Watching the horror unfold in Charleston on Wednesday from a distance of 6,000 miles (or 10,000 km, if you prefer), I felt compelled to write. In reality, I felt compelled to scream, pull out my hair, gnash my teeth, rend my clothes and cover myself in ashes. Enough. This insanity must stop.
I am also at a loss for words. In my 62 years, this insanity has seemed to become a recurring theme but the truth is that it has always been present. We only need to look at the long history of lynchings, both “legal” and extrajudicial in this country. We need only look back at the long history not only of anti-Black racism that brought us slavery, Jim Crow and this, we must also look at the wholesale slaughter of our indigenous populations, the lynchings – again both “legal” and extrajudicial – of Spanish-speaking residents of this country along the Rio Grand Valley by local whites including the Texas Rangers of old, the internment of Japanese and Japanese-American citizens of this country during World War II. The list goes on and on, ad nauseam. It also includes our constant, seemingly perpetual state of war and the long list of countries that we have invaded, often because we just didn’t like their governments. (Of course, we are always presented a bill of goods, a pretext, to justify those atrocities.) Our history is steeped in cutting down in any and every way possible those who don’t quite fit the ideal profile of what some would call “typical Americans” or those opposed to our so-called values.
And today, the clown car Republican presidential candidates and their ilk jump in justifying, denying, diverting, obfuscating in a nauseating display of irrational denial. Perry: prescription medication caused an accident; Huckabee: because they weren’t armed; Jeb Bush, who doesn’t know that it was racism; others who call it a mistake, an accident... And then there is Charles Cotton, a member of the NRA board of directors, who blamed one of the victims, the late Rev. Pinckney, because, as a state legislator, he voted against expanded "gun rights". Not a single one of those deigned to admit that blatant racism was the cause, in spite of the shooter's very explicit statement, “You’ve raped our women...”
One would hope that we had made progress in the last fifty years, since the height of the Civil Rights movement. Sometimes we even pat ourselves on the back for having done so. After all, didn’t we elect Barack Obama? Doesn’t that make us “post racial”? No, not at all. Progress? In 1963, Klansmen used dynamite to blow up a church in Birmingham and murder four young girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair, ages 14, 14, 14, and 11, respectively. Two days ago, a young man walked into a church in Charleston and proceeded to slaughter the nine people named in the photo above using a .45 pistol he had been given by his father as a birthday present. That’s progress? The only “progress” we’ve really seemingly made is that access to guns today is easier than it was fifty years ago. That’s why the Klan used dynamite back in 1963 and Dylann Roof used a gun this week. That access does not make it easier for us to “defend ourselves”. It only makes it easier for racist psychopaths to kill. And Roof? He’ll be described as mentally ill rather than as a terrorist, but if his name were Muhammad or Achmed? We all know the answer to that question. Trayvon Martin, 17, was called a grown man and a thug without ever having been arrested, and, yet we’ve already seen the pundits calling Roof, 21, just a young boy, in spite of his having been arrested twice on various charges earlier this year. That’s not progress either.
I want to believe in our country, in the promise that I was taught the United States represents as a young boy in Ardmore, Oklahoma, but I was taught that in segregated schools in a state where it was still illegal for Blacks and Whites to get married. Hell, we couldn’t even sit together at the movie theater or drink out of the same water fountain when we were children. I remember seeing the Freedom Riders' buses burning on the evening news in 1961 and reading reports of the 1964 killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi in the local newspaper. Those assaults and killings never stopped. The promise was never realized at home.
And what will our response as a nation be to this latest unspeakable but sickeningly familiar act of brutality? While those on the extreme right will refuse to even acknowledge that this attack, this act of terrorism, was thoroughly and undeniably racist, the rest of the country will wring its hands for a few days, expressing our indignant “outrage” and then will proceed to do nothing. Most will go back to their relatively comfortable lives after congratulating themselves on having expressed that outrage. Afterwards, life will go on. More Blacks, Latinos and others will continue dying at the hands of racists, gays will still be beaten and refused service, Muslims will forever be profiled, and psychopaths of all stripes will purchase arms impediment free. Ignorance runs rampant and unchallenged in our society. Our will to do the work to make necessary changes remains nil.
I cannot pretend to know what the Black experience is, as I am not only a white male, I am a white Southern male of a certain age. That being said, however, I do know our country’s history and have lived with my eyes open (Here's a special shout-out to, among others, my former students at Millwood Public Schools, a predominantly African-American school district in Oklahoma City, who taught me far more than I can ever begin to acknowledge.). However, just being who I am gives me a pass from growing up knowing that society will never accept me. No one follows me around the store as I go shopping, people don’t lock their car doors or cross the street when they see me approaching. Most of my interactions with local police have been amicable and respectful. Even as a Muslim, my white skin and English name allow me to pass through airport security and society in general unperceived. I am lucky. The victims of past, present and, unfortunately, future acts of extreme racism in our country were not, have not been, nor will be afforded that privilege.
I have no answers. I don’t know what I can do other than to raise my children to be aware of the world in which they live and to value the lives of all people and the concepts of liberty and justice for all, where “all” literally means just that: all. May the Lord have mercy on us all. I’m not so sure that many of us, as Americans, actually deserve it.