Before filing this one away with all the other photographs of good cops protecting, serving,and lending a helping hand to unlikely recipients (1, 2, 3), let’s at least pause to notice what this image says about an old, tired, worn out, and disorienting mentality put ondisplay in South Carolina this weekend by confederate flag-waiving members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yes, that this photograph went viral late Saturday night says something about a strong national need to keep believing that police officers are compassionate pillars of civil society. Considering how ugly the scene was at the state capitol—much uglier, by the way, for its celebration of yeehaw ignorance than for convoluted claims to racial superiority—who will deny that one police officer Leroy Smith, in his reaching out to a dehydrated racist, is the embodiment of anything but grace and beauty?
At the same time, is there a more fitting symbol of southern racism as a self-imposed affliction than this poor old hothead faltering from too much heat? The late cultural theorist Stuart Hall, a black man from Jamaica who in his early twenties grappled with white racism in London, says that white racists aren’t racist because they hate blacks; they’re racist because they don’t know who they are without blacks. That impulse to define oneself as the extreme opposite of someone else is, in a pitiful way, a source of security and stability for folks who can’t seem to latch onto anything constructive.
Maybe that helps explain why this photograph has gone viral: because it illustrates for so many people how racists, neo-nazis, and KKK sympathizers rely for their meager sense of direction on the very same people they claim to hate.
— Philip Perdue
(photo: Rob Godfrey via AP/Associated Press). caption: In this photo provided by Rob Godfrey, police officer Leroy Smith, left, helps a man wearing National Socialist Movement attire up the stairs during a rally Saturday, July 18, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. Members of the group were protesting Saturday the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds earlier this month).