So this is both about the Charleston shooting, and also not about the Charleston shooting.
Four days ago, a twenty-one year old man walked into an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine people dead. Each person that was shot was shot multiple times, and each person that was shot died.
The gunman said to one of the survivors that he was keeping her alive as a witness. He said:
“I have to do it… You rape our women and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.”
The shooter’s roommate states that he was “really into segregation.”
And we have a discussion right now that hasn’t even agreed on whether or not it was about race.
We also have a discussion about whether or not this was an isolated incident.
It is not.
A Department of Justice study shows that there may be more than a quarter of a million hate crimes in the United States annually. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports the existence of sixteen hate groups active in South Carolina alone.
This is not an isolated incident. This is a part of a trend that has been ongoing since the beginning of the United States itself. The Charleston shooter was raised in a culture that tolerates racism, and that in some cases glorifies it. The Charleston shooter saw himself and other white people as victims of some kind of terrible wrong, just because black people are allowed to share spaces with them.
We look at this, and we talk about how sad it is, and wonder how anyone could do such a thing.
I wake up every day, open my eyes, and get out of bed to find myself in a nation in which the faces of slave owners and indian killers grace our money. I wake up every day in a nation in which the generals of an army that fought for the right to own people have streets named after them. I wake up every day in a nation in which some government buildings still fly the flag of a short-lived nation that was founded on the belief that black people are inherently inferior to white people, and that their just place is in service to their betters.
You don’t have to take my word on that last part; the vice president of that nation spelled it out in a speech known as the Cornerstone Address, given on March 21st, 1861:
It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with; but the general opinion of the men of that day was, that, somehow or other, in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away… Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the idea of a Government built upon it—when the “storm came and the wind blew, it fell.”
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.
I wake up in this nation every day, and I am astounded. I know, after thirty six (almost thirty seven) years of this, I should be used to it, and it should feel normal.
But it doesn’t feel normal.
And then I think, well, if this feels uncomfortable for me, a middle class white girl, imagine what it must feel like to be black and to drive down streets named after people who fought and died to maintain your status as property; to stand in the shadow of that hateful flag, and to respond to officers of the government that still flies it.
Think about that.
Germany does not continue to fly the swastika flag as a tribute to its history and heritage. Germany does not glorify nazi heroes because they were good leaders. (We do in America; the Southern Poverty Law Center counts seven national Neo-Nazi hate groups in the US, along with dozens of smaller groups.)
The citizens of South Africa are still tearing down the relics of their oppression under Apartheid.
So why not us?
Perhaps there’s something about the rugged individualism intrinsic to the American self-identity that causes us to treat racist ideas as though they are valid.
Perhaps we’re just not comfortable talking about race and power in society. That’s reasonable; it’s an extremely uncomfortable topic.
But we have to talk about it.
Look, just imagine you’re in a race. You run really hard, and you finish first. You’re ecstatic.
The guy you were running against had a weight strapped to him. You didn’t see the weight, nobody told you about it, and nobody told the folks watching in the stands about it. But someone finds out, and you’re asked to give up your trophy and run again.
Do you complain about how you didn’t put the weight on the other runner, wasn’t there when it happened, and had no idea it was there, even though you would likely not have run the same race under those circumstances had you known?
Do you blame the other runner? Do you accuse people of doubting your own ability as a runner and point out that you ran every single meter of that track on your own?
Not everyone has an equal shot in this, and we don’t see it because it doesn’t negatively impact us. The numbers don’t lie.
And we need to start talking about it without being hurt or defensive. That thing, where discussions of racism are taboo and you have hurt feelings because someone wants to talk about racism has to stop. Because without productive conversations about this it’s never going to stop, and I’m going to have to assume that you’re okay with getting further because the other guy has a weight tied to him.
If people of color are tough enough to deal with institutionalized racism for centuries, you’re tough enough to stop and actually listen to them talk about their experiences.
I’m so tired of waking up in this place.