By Jenée Desmond-Harris (Vox)
Dylann Roof has been charged with murder for killing nine black people at a Charleston, South Carolina, church on June 17 in an attack that’s being investigated as a hate crime. He’s 21 years old. His birth year — 1994 — means he’s not just a millennial, but one of the younger ones.
The accused killer’s youth is a reminder that the cultural myth of racism eventually dying out along with an aging, backward-thinking generation is nonsense.
Obviously, as time passes, many of the elderly people who were alive and just fine with it when legalized segregation was enforced, who took full advantage of the days when saying the n-word was normal, and who could publish a racist rant in the local paper without any consequences are leaving the Earth and taking their brand of stubborn, proud bigotry with them.
But to look for comfort in the idea that their departure will make America a place where black people can enjoy equality and peace is a piece of American fiction that’s as dangerous and lazy as it is seductive.
Roof, according to his roommate, is “big into segregation and other stuff” and worries that “black people are taking over the world”; is a fan of the former racist regimes of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia; and, according to police, uttered a “racially inflammatory remark” at the scene of the church massacre. A manifesto attributed to him details his hatred of African Americans. Roof developed these twisted views not in pre-civil rights movement America, but in the past two decades. He — along with many more who perpetuate racism in lower-profile, legal ways — is proof that it’s not just the elderly who continue to have and act on racist views.
The myth: We just have to wait for racists to die out
The idea that younger is better when it comes to racism, and so we must simply await a generational shift that will bring about the end of the worst of American racism, is a cultural mythology that’s rarely questioned.
This thinking crosses the political spectrum and is shared by people who probably wouldn’t even define “racism” in the same way.
In a 2014 interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer cited Donald Sterling, Cliven Bundy, and Paula Deen — all people over the age of 60 publicly criticized for making racist statements — to conclude that racism was tightly linked to the views of older Americans and would leave the country as they reached the end of their lives.
“In my son’s generation — he’s in his 20s — this is so different that I think you can see this is a problem that is literally dying with a generation that grew up in a different day,” Krauthammer said.
That idea, that racism is “literally dying,” is a common one.
In an interview with the BBC to promoting her 2013 film The Butler, Oprah Winfrey echoed it. “There are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism,” she said. Her simple remedy: “They just have to die.”
This sentiment is appealing. It’s the same reason we find stories like the one comedian Tom Papa told Conan O’Brien in 2013 so delightful: He proudly proclaimed that his kids didn’t “see race,” and said they were so thoroughly confused by the idea that black people were once excluded from playing sports with white people that his daughter asked, “No, wait, isn’t it the black people who let the white people play?”
Once little ones who are so innocent that they don’t even know in which direction racism works replace their racist grandparents, the country will be all set, right?