I’ve been trying to figure out why the events in Charleston this week have affected me as they have. Yes, it’s a tragedy. Nine good people are gone from this world. But let’s face it: this happens every day. Every day, our news cycle is filled with death. I become immune to it just like everyone else. There might be a moment of outrage, a shake of the head, maybe a tsk tsk at whoever is to blame. But we get over it. We move on. Lest we become mired in cynicism and hopelessness, we distract ourselves with cat videos or cooking shows or the new Cajun-Vietnamese restaurant that we just can’t wait to try. These strategies work. They make us feel better, but they never dispel the hopelessness. They just set it off to the side.
This is white privilege. We can set things off to the side. We can choose to be outraged for a moment and then not be. Our lives are not on the line. We can set an entire people off to the side, a whole community, which is exactly what we do.
The Emancipation Proclamation was signed on January 1, 1863. It effectively ended slavery in the United States. And yet, slavery continued in the state of Texas until June 19, 1865, which is now celebrated all over the United States as Juneteenth, or Freedom Day, the day that slavery really ended. There is some contention over why it took two-and-a-half years for the Proclamation to have its effect. Some say the messenger was killed on his way by horseback to Texas. It was a dangerous time. Some say that white slave owners simply didn’t tell their enslaved captives the news, which is probably true. Why would they? Some say that Northern generals held back the news so that Texas could provide a couple of more cotton harvests with free labor. All or none of these may be true; the Internet is not entirely trustworthy. But one thing we know: 250,000 black people enslaved by white people had to wait for two-and-a-half years to be free. Whatever the reason, the end result is the same: white people prospered while black people suffered.
Black life in America is a life of waiting. Two-and-a-half years to be free – that on top of centuries of kidnapping and murder, being bought and sold like a mule. I listen to songs from the civil rights movement and I cannot believe how current they are. “We Shall Not Be Moved.” “We Shall Overcome.” “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on. Hold on.” These songs should be relics of a fight well fought and ultimately won, but we can dust them off at any time without fear of anachronism. Langston Hughes called it “a dream deferred.” Reverend King said, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,”: “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’” Perhaps more hauntingly, he described “forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodiness’”
We have raised the defense of King’s nobodiness to a pernicious art form. Watch the news cycle any time racial justice is at stake. Whenever a white person has appeared to act wrongly to a black person, check your social media. Never read the comments, but sometimes read the comments. We should know who is out there and how ideas become pervasive in our culture. The Internet allows us to share information at such a rapid rate. Coupled with the 24-hour news cycle to which a terrifying number of people are constantly glued, ideas move from suggestion to fact, from “could be” to “definitely” in the blink of an eye. An idea is floated by bobbleheads then repeated until it becomes truth.
It’s called “shaping the narrative.” We withhold judgment until the facts are in. We get more and more information. We hear from witnesses. We listen to recordings of 911 calls and from cellphones that just happened to be on at the time. We want to know who the characters in the narrative are. What is their background? What was their family like? What were the immediate circumstances under which they entered our story?
All of this effort purports to be in service of the truth, but it is really in search of one truth: it’s not really the white guy’s fault. We will feign ignorance until we can find a way to know that it wasn’t his fault. We will lament that there was no video, until there is. When there is video, we will determine why video doesn’t tell the whole story. This document of reality is suddenly insufficient. We pornographically analyze it frame by frame. This is an aggressive move. This is motion in his peripheral vision. Threat, threat, threat. Fear, fear, fear.
Y’know what I never see? This kind of effort brought to bear in the service of proving a black person’s innocence. It doesn’t happen. Ever. All we hear about black people is how big they are. Their previous crimes. Their suspicious behavior. How rude they are. Why don’t they respect authority? Why don’t they comply? Why don’t they sit down and shut up like a good Negro should? To be black in America is to be guilty until proven innocent, to endeavor to be deemed, in the words of my grandmother, “one of the good ones.” The black tax is in full effect.
It may seem obvious that this latest incident is the worst of the worst. All suggestions of racism pale in comparison to the clear racist hate crime, the white terrorism, the assassination in Charleston. Well, maybe not. Fox News immediately ascribed fault to Christian persecution, even though Dylann Storm Roof passed twenty other churches on his way to Emmanuel AME. Not one Republican presidential candidate cited race as a potential factor in this crime. Even so, it is easy to dismiss this tragedy as the act of a singular, disaffected lunatic. His actions take place in a vacuum without a broader context. They certainly do not reflect on his white culture. They did not derive from a broader social location. They take no account of the confederate flag flying over his state. He takes no comfort in a society that glorifies racism and treason from the principles of equality that bind this nation together. He takes no notice of the ways that we regularly, consistently, compulsively diminish the cessation of black lives in America. No, he was a just a lone actor, disconnected from any broader implications. Therefore, we need do nothing but shake our heads in dismay.
President Obama is criticized for politicizing these deaths. How does one politicize an action intended to spark a race war? How is that possible? In what way is a shooting intended to terrorize black people in the last place in which they felt safe, in the home church of a state legislator – in what way is that not a political act? Sit down and shut up, black people. You know what happens if you don’t. What they mean is trying to harness a political will to do something about gun violence in America.
