It took just two weeks for America to turn its focus from mass murder to mass entertainment. In the wake of the cold-blooded killing of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., a national conversation about the problems that bedevil the world’s greatest empire—racism, gun violence, inequality and fear—has somehow become a debate about The Dukes of Hazzard. And it’s hard to say whether that’s more depressing or mystifying.
Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old arrested for the attack, has been clear about his motivations. His website, “Last Rhodesian,” traced his pilgrimages to Civil War graveyards, grand plantation mansions and their slave cabins, as well as Sullivan’s Island, a spot where hundreds of thousands of the 10.7 million Africans brought to North America in chains disembarked. A 2,400-word manifesto describes a racist “awakening” that started with the coverage of the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, black Florida teen in 2012, and found fuel in the vilest corners of the Internet. “Who is fighting for these White people forced by economic circumstances to live among negroes? No one, but someone has to,” the screed declares. There are pictures of Roof stonily posing with the .45-calibre Glock pistol that his father gave him on his latest birthday. Sometimes, he’s holding a Confederate flag. The website is a compendium of prejudice and hatred. But nowhere does it mention the fictional exploits of Bo and Luke Duke.
So how is it, then, that meaningful talk about Roof’s beliefs, and the atmosphere that nurtured them, has been overtaken by shouting about a cheesy television series that went off the air nine years before he was born?
In the immediate aftermath of the murders, many people sensibly suggested that it was time for South Carolina to stop flying the Rebel battle flag on the grounds of the state legislature in Columbia. (It was first hoisted above the building’s dome at the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1962, replacing the official state flag. Since 2000, it has adorned a pole next to a nearby monument to fallen Confederate soldiers.) Major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Sears and Amazon belatedly discovered that the banner symbolizes more than just Southern pride, and halted sales of Confederate merchandise. The movement picked up steam when Bree Newsome, a young social activist, took it upon herself to remove the flag from the state Capitol grounds early on the morning of June 27. (Two African-American state employees were dispatched to hoist a replacement an hour later, just in time for a scheduled “white heritage” rally.) NASCAR issued a statement asking fans to stop bringing “offensive symbols” to its events. And then, with the present sort of purged, America started reaching back into its past. TV Land, a network devoted to ancient reruns, pulled Dukes from its lineup. Professional golfer Bubba Watson, who owns one of the orange “General Lee” Dodge Chargers that were driven on the show, vowed to paint over the large flag on its roof. John Schneider, the New Yorker who played “Bo,” posted a disjointed rant about white, black, green and gold people on YouTube. Rush Limbaugh somehow linked the series to the Democratic party’s supposed “anti-cop” sentiments.
In his June 26 eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the leader of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church and the Bible study group that Roof is said to have spent an hour with before opening fire, U.S. President Barack Obama laid out some ugly truths about his country. “Every time something like this happens, somebody says we have to have a conversation about race. We talk a lot about race. There’s no shortcut. And we don’t need more talk,” he said to cheers, applause and shouts of affirmation. Obama also spoke of the “unique mayhem” of U.S. gun violence and the public’s sporadic interest in tackling it, a cycle driven by the impossible-to-ignore bloodbaths, rather than the 30 lives lost each day. But his speech, though stirring, was more of a plea for help than a promise of action. “Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on to go back to business as usual, that’s what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society,” said the President. “To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change—that’s how we lose our way again.”
But easy protests and empty acts might be all the public and their elected officials have to cling to. The reality is even bleaker and more discomforting than Obama is willing—or able—to admit. In the current political climate, meaningful change has become next to impossible—even in response to the most heinous provocations. And for large chunks of the population, progress is defined as simply not slipping backwards.
