Dylann Roof, a young white man armed with a virulent, toxic hatred and a 45 caliber pistol walked into a historic black church and was welcomed with open arms as a stranger, into a Bible study. Taking advantage of the well-known hospitality of this sanctuary, he sat for an hour with a group of 10 people, none of whom had any idea that nine of them would be dead within an hour.
The massacre in Charleston is not just an isolated hate crime carried out by a mentally ill racist in South Carolina. It is simultaneously representative and starkly indicative of the rampant racism structurally embedded in America, the responsibility for which, it might be argued, bears no exemption for any American, especially white Americans, north or south, republican or democrat. As Richard Wright wrote in his 1945 non-fiction memoir, Black Boy, America, “insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of necessity. It hugs the easy way of damning those whom it cannot understand, of excluding those who look different, and it salves its conscience with a self-draped cloak of righteousness.”
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That cloak of righteousness shields white America from having to face their contemporary prejudices and the historical biases from which they are a result. This cloak of invisibility also inhibits their moral and psychological capacity to acknowledge and understand the magnitude of those historical and contemporary prejudices and the effects they have on our society. The Charleston shooting was not an anomaly, but a manifestation of the violence cultivated in America toward black communities. The shooter, Dylann Roof, is a product of a system that has been breeding hatred and bigotry in America since the first Africans were kidnapped and forcibly transported here in the 15th century as slaves under deplorable, maliciously inhumane conditions.
Prophetic voices in African American literature and the arts have long challenged these deadly views, calling all Americans to “stand in the gap” and risk lifting the cloak of invisibility that surrounds racial violence to see what lies beneath. In an August 9, 2012 interview, Dr. Maya Angelou argued that transatlantic slaving, as an inherently violent institution, connected with colonial conquests, put an imprint of violence on American culture that needs to be addressed on a systematic and systemic level. Today her voice rises from among the dead: “It is imperative that Americans, all Americans, recognize the imprint of the first Africans brought here and the first white women brought here in bondage. I’m trying to say that the word slavery and the term enslavement has lost so much of its weight until people mouth the words without realizing what they’re saying, what they’re calling up. We have not moved on. We have made some steps toward fair play, but we have not really moved on. It is ignorant, not wise, to think that we can get on without remembering what happened, who did what to whom, to what success, and for what reasons.”
Today, this systematic analysis is needed perhaps more than at any other time in our history. As Rev. Clyde Grubbs of Tuckerman Creative Ministries for Justice and Healing noted on Facebook: “The son tells everyone he knew that Black people were taking over the country, and he wore racist decals on his clothing. He told everyone he knew that something must be done to save the white race. He was public in his attitudes, attitudes that were dangerous. He was able to live at home and access the propaganda of racist hate groups (organized terrorists.) His father gifted the gun to his son. The state doesn't require registration of gun, nor notice of selling gun, or gifting gun. Son kills people with gun in an act of racist terrorism. But somehow the killer is a disturbed INDIVIDUAL. So? Are Racism and Psychopathology completely unrelated phenomena? Are Racism and Patriarchy and Privatism and Violence and Destruction of God's Creation really all separate, discrete, separate realities that need to be taken up in isolation from each other?”
Racism kills. In fact, the prevalence of racial epithets in Google searches has been linked to rates of black mortality by Daniel Chae, University of Maryland professor of epidemiology and biostatistics whose research has shown that “African-Americans living in areas where many people are Google-searching for a racial epithet are 8.2 percent more likely than whites to die of any cause.” Racism, says Chae, is an environmental hazard. Quoted in the Huffington Post, "I view racism as being a social toxin that over time leads to premature mortality," he said. “Racism kills people," Chae said. "That’s not breaking news at all." Meanwhile, in South Carolina the Confederate battle flag flies high as highways throughout the state tout the names of Confederate soldiers that fought to the death to preserve racist institutions while some excuse Dylan Roof’s actions as being the result of an alleged mental illness or try to fit it into some other neatly packaged narrative that defers from having to face the real issue at hand; racism.