Since the July 17th shootings at Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, we have seen a similar pattern of events unfold both in society and the media. Naturally, residents in Charleston are outraged at the tragedy that has befallen their city. Once again, the interracial nature of the crime has become a topic of intense debate, with Charleston residents of color and others around the nation pointing out the continued oppression faced by minorities in American society. Then, there are others who insist that the case has been handled with an equal level of integrity as if the victims had been White. There are those, it appears, who look on our citizens of color, who express doubt and insecurity toward our justice system, with a measure of dubiousness. It is my hope in this article to provide a short exercise in empathy for those who may still be skeptical that our minority population has any reason to complain.
In any interaction--whether between individuals or groups--it is important to give attention to both content and process. Content is the actual information that is being exchanged, and process being the way it is communicated. My perception of the current racial dynamic in America is that the majority give equal homage to our citizens of color in their content, but that it is severely lacking in the area of process.
My first example is the much debated Confederate Flag that has been waving to South Carolina citizens from its perch over the South Carolina capital building. (The state government is currently discussing if the calls to remove the flag from the capital in wake of the AME shootings are valid.) If I were a modern day Jew, I would have a hard time having faith in a system that still flew the Swastika over its capital--even if it released statements saying it had my best interests in mind. Why should we expect any different from our citizens of color who are being asked to show faith in a system that still flies a symbol of their oppression over its capital building? Even if the Battle Flag is interpreted as a statement of "southern pride" instead of racial hatred, I do not think that anyone could make an argument that the flag is a symbol of racial equality. Note that this flag has carried an oppressive undertone to the Black community ever since its inception, yet we are just now hearing about it after a crime involving a White offender. So despite the kind words from the justice system, the flag's continued enthronement at the South Carolina state capital is a symbol of inequality. More specifically, it's a symbol that the justice system has not been listening to the Black community. If they had listened, the flag would be gone by now. There is a term for a system that doesn't listen to their citizens: tyranny.
Let's take a second example that takes the form of the current argument about how we should label the crime committed by Dylan Roof. A curious theme that has run through this particular story line is the theme of mental illness. Some are pointing out that White