From cradle to grave, America is a land of inequality. Infant mortality for blacks is more than twice that for whites: 11.5 deaths for 1,000 births, versus 5.2, and 7.5 for Hispanics. African-Americans are twice as likely to drop out of high school and three times as likely to be expelled. Almost 30 per cent of whites hold bachelor’s degrees, compared to 18 per cent of blacks and 13 per cent of Hispanics. The jobless rate for blacks has steadily held at twice that of whites, through good times and bad, for 40 years, while the median weekly pay of white workers is 21.6 per cent higher than their African-American counterparts. Twenty-seven per cent of American Indians live below the poverty line, as do 26 per cent of blacks, and 23 per cent of Hispanics, versus 11.6 per cent of whites. Blacks, who make up 14 per cent of the U.S. population, account for 38 per cent of all prison inmates. A young black man is nine times more likely than a similarly aged white male to become a homicide victim, and 21 times more likely to be killed by a police officer. At birth in 2010, life expectancy for whites was 78.9 years, almost four years more than blacks. (Hispanic life expectancy was 80.3 years, but that’s not a positive indicator. As a poorer, largely immigrant population, they tend to consume less red meat and fatty foods, say experts. That said, within a generation, their lifestyle becomes just as unhealthy as the average American’s.)
Furthermore, despite his blunt talk, the President is just as guilty as everyone else of turning a blind eye and wishing those problems away. Obama’s one big attempt to strengthen gun laws after the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, by banning assault weapons and instituting background checks, was soundly defeated by Congress. And, with the Republicans now in control of both the House and the Senate, he can’t even be bothered to try again. All presidential gun-control efforts have been “exhausted,” a White House spokesman told reporters a few days before the eulogy. “We commenced a significant lobbying campaign to Congress, and we fell short,” he explained. “We didn’t leave anything in the cupboard.”
And really, why fight such doomed battles when the pundits have declared that you’re winning the wider war? Obama’s heart-tugging speech, topped off with a solo rendition of Amazing Grace, wowed the critics. But its substance was quickly subsumed into a larger narrative, one that somehow wedged an unspeakable tragedy into a feel-good tale about the “best week” of his presidency. Obama, it suggests, is on a roll, with Supreme Court decisions that upheld the Affordable Care Act, and extended gay-marriage rights to all 50 states, as well as a victory in Congress giving him “fast-track” authority to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal. So loose and in control was he that he even joked about it with the press. “Now my best week, I will tell you, was marrying Michelle,” the President demurred to laughter, then hedged his bets with references to the births of his daughters and a basketball game in which he scored 27 points.
It is tempting—especially for Americans who still hunger for all that hope and change they were promised seven long years ago—to see signs of momentum. Yet the challenges against Obamacare, both political and legal, aren’t finished. And becoming the 22nd nation to legalize same-sex unions, after the Netherlands, Canada, Brazil, Ireland and Uruguay, seems more like catching up with a trend than trailblazing. (Polls find that a solid majority in the U.S., 57 per cent, now support gay marriage, and it was already legal in 36 states and the District of Columbia.) On other “progressive” issues, the opinion surveys suggest it’s even more of a mixed bag. Support for capital punishment is dropping—down six points since 2011—but remains at 56 per cent, despite 71 per cent of people acknowledging that “there is some risk of innocents being put to death.” Fifty per cent of Americans describe themselves as “pro-choice,” while 44 per cent say they are “pro-life.” And, after peaking at 58 per cent in the fall of 2013, support for legalizing marijuana has fallen back to an almost even split. As a Pew Research Center study noted last year, the U.S. is, in fact, more politically polarized than it has been in decades, with voters increasingly clustered around the liberal and conservative extremes. In 1994, for example, 17 per cent of Republicans and 16 per cent of Democrats admitted holding “very unfavourable opinions” of the other party. Today, that distaste in shared by 43 and 38 per cent, respectively.
Effecting change remains a grinding, short-yardage struggle in American society. “The system is set up to make it difficult. We have more veto points than any other industrialized country,” says David Karol, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, and author of a textbook about party positions. “The President can only really seize on opportunities that are already there. He can’t manufacture them.”
With the nation so divided, those leverage points are now fewer and farther between. Obama’s signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, came in his first term, within a couple of years of his landslide 2008 victory. Since then, he has found slim pickings. Despite the scorching dissents to the recent Supreme Court decisions, and talk of “activist” justices, there is little evidence that the judiciary is pushing the agenda. “The Supreme Court is not exactly a profile in courage,” notes Karol. “Generally, it doesn’t get ahead of public opinion.”
In American life, words, like Obama’s eulogy or Justice Anthony Kennedy’s eloquent decision on same-sex weddings—“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves”—retain their power to move, but are less and less able to convince.
That’s not to say that the things you utter can’t have consequences, just that they are now almost exclusively negative. Donald Trump’s recent difficulties are a wonderful illustration. For years, the developer-turned-celebrity has existed as little more than a preposterously coiffed caricature. His outrageous pronouncements on everything from Obama’s birthplace to how to deal with OPEC were assumed to be part of the entire bootstrapping, Scrooge McDuck “You’re fired” schtick. No one took Trump too seriously, until the moment he finally made good on his oft-repeated threat to run for the Republican presidential nomination. Then he stepped up to the podium and attacked Mexican immigrants. “They’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.”
As it turns out, outright expressions of bigotry against the fastest-growing demographic in American society are not smart business. In the past two weeks, Trump has seen Univision, the country’s largest Spanish-language network, cancel its contract to broadcast his Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants. NBCUniversal has followed suit, and also deep-sixed his long-running reality show, The Apprentice. Macy’s has dropped his branded clothing line. A Latino-owned Chicago brewery has ceased making beer for a Trump-owned bar, and has rechristened the remaining kegs Chinga tu pelo (F–k your hair). The combination of controversy and name recognition has propelled him to tallest-midget status among the crush of declared Republican hopefuls, placing him slightly ahead of even Jeb Bush, with 13 or 14 per cent, according to most polls, but there is little room for growth. A faint-hope political run that was surely designed to burnish Trump’s commercial appeal has instead almost destroyed it.
Over the next 16 months, the interminable run-up to the November 2016 election, Americans will hear a lot about change. “Defeat the Washington Machine. Unleash the American Dream,” is Rand Paul’s slogan. “A political revolution is coming,” promises Bernie Sanders. Ted Cruz is busy “Reigniting the Promise of America.” And Hillary Clinton, former first lady and secretary of state, has cast herself as the champion of “Everyday Americans.” Yet, despite that high-toned rhetoric, the public will witness very little meaningful movement. The Republican hopefuls—14 and counting so far—have eschewed the supposed lessons from Mitt Romney’s 2012 shellacking, and are again battling for the GOP’s Tea Party purists. Clinton will engage in a Cirque du Soleil-worthy balancing act that seeks to appease activist Democrats, attract centrist voters, and distance herself from a President with a 47 per cent approval rating.
Meanwhile, Obama, facing a hostile Congress, will focus on the doable—a trade deal— despite his recent promise to “squeeze every last ounce of progress” out of his final months in office—symbolic acts, such as the ones he committed to and decried in Charleston, being all he has left to offer.
Since the massacre, eight black churches across the South have caught fire. Arson has been confirmed as the cause of at least three of the blazes, bringing back memories not just of the backlash against the Civil Rights movement, but of more recent crimes, such as the mid-1990s, when Ku Klux Klansmen went on a spree. A National Church Arson Task Force, established by former president Bill Clinton, ultimately helped to convict 287 people in connection with 206 arsons and bombings.
Tragically, in America, madmen mowing down innocents or attacking houses of worship isn’t all that remarkable. Since the beginning of 2015, there have been 156 mass shootings across the country, with seven killed and 115 wounded in the two weeks since Charleston alone. Maybe that’s why its people find it easier to fight over TV reruns than address the underlying problems. Churches burn and people die while the Empire fiddles.
—with Meagan Campbell