Segregation And The Peaceful Arrest Of Dylann Storm Roof

By now, you might have seen videos and photographs of Dylann Storm Roof’s arrest, and read the story about how the police bought him a meal at a fast-food establishment. The arrest is peaceful; there are no dramatic throwdowns to the ground, no knee to the neck or back, no choke-hold, no red-faced, apoplectic policeman screaming orders to ‘get down and stay down!’ or anything else like that. Here is a murderer, and here is his arrest, all by the book. The prisoner is not brutalized; he is taken into custody.

Pointing out the double standards visible in this treatment is easy enough. Mind you, so are the responses to it: Storm Roof did not ‘resist arrest’; he complied with all orders; he was docile. If only all those black folks whose violent arrests we are used to viewing would be similarly compliant and meek–you know, even the ones who haven’t actually committed any crimes–then all would be good. Of course, Storm Roof’s calm also stemmed from his sense of satisfaction at a task completed, a job ‘well done’ with nine targets successfully dispatched. Why struggle when all to be done is over with? Now comes further opportunity–at the time of the trial–wax lyrical about the creed that drove him on to his killings.

But Storm Roof’s mild manners and his docility are not the whole story. The videos and photographs of his arrest are circulated to note his ‘race’ had a great deal to do with it. There is nothing outrageous about that claim. Dylan Storm Roofs looks ‘just like one of us’ to the police who arrested him. He is a young white man, and the police know many young white men. They have broken bread with them, watched and cheered for them at baseball and football games, dropped them off at proms. They know young white men with guns; they know young white men with Confederate flags. They’ve seen them before; they can ‘relate’ to them. Heck, the police in Shelby were–mostly–young white men themselves once.

There would have been no such familiarity with a young black suspect. The police would not have thought he ‘looks just like me’; they would not have found his mannerisms or language wholly, comfortably, recognizable, a reminder of their daily lives. Their most extensive contact with ‘black folk’ is in all likelihood restricted to attending a summer barbecue at a token black colleague’s home, where the white folk retreat to a group and gaze uncomfortably at all the black folk around them; these attendees serve as reminders their black co-worker lives in a world outside the precinct wholly novel to them. Their children have few, if any, black friends so they are unable to see black youngsters expressing their doubts, fears, insecurities, likes, and dislikes in a variety of domestic and educational environments. Black and white don’t mix; black remains fearful and despised.

South Carolina remains a segregated state; where segregation lives on, so does fear and racial prejudice. One is the cause of the other; they co-determine each other. If you wonder what ‘systemic racism’ is and what is its effects are, this is it.

Tocqueville On Slaves, House Of Cards, And Miami

In his classic Democracy in America, in the section “Situation Of The Black Population In The United States, And Dangers With Which Its Presence Threatens The Whites”, Alexis Tocqueville wrote:

[I]n a certain portion of the territory of the United States…the legal barrier which separated the two races is tending to fall away, but not that which exists in the manners of the country; slavery recedes, but the prejudice to which it has given birth remains stationary. Whosoever has inhabited the United States must have perceived that in those parts of the Union in which the negroes are no longer slaves, they have in no wise drawn nearer to the whites….the prejudice of the race appears to be stronger in the States which have abolished slavery, than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those States where servitude has never been known….In the South, where slavery still exists, the negroes are less carefully kept apart; they sometimes share the labor and the recreations of the whites; the whites consent to intermix with them to a certain extent, and although the legislation treats them more harshly, the habits of the people are more tolerant and compassionate. In the South the master is not afraid to raise his slave to his own standing, because he knows that he can in a moment reduce him to the dust at pleasure.

This passage on segregation and the power structures that create and sustain it inspire the following indirectly related observations:

1.  In House of Cards Francis Underwood is shown loving the finger-licking good ribs at Freddy’s BBQ, a down-home Southern joint owned by Freddy Hayes. The Wikipedia entry for the character describes him as “One of Frank’s only true friends and confidants who he turns to for a fun talk.” One of the reasons, of course, that Freddy, a black man from the South, is such a ‘true friend’ to Francis, is that besides his facility with ribs, he knows his place; he knows the line not to be crossed. In the North the “negroes” Tocqueville observed did not know their place.

2. Where segregation is visible and manifest by a variety of social mechanisms it can soon become self-imposed.  My first trip to Miami in 1990 was made in the company of a Haitian friend. We drove down, visited a Cuban friend of ours, and checked out some of the local attractions, including its white sanded beaches. A short while after we had hit the waves and stretched out for a little sunning–not that we, black and brown–needed any, my friend got up, gathered his belongings and said he wanted a change of scene, a “better spot.” He seemed uncomfortable. I was a little puzzled; our spot seemed perfect. But I accompanied him as he left. We walked on for about ten minutes or so,  and then parked ourselves in a locale that did not seem too different from the one we had left. I remained puzzled. But not for too long. When I looked around, I noticed there were more black people around us. Indeed, a few minutes later, when I walked back to our car to retrieve some food and drink to bring back to our blanket, I could look down on the beach below me and saw distinct swathes of black, brown, and white. The population of Miami had, on this beach, with varying degrees of consciousness about their actions, sorted themselves into distinct bands on its sands. They knew where and around whom they wanted to be; they knew who would want to be around them; they all knew their place.