Toni Morrison wrote against forgetting, against the institutionalization of denial necessary for maintaining racial hierarchies in the United States. But that denial is not sufficient, she also showed. Racism always falls back on brutality when confronted with change, no matter that the past will not return except to haunt us. This reality has driven a significant percentage of Americans (back) into the arms of white supremacist ideology, espoused equally by politicians and armed “loners” in networks on Facebook or YouTube or 8chan.
In a short essay for The New Yorker after the 2016 election, Morrison displayed little surprise at the turn of events. The language of white supremacy, she wrote, is a language of cowardice disguised as dominance. “These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.” A fear so great, it has brought back public lynching, with high-capacity semiautomatic weapons.
What did Morrison think of the idea that racist mass shootings are the acts of random mentally ill people? She did not offer a medical opinion, nor presume to diagnose particular individuals. She did say that racism is seriously disordered thinking, and she suggested that if racist killers are “crazy,” so are the millions who tacitly approve and support racist violence, or who spur it on by repeating rhetoric that dehumanizes people.
In the clip above from a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose, Morrison says “those who practice racism are bereft. There is something distorted about the psyche…. It’s like it’s a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is. It feels crazy, it is crazy.” Some may reasonably take issue with this as stigmatizing, but it seems she is neither scapegoating the mentally ill, nor absolving racists of responsibility.
Morrison points out that despite (and because of) its lofty delusions, white supremacy makes things worse for everyone, white people very much included. It succeeds because the belief in “whiteness” as a category of specialness covers up deep-seated insecurity and doubt. “What are you without racism?” she asks. “Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself?”
In her masterful way, Morrison showed us how to have empathy for people in the grip of hatred and fear without diluting the consequences of their actions. She pitied racists but never gave an inch to racism. Tragically, her 2016 essay, “Mourning for Whiteness,” is making the rounds for reasons other than in tribute to its author, one of the country's greatest writers and one of its most unflinchingly candid.
In the days before her death yesterday at age 88, Americans were once again, “training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs to bullets." Morrison dares us to look away from this:
In order to limit the possibility of this untenable change, and restore whiteness to its former status as a marker of national identity, a number of white Americans are sacrificing themselves. They have begun to do things they clearly don’t really want to be doing, and, to do so, they are (1) abandoning their sense of human dignity and (2) risking the appearance of cowardice. Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray.
Ending with a reference to William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, she summed up the state of the nation in one deft sentence: “Rather than lose its ‘whiteness’ (once again), the family chooses murder.”