown Anderson, South Carolina—my hometown—I overheard the distinct sound of ching-chonging being directed my way, the same kind of "Chinese" sound I'd get from the other team whenever I played organized sports. When I went over to confront the guys making the noises, I discovered they were barely teenagers—15, even 20 years younger than me. One of them, the least remorseful, was sitting in a wheelchair. The thing is, as I told those kids, I'm from here. I'm about as South Carolinian as you can get.
In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there are certain shops I know better than to walk into, shops with the words Dixie or heritage on their signs, rebel flags in the yard—places that sell T-shirts and hats with M-16s over a Stars and Bars background with the message/threat: 'Come and take it.'
I live in Brooklyn now, but the first 23 years of my life were spent in the Palmetto State. I was born and raised in Anderson; I'm a graduate of T. L. Hanna High School and then Clemson University. I lived two summers in Charleston, the first in 2001, as an attendee of the South Carolina Governor's School, and the second in 2002, working as a caterer and Chinese-food delivery guy on Mount Pleasant. I like my tea sweet and my chicken fried. The sound of a twangy guitar, or a gospel choir, has been known to move me. I can drawl as convincingly as anyone. I'm familiar with the term "South Cackalacky"; I know who the Swamp Fox is and what "sandlapper" means. And my parents still live in Anderson, where they've lived for over 40 years.
South Carolina is where I'm from. But go up to nearly any person in Columbia or Orangeburg or Greenville and ask them whether he or she thinks I'm local, and I promise you their answer will be telling. Although the days of the antebellum South are long gone, there is still a strong undercurrent of white supremacy in the air. I remember sitting in the waiting room with my mother last year for treatment at the cancer wing of a hospital and an elderly white man with a breathing tube staring unrelentingly at me with hostile, blood-rimmed eyes until my mother was finally called in to see the doctor.
Along the backroads, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there are certain shops I know better than to walk into, shops with the words Dixie or heritage on their signs, rebel flags in the yard—places that sell T-shirts and hats with M-16s over a Stars and Bars background with the message/threat: "Come and take it." Confederate States of America belt buckles, rebel-flag bikinis and belly-button rings—this the reality of being a person of color in South Carolina, where to some white folks, your mere presence is cause for complaint or alarm, an ever-present promise of violence to come if things get worse. To those white folks, things are always getting worse—it's all been downhill since Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox in 1865.
Having lived with this truth since I was born, I have to admit that I wasn't shocked when I heard about the recent massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. That a white 21-year-old named Dylann Storm Roof allegedly walked into the church's Bible study and gunned down nine of its black parishioners, including State Senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney and the 87-year-old Susie Jackson, seemed like just the latest awful chapter in a long history of violence against people of color in my home state. From the practice of enslaving African workers on rice plantations to lynch mobs led by Benjamin Tillman, a former state governor and US senator, these kinds of actions are inseparable from the cultural fabric here. Even at the statehouse today, there is a statue honoring "Pitchfork Ben" and his name adorns the most prominent building at Clemson University, the state's top-ranked public university, and my own alma mater.
The history of racist violence includes the tale of former Confederate-scout-turned-postbellum-tax-evader Manson "Manse" Jolly. As the story goes, Jolly murdered a host of freedmen Federal soldiers, dumping some of their bodies in a well in Anderson County, where there is a road named after him that leads to the county dump, about five miles from the house where I grew up. Jolly's acts of domestic terrorism are still praised. In a 2009 article published by the Independent-Mail, he's hailed as "legendary" twice in the first couple paragraphs, a "Civil War hero" in one breath and an "unreconstructed Rebel" in the next. Explained one man, an antiques dealer in Columbia, "Jolly still evokes interest and emotion from those who laud his exploits in the post-Civil War South."
And now we have the mass shooting in Charleston. Reports say the alleged killer, Roof, castigated churchgoers: "You rape our women, and you're taking over our country, and you have to go," before shooting them dead.
Yet Roof's words, ill-formed as they were, are not meaningless. In them, we can see a culture of white Southern possession and the willingness to protect ownership through acts of unspeakable violence.
In fact, it's part of an escalating trend in the Carolinas and across America. In February, 44-year-old Chris Hicks killed three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, over what was initially reported by local police to be a "parking dispute." Just this week in Ohio, a white man shouted N-bombs and waved a gun to drive unwanted kids from of his neighborhood. In Texas earlier this month, a white cop slammed a 15-year-old black girl in a bikini to the ground at a pool party. And let's not forget 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was shot and killed by neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012. When people of color or from other backgrounds turn up in places they aren't welcome, white supremacy is often maintained through violent action.
The language of possession ranges from the Constitutional—the NRA's staunch lobbying to maintain the Second Amendment right to bear arms—to the rhetoric of the far-far-right. "The KKK wants you," reads a recent flier for the Brotherhood of Klans, one of the largest KKK organizations in America. "Join today and win back your rights that have been given to others in the name of political correctness. We are fighting to preserve the existence of our race and a future for White children."
That guy on Highway 54, that other guy in Huddle House, those teenagers in my hometown, the man in the cancer ward—they were saying to me, in no uncertain terms, "Hey, this place is ours, not yours." And to be honest, it's hard to argue with them, considering the Confederate battle flag still flies over the grounds of the statehouse, a flag that represents "heritage," sure—if you mean a heritage of hatred, violence, and white supremacy.
The culture of possession isn't going away anytime soon. But why would it? It's been here since the inception of this country, from the days of slave-owning founding fathers to the creation of federal laws to cheat, pillage, and exterminate Native Americans, to the present day, where a professional sports team in our nation's capital can continue to use an ethnic slur as its official moniker. In order to break all this down, we need to keep the conversation going beyond the shootings to chip away at a culture that helped create the monster who pulled the trigger.
I'll be going back to South Carolina sooner or later—I have to. My mother's still not well, and a friend from high school recently told me she's getting married. When I do go back, will I see any of those guys from before, on the highway, in the Huddle House, or at the hospital? In Anderson, there's a coffee shop I like to go to, downtown. Will those same kids be there? When they heard the news this week and saw Roof's face, what was going through their minds? Could it have been anything like recognition?
Follow James on Twitter.