Is there anything new to say about race in America?

C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, 1995. Photo by Osha Gray Davidson.

C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater in 1995.

On June 17, a white 21-year-old white supremacist named Dylann Roof murdered nine African-American women and men in Charleston, South Carolina. Earlier, Roof had published a racist manifesto online saying that he hoped his actions would spark a race war, and then he headed to the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where he sat silently at a Bible-study group for an hour before carrying out what must certainly be considered a terrorist attack.

A few days later, I received word that The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South, a book I had written two decades ago about an unlikely friendship between C.P. Ellis, the Exalted Cyclops of the Durham, North Carolina, Ku Klux Klan, and Ann Atwater, an African-American community organizer, was going to be made into a movie. The film will have the star power of Taraji Henson (from the popular TV show, Empire) and will be directed by Robin Bissell (he also wrote the screenplay) who was a producer on The Hunger Games. In other words: the movie is going to be a big deal. Of course, I’m happy about this development. But it’s impossible not to be sobered by what the timing suggests: White-on-black terrorism is an “evergreen” story in America. The story I chronicled 20 years ago — about events that took place 25 years before that — is still painfully relevant.

When the University of North Carolina Press published The Best of Enemies in paperback in 2007, I wrote a new introduction for the edition. It, too, seems relevant after Charleston. I hope someday Americans will have to turn to books and films to learn what racist terrorism looks like — and not be able to read about it day after day after day in newspaper headlines.

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BofEIs there anything new to say about race in America? Even a decade ago, critics of President Bill Clinton’s call for a national conversation on the subject didn’t think so.

It’s all been said before, they complained, and with some justification. It is true, for example, that racial incidents, followed by calls for tolerance and understanding, are a more-or-less permanent feature of the American landscape, durable as the Rocky Mountains, familiar as the Mississippi River.

But Clinton’s critics were missing the point. With a few significant exceptions, what has been occurring for decades, even for a century or more, has not been a dialogue on race, but any number of simultaneous monologues on the subject. You want race-talk? Oh, there has been plenty of talk. It’s listening that is in short supply. (Not that this observation is original or even vaguely new. Forty years ago – in 1967 – the late poet June Jordan covered this same ground, brilliantly, in an article she wrote for the Nation magazine entitled “On Listening: A Good Way To Hear.”)

One way to read the story of Ann Atwater and CP Ellis is as a testimony to the transformative power of listening. Listening is, however, only a first step. What comes next is even more difficult: reconciling the new information with what we already know, or think we do. This feat requires what the early 20th Century American writer Sinclair Lewis called a “willingness to sift the sanctified lies,” a chore that is hard enough when the “lie” is trivial. Imagine the difficulty of listening to, and then accepting, a truth that overturns everything you believe about the world. And not merely that, but a truth that informs you that “The world is not what you think it is. And, by the way, neither are you.” How many of us have the intellectual courage to consider, let alone accept, the truth when it demands so much?

You want race-talk? Oh, there has been plenty of talk. It’s listening that is in short supply.

CP Ellis did. And he did, even knowing that the truth that would set him free would also set him adrift, untethered in a divided society that demanded to know, every day: “Which side are you on?” Deep into the winter of 1994, more than two decades after leaving the Klan, CP was driving me around Durham in his old Buick, giving a tour of the city he had lived in nearly all his life. It was late in the day and cloudy. Neither of us had spoken for several minutes. Suddenly, apropos of nothing beyond what was churning in his head and heart, CP said, “I don’t feel comfortable here.” He added, “I wish I had more friends.” There was plenty of regret in his voice, but none, it seemed to me, for the choices he had made, and most especially no remorse over his one big choice, the decision that had left him perpetually uneasy and nearly friendless in his hometown.

 A slightly different way to read this story is as a cautionary tale – albeit one with a measure of hope – charting the price we pay for embracing our glorious national myths while ignoring or minimizing the cruel realities of America’s past and present.

The myth most pertinent to this story is that America is a classless society, where anyone can rise from humble origins to become whatever he or she aspires to be, limited only by individual ability and level of commitment to work hard. CP inherited this myth from his father, Paul Ellis, a mill worker who died of brown lung, worn out and impoverished (despite working two jobs nearly all his life) at the age of 48. “Do right,” Paul Ellis taught CP, “support the police, salute the flag, and good things will happen to you.”

