Does a country that was founded on the colonization and exploitation of native peoples, built on the labor of slaves, and maintained through the establishment of underpaid immigrant classes have a problem with race?
Is the Pope Catholic?
While some might see Pope Francis as changing the image of traditional Catholicism, especially with the environmental thrust of his Laudato Si’, the answer to the first question remains obvious.
We certainly have a race problem.
Anyone who can’t see that is so deeply a part of the problem that they are blinded by their position inside it.
On Wednesday night, a white man slaughtered nine black people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
Nine people were killed because of the color of their skin.
Rev. Sharonda A. Coleman-Singleton. Rev. and State Senator Clementa Pinckney. Cynthia Hurd. Tywanza Sanders. Myra Thompson. Ethel Lee Lance. Rev. Daniel L. Simmons. Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor. Susie Jackson.
These men and women welcomed this young man into their sacred space. They sat with him for an hour, studying the Bible together. Then he opened fire on them.
Fellow white people, let’s not even start to try to pretend this isn’t about race. Please. Let’s not ignore that our culture is profoundly broken.
And for the love of all that’s holy, let’s not say . . .
We’ll never know what motivated this senseless violence.
We do know. We really, really do.
It doesn’t get much clearer than the killer telling his victims that they “have to go” because they “rape our women” and are “taking over our country.” The motives of a person who wears a patch with an Apartheid-era South African flag and who is “big into segregation” are not subject to mystified bewilderment. Let’s not act as if they are.
The killer was just mentally ill/this shooting was an outlier.
Even before the killer was officially identified, we saw the media racing to speculate that this young man was troubled, a loner, unstable.
All of which is possible. But it’s not the point.
For one thing, you don’t see the media rush to humanize black suspects—or black victims. (Remember Trayvon Martin being “no angel”?)
Even more importantly, talking about this piece of terrorism as if it stands alone, as if it is the only incident of its kind, erases the ways of thought and the history from which it emerges. It denies the existence of the systemic racism that makes this killer’s actions not insane, but horribly logical.
As Rev. Osagyefo writes, “The shooter is not a ‘loner’, but part of a system of white supremacy. To reduce this act to that of a troubled individual is to commit another act of violence. Behind the cloak of individualism is the unexamined legacy of racist state-sanctioned violence.”
The problem is only one individual’s sin.
This is a Christian version of “he’s just mentally ill.” It frames this massacre as an isolated instance of a single person’s sin, disconnecting it from the contexts in which it occurred and the discourses that fostered this killer’s thinking and behavior. (Likewise, we shouldn’t simply “pray for peace” as if the problem is only the nonspecific existence of violence in the world.)
We are seeing not just one individual’s sin, but a collective sin, the collective sin of racism. We are seeing a system of oppression and injustice with a centuries-old life behind it. This monstrous system might have learned to shape-shift and to camouflage itself from those it is not actively consuming, but its heart still beats strong and its claws are still as terrifyingly sharp as ever.
And, fellow white people, we need examine our own roles—witting or unwitting—in creating that system, in incubating it and feeding it. We need to examine the ways in which we are that system.
This needs to stop. We need to stop. I need to stop.
We need to open our eyes and then our lips. See. Speak. Act.
Laura Cheifetz offers a list of concrete actions to take against racism.
Darnell L. Moore places the AME shooting in the context of the long history of white terrorist attacks on black churches.
Dr. Robin Diangelo explains why we white people shouldn’t hide behind “white fragility” in race conversations.
Rev. Jennifer Bailey mourns in anger, remembering that “my God is one who stands on the side of those who are marginalized and oppressed.”