This is the fourteenth time Obama has had to stand up during his presidency and lament the tally of a mass shooting. Nine people this time; twelve in a movie theater; twenty children and six adults in a school. You know you are at the depth of evil when you can’t tell what’s worse: twenty kindergartners killed because they were defenseless or nine black people killed because they had come too far. And, yes, the fact that I had to find some way of characterizing the reason for their deaths is a whole other level of wrong because nothing adequately explains what happened. There is nothing that could make sense of these acts.
That is the secret of the media life cycle of these stories. They are so horrible that we can’t fully make sense of them. We are fed little tidbits that call our outrage into question. Michael Brown stole cigars. Trayvon Martin was suspended for marijuana. Tamir Rice was holding a toy gun. Dajerria Becton was mouthy. Is that even a crime? Mouthy? I’m not a lawyer, but I question the mouthiness statute. Oh, well. The cop probably had a hard day. Or felt threatened. Or knew something was suspicious. Might as well shoot somebody dead and work out the details later.
The events in Charleston are different – civilian perpetrator with a racist ideology – but they are only set aside by our constant dismissal of every other event. We dismiss the vicious wrangling of a 15-year-old girl. We dismiss the shooting of a 17-year-old boy by a white man who stalked him in the dark. We dismiss the shooting of another 17-year-old boy by a cop who feigned an assault. We dismiss the shooting of a 12-year-old boy by a cop who didn’t even bother to let his car come to a stop before firing and then neglected to provide even basic first aid for several minutes after they knew he was not a threat. A child lying on the ground bleeding to death and no effort to save him. By the time Dylann Storm Roof walks into the church in Charleston, what guideposts does he have to tell him that black lives matter, that these lives are precious in the eyes of God? Honestly, if the national narrative around black lives is to be believed, I can’t think of a reason he should care.
As Christians, that is not our narrative. Every life matters, but, in particular, the lives of the disenfranchised, the outcast, the different – these lives matter most to God. In America, black lives matter most because black lives have been systematically excluded and devalued and destroyed for 500 years. The Christian narrative is one of welcome. The Christian narrative is one of hospitality. The Christian narrative is one of justice. I know it may not seem like that because of the pervasive attacks on an inclusive, compassionate, welcoming Christianity, but I promise the Good News of Christianity is hope for the hopeless, new life for those who have been beaten down.
If that promise is to be fulfilled, Christians need to act right. The pernicious effect of the narrative surrounding racial justice is twofold. Those who are inclined not to care about black lives are able do dismiss any events. They are either completely understandable or completely unfathomable. The perpetrator is either fully humanized with complex, nuanced motivations that are to be pitied, but understood, or fully distanced so that it bears no resemblance to any sort of recognizable humanity. In any case, this person does not live where we live. On the other hand, those who are inclined to care about these injustices are worn down. Racism and gun violence seem to be intractable problems in America. As Mike Yard said on the Nightly Show, “Let’s be real. If they didn’t change gun control laws after Sandy Hook, what makes you think it’s going to happen now?” I’ve seen friends online, committed liberals, state unequivocally that gun control is a dead end. They won’t waste any effort on it. And we’ve got a black president, so racism is over. For those who care about justice, there seems to be no path, no way forward, no hope.
Perhaps I am naïve – and maybe naïveté is what we need now – but I think there is a way forward. The first step is to absolutely, unequivocally refuse to accept the narrative that the small things don’t matter, that they are somehow justified or reasonable. Only by paying attention to the smaller slights do we see the larger pattern of racism and injustice.
Second, we must act politically. Reverend Pinckney was a state senator who fought tirelessly for the people of his district and the people of South Carolina. He worked to eliminate poverty, police brutality, and racial discrimination. Make no mistake, this was a political assassination. It was not only an attack on the last place that black people might feel safe in a world that seems to want them dead, but an attack on black political power, an attack on the will to change the material circumstances of black people in America. Some of those who now send their condolences promote the same system of white supremacy through the more civil avenues of voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts that suppress black political power.
Finally, we need more black friends. I know it’s a cliché. When people say or do something racist, they simply say that some of their best friends are black and suggest that whatever racist thing they just did is forgiven or accepted or even supported by their black friend. It’s all good! But I think we need more black friends. I really do. Not just Facebook friends, but real friends. Go to lunch. Talk about TV or kids or aging parents or the terrible manager you work for. It doesn’t matter. Get together and talk. Sooner or later, something will happen: a shooting, a city council meeting, a pool party. It doesn’t matter. Sooner or later, there will be a crisis with racism at its heart. Without a relationship to facilitate honest conversation, we’ll have no role to play. You can’t support someone through tragedy or celebrate in victory without the wellspring of a relationship to sustain us. Crisis is no time to start.
To be the body of Christ is to be bound together in the heart and mind of God. Though their lives on this earth have ended, their presence is still with us, sustained by the memories of their loved ones, the love they shared with their community, and God’s faithful, abiding grace. We cannot change what happened to them, but we can redeem it. We can commit ourselves to seeking a better path, to being agents of healing and transformation, to tear down the divisive structures of power that say that some lives don’t matter. Let us abide with one another as God abides in us.