But good things were not forthcoming. The harder he worked, the deeper CP sank into the very rut that had swallowed his father, and even as he watched the less talented and shiftless children of the wealthy prosper. So CP turned to another myth to explain the bizarre situation. When, through no fault of their own, whites didn’t thrive, it was because after the Civil War, a conspiracy between outsiders (Northerners) and Southern blacks had upset the natural order:

 Ignorance, Lust and Hate seized the reins of State, and riot, rapine and universal ruin reigned supreme; the highest form of cultured society was thrust down and its noble neck was forced under the iron heel of pernicious passion who yielded a potent scepter of inquisitorial oppression, and the very blood of the Caucasian race was seriously threatened with an everlasting contamination.

 This florid version of the myth is from the Kloran, the self-described “sacred book” of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the United Klans of America, the organization in which CP found a home and a purpose, and where he rose to become the Exalted Cyclops.

It’s unlikely that CP would have been drawn to the racial mythologies of the Klan if “respectable” society hadn’t mirrored many of these same beliefs. Here’s another version of the myth, this time cleaned-up for mass consumption, its racism oblique, and tailored to its Cold War audience:

 The Congress of the United States yields to blackmail, and passes socialistic legislation-calling it “progress.” It appropriates billions, as directed by the President, on the pretense of helping the poor. The Supreme Court shackles the police, compounds confusion in the legislatures of the states, and turns loose murderers and rapists to repeat their evil deeds upon the innocent and law-abiding members of society. How much of this is the result of communist planning? Who can say? . . . .The communists want law and order destroyed in America. . . . They want riots in the streets, and demonstrations on the campus. They want confusion in our courts, and frustration among our states. . . . The name of the game is now survival—and we will either win it or lose it.

 These are the words of Jesse Helms, who, before becoming a United States Senator, delivered commentaries five nights a week after the news, on a Raleigh, North Carolina, television station, which were then rebroadcast on radio stations and reprinted in newspapers throughout the South. Between 1960 and 1971, Helms read thousands of these monologues, usually dedicated to conspiracy theories and apocalyptic warnings about the Red threat, which he saw everywhere, from the mildest liberal proposals to the civil rights movement as a whole. When speaking on issues of race (which he frequently did), Helms was careful to use code words and phrases that weren’t necessarily racist, but which his intended audience of Southern white conservatives clearly understood as racial. When, for example, he posed the rhetorical question, “Is survival possible when civilization reverts to the law of the jungle?” his devoted listeners recognized the reference to Africa and African-Americans. When Helms railed that “we must decide whether we will be ruled by sanity or ruined by savagery,” his audience knew exactly which “savages” Helms meant. Only rarely did he allow an undisguised racist remarks to slip through, like the time Helms referred to “the purely scientific statistical evidence of natural racial distinctions in group intellect.”

The American experience is permeated by racism. Northerners or Southerners alike. How could we avoid ingesting it?

The Klan didn’t exist in a vacuum, and, in fact, it couldn’t have. To appreciate the Kloran’s appeal you have to understand the role played by Jesse Helms, George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and all the other respectable leaders who played the race card to advance their own careers, whatever the cost to our Nation.

Ann Atwater grew up poor, black and female in the mid-20th Century South, all circumstances that precluded her from buying into the myths that beguiled CP. She had her own set of beliefs, of course, including the conviction that all whites were simply and unalterably bad. Yes, some of them had a pleasant exterior. But, experience had taught her this much: scratch the surface and you’ll find the racist.

Her experience with CP taught her something new. A layer of racism may be nearly inevitably throughout white Americans. Perhaps racism is like DDT, the poison that was banned decades ago, but which, because it persists in the environment, is still found within our bodies. The American experience (not our mythology, but our history) is permeated by racism. Northerners or Southerners alike. How could we avoid ingesting it? (And, besides, unlike DDT, racism is still sold over the counter in America. Slavery was abolished. So was Jim Crow. Racism survives.) But beneath this body-burden of racism, Ann discovered in CP something more profound: a recognition of our shared humanity.

The fact that not everyone is willing to dig deep enough to find that core is hardly evidence that it doesn’t exist. It’s difficult and painful work and most whites don’t want to expose the layer of racism, even to themselves, and certainly not to others. Some, no doubt unconsciously fear that Ann was right in her earlier belief, that there’s nothing below the racism – except more racism. And if that’s true, isn’t it better to leave those poisonous thoughts alone? At least they’re covered by a veneer of civility.

On the other hand, if what Ann learned from CP is true for all of us, then by not digging, we condemn ourselves to lives of ignorance and alienation, not just of others, but of our selves.

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