Kristin J Anderson Ph.D.

"Benign" Bigotry

What the Charleston Massacre Does Not Tell Us About Racism

Christina Hsu Accomando and Kristin J. Anderson

Posted Jun 25, 2015

Washington Post
Source: Washington Post

Americans seem united in outrage at the massacre of black parishioners at Charleston's Emmanuel AME church on June 17th. In the aftermath we consume details about the shooter's history, his Internet postings, Facebook photos, and requisite racist manifesto, leaving no doubt that the crime was motivated by race hatred.  But where does this horrendous act leave us once the vigils conclude, the victims are laid to rest, and the media moves on?

The Charleston shooting may inspire the South Carolina legislature to finally remove the Confederate flag from the State House. But this atrocity is not likely to inspire an effective racial justice movement in the U.S., despite the seemingly universal outrage. Why not? As effective as these overt manifestations of old-school Jim Crow racism are in producing sympathy and condemnation, it is precisely this shared reaction to the horror that makes us incapable of confronting and dismantling contemporary racism, which continues to permeate our society.

In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander brilliantly analyzes the activist response to the 2006 high school noose-hanging controversy and arrest of black students in Jena, Louisiana: 

"A new civil rights movement cannot be organized around the relics of the earlier system of control if it is to address meaningfully the racial realities of our time. Any racial justice movement, to be successful, must vigorously challenge the public consensus that underlies the prevailing system of control. Nooses, racial slurs, and overt bigotry are widely condemned by people across the political spectrum; they are understood to be remnants of the past, no longer reflective of the prevailing public consensus about race."

Outrageous acts of overt and old-fashioned racism momentarily galvanize the country because we can easily condemn them as horrendous, evil or intolerable. And they should be condemned, unequivocally. Condemning this one act, however, convicting the individual shooter, even removing the Confederate flag from the state house will do little to address today's prevalent racism or chart a path toward racial justice.

It is convenient to allow events such as the AME shooting to represent what racism looks like—violent, bloody, and explicit, committed by evil individuals with a clear-cut record of overt hatred. We good people condemn these acts of carnage and therefore we are good. Mass murder at a black church is obvious, overt racism that no mainstream person would condone. So we can safely tweet against the Confederate flag, weep at a vigil, maybe even donate to NAACP, and say, no, never again. We are not racist, evil, or crazy. Those people are. Those people with racist flags on their Facebook pages and blood on their hands. And the public consensus underlying contemporary systems of inequality go unaddressed.

Most racism doesn’t manifest as mass shootings, cross-burnings, and racist manifestos. It lurks as a much more implicit, subtle and masked form of social control. It is systemic and structural. It is quiet. It is business as usual. It is part of the air we breathe. Racism is integral to our legal system, which arrests, convicts and jails black and brown people at drastically higher rates than white people who engage in the same behavior.  The racism deeply embedded in U.S. mass incarceration permeates every stage of the system, from unequal surveillance to unfair bail decisions to disparate sentencing (including stark disparities in the death penalty).  We recoil in horror at the appalling words of the Charleston shooter justifying his actions, but his criminalization of African Americans is actually shared by a large number of Americans. Racism is also infused in our education system where African American youngsters are suspended from school more frequently than white youngsters; where our schools are still gravely segregated and unequally funded. Quiet racism results in a 50% lower call-back rate for resumes with black-sounding than white-sounding names, and African American job applicants with no criminal record have about an equal chance of getting called for an interview as white applicants with a criminal record. No crosses burned, no epithets hurled. You just don’t get called back.

All of these racialized factors reinforce the wealth gap, the health gap, and other deep inequities, which simultaneously fuel and mask each other. The cycle continues, caused by social structures and practices, no confederate flag required. Violence is a significant component of racist oppression, but racism can be in the room even if a shooter isn't.  As Charles Blow wrote in this week's New York Times, "institutional racism doesn’t require the enlisting of individual racists. The machine does the discriminating. It provides a remove, a space, between the unpleasantness of racial discrimination—and indeed hatred—and the ultimate, undeniable and, for some, desirable outcome of structural oppression."

Until we are ready to truly grapple with the fact that racism is quietly embedded in our everyday laws, institutions and practices—until we see its presence on days without a bloody massacre—vigils and flag debates will do little to end contemporary racism.


Accomando, C. (2001). The regulations of robbers: Legal fictions of slavery and resistance. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York, NY: The New Press.

Anderson, K. J. (2010). Benign bigotry: The psychology of subtle prejudice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Blow, C. (2015, June 24). Confederate Flags and Institutional Racism.  Retrieved from

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2009). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America. Oxford, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Haney López, I. (2014). Dog whistle politics: How coded racial appeals have reinvented racism and wrecked the middle class. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 

Reiman, J., & Leighton, P. (2013). The rich get richer and the poor get prison: Ideology, class, and criminal justice. Boston, MA: Pearson.