America is in denial — “post-racial” denial.
You could hear it in the words of lament that followed news of the shooting massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Commenter after commenter, be they elected officials, presidential hopefuls, talking heads or members of the public posting on social media, used a peculiar term: “incomprehensible.”
Rubbish. Never has this country witnessed a more comprehensible mass murder than the one committed by Dylann Roof on Wednesday. Indeed, he appears to have spared at least one survivor specifically so his intentions could be conveyed.
He shot and shot and shot, apparently reloading his ammunition multiple times. Begged to stop, he said this: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
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Listen to his words. They have a lineage, a history. They’re the words of the lynch mob, the Klansman, the defender of Jim Crow and segregation, the segment of the American population that could accept neither the proposition that slavery was evil or the resolution of the American Civil War.
Here’s the horror of it: That history lives. How often do we hear and read those sentiments, cloaked in euphemism, in conversations about crime, school reform and voting rights. The low-income, undereducated African-American is held up as the cause of own misery. His vote may be suppressed, his cries for justice can be ignored and his life deemed less valuable. It remains a salient theme of American politics today.
A son of South Carolina, Lee Atwater, a key strategist for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, explained the connection between the old racism and the new with shocking candor — anonymously — in 1981:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N-----, n-----, n-----.’ By 1968 you can't say ‘n-----’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Roof didn’t deal in polite code. He spoke bluntly to every black person in America: You and your kind do not belong here. You are not safe. You can be hunted down and slaughtered, even in the most sacred of places, the church. In a way, he also taunted America: “Go ahead, ignore the message that I just sent.”
And ignore it many did, gutlessly.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki R. Haley statement was all too typical of Republican leaders: “We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”
Let me explain it to you, governor. It’s white supremacy, a concept whose symbol, the Confederate flag, was flying at full staff at the state capitol of South Carolina as the blood in a church that once sheltered runaway slaves was still damp.
A lot of people in America want to bow their heads, say a quick prayer and move on. Let’s not mention hate. Avoid acknowledging how black people are so often labeled a problem for America, rather than being equal citizens of America.
President Obama was castigated even for pointing out a related, and equally obvious, political dimension of the massacre: Yet another mass killing was perpetrated by a troubled soul with too easy access to a gun. Cable news talker Lou Dobbs ranted that Obama was being too divisive, politicizing a tragedy.
What’s so hard about recognizing that the “tragedy” was fundamentally political violence to begin with?
The police chief in Charleston had no qualms. Barely two hours after the shooting, he labeled the murders a hate crime. The mayor of Charleston stood by the chief’s side and agreed. Both men are white.
If you can’t admit — after a 21-year-old white man walked into a church, sat amongst his prey for nearly an hour and then ruthlessly gunned the black people down to satisfy a demented sense that the white race is threatened — that this is fundamentally about racism, of what use are you as a public figure?
This isn’t about the feelings of one segment of the public or another. It’s about dealing honestly with America greatest weakness: its unresolved, unhealed history of racism. It persists, and it’s past time we dealt with it.