I was not productive today. I was distracted and kept wandering through the internet to check the news about Charleston. Since the shooting last week my mind’s been preoccupied with the US. Now I haven’t been stateside for any substantial amount of time in over six months, but it was obvious when I left – and even more so now – that we have a massive race issue in our country. I don’t know what I can do, so I am going to write until I find a more productive way to channel my frustrations.
Last Wednesday a terrorist went into a church in Charleston and murdered nine people in a crime of hatred. For some reason, addressing last weeks events in this manner is controversial, so lets break this down. Terrorism is the violence or threat of violence where one part is a non-state actor against a specific target audience with politically motivated objective, premeditation and altruism. Dylann Roof is a non-state actor, who chose the specific target audience of African American congregation of Emanuel AME Church, because of the history of the church and their race. Roof’s actions were politically motivated, attempting to incite race war in the country, premeditated, and had the altruistic nature of representing white supremacy.
This is a textbook case of terrorism. Contrary to what the media portrays, the color of Roof’s skin does not change the definition of crime. In the past few days conservative and liberal media alike have referred to the shooting as a “tragedy,” “tragic event,” or “senseless.” This is the language used to refer to a natural disaster, an unpreventable event – not an act of domestic terrorism. Fox news went so far as to call this an attack on Christianity, not race, when in fact the shooter was Christian.
I have been impressed with many citizens responses to the shooting, especially the community of Charleston. Overall, however, these events have shaken me for a number of reasons:
1. I am not religious, but I understand its importance to many people. Places of worship, regardless of your God are supposed to be a safe. Two weeks ago I was standing in a church in eastern Rwandan, surrounded by the remains of thousands of Tutsis who had been murdered for inalienable aspects of their identities. They had gone to a place, dear to them to seek refuge and they were murdered. To see people in my own country, one that promotes religious and racial freedoms, killed in their place of worship is incredibly disturbing. To know these people went to praise their God and had the sanctity of their church violated with a hate is sickening. Murder is always upsetting, but there is something particularly unnerving when is occurs in places that we to consider safe.
2. This violence is a reminder of the race issues in our country. I am going to say it. We are living in a period with systemic and undeniable racism. America’s issues of Black and White did not die in the 1960s with Jim Crow. Now I believe that race itself is a social construct, with no impact on our genetics, intelligence, or capabilities. That does not disqualify the centuries of discrimination that have been built around a societal perception of race. Race may not be real, but racism is. Blacks and hispanics are stopped by the police at a much higher rate than whites. Since the war on drugs began, the number of prisoners in the US has skyrocketed and this has disproportionately affected black men. A white person is more likely to get a job than a black person with the exact same qualifications. There is also an enormous wealth and education disparity between blacks and whites. We are not equal.
3. As a white upper-middle class woman I live with a huge amount of privilege. Yes, as a woman I am likely to be a target of abuse and discrimination, but my other identity factors have placed me in an extremely lucky group. As a matter of birth I am afforded a greater number of privileges and benefits in society due to my skin color. My whiteness lets me walk by police in any neighborhood, at any time of day, in any sort of clothing without being concerned how they will treat me. My whiteness gives me disproportionate amounts of power and authority in society. My whiteness and my wealth make me more likely to get a job. There are an innumerable number of things that I do not have to consider because of my whiteness.
4. Gun control. Now this one is also controversial but pretty basic. During his presidency Obama has had to give seven speeches about shootings. The number of Americans who die from gun violence is steadily climbing. There is no reason for a citizen to own an assault rifle. The only reason you need a gun is to go hunting or skeet shooting. The second amendment was written at a time when the US had no military and citizens needed guns to defend from the British. We now have the most expensive military in the world. Someone like Dylann Roof should not have been able to get a gun. In Australia, there was one school shooting in 1996, then they enacted strict gun laws and there hasn’t been a problem since. As John Oliver aptly pointed out “One failed attempt at a shoe bomb and we all take off our shoes at the airport. Thirty-one school shootings since Columbine and no change in our regulation of guns”
5. Citizens of the US feel uncomfortable in their own country. My non-white friends do not feel safe here, in their own country. I know of boys who couldn’t go to their prom after parties, since their parents were worried they’d get shot by the police. Ive heard stories of peers at college who are regularly uncomfortable at our university. They are either ostracized or called out to be the token minority kid. Or non-white men who have to worry about how they make women uncomfortable when they walk down the street. There is a video of ten year old black boy promising that he won’t hurt anyone, what kind of system is that? My whiteness does not make me anymore or less American than anyone. I sincerely believe that this country was founded on principles of inclusion and freedom. If our citizens do not feel free and do not feel included then we are doing something wrong.
6. There are still constant reminders of racial oppression in our society that could easily be removed. I go to school in the South and this year there was a conflict between the administration and the student body. There was a campus building which was named after a Grand Master in the KKK, amongst other shrines to the Black oppression. After months of protest by a core group of students, the building was ambiguously named Carolina Hall (instead of Hurston Hall, after Zora Neale Hurston). The administration also put a 16 year ban on re-naming buildings. I suspect that this so called compromise will not sit well with my fellow students. The story of my university is not unique. In Columbia SC, the confederate flag still flies proudly next to the state house. These are constant reminders why blacks should and cannot feel safe in their country. It is 2015, the Southern relatives of Robert E. Lee are advocating for that flag to be removed. Its time for change.
I am angry, hurt, guilty, and broken. The act of terrorism against Emanuel AME Church feels like the culmination of race issues that have been building in America. This feels like one of those (potentially dramatized) moments where we have a choice. I read the news and I am not satisfied with the way my country looks. I cannot tolerate the treatment of minorities in my community and across the country. I refuse to be complacent as I see people targeted for who they are, but then it becomes a question of what to do?
I have done the basics. I wrote a letter to my congressman. I donated to the fund for funeral services. I signed the petition to have the flag removed. But now what? I want to be the best advocate possible without assuming an undeserved space in this conversation. I can say confidently (and ashamed that it took this long) that this fall I will join the Real Silent Sam Coalition on Campus. I ready and welcome any recommendations about how to better get involved with issues of race in my community and in this country.
I want a community where blacks feel safe. If racial equality means sacrificing the privileges of my whiteness, then I am happy to do so. The events in Charleston last week were horrible and shocking, but I am going to try to use this as my motivation for change. To be a better ally, to be more proactive. Terrorism at its core tries to create fear in the population and also incite radical support. Well then, in that regard Dylann Roof, you have succeed. You have incited my radical and undying support for the equality and safety of the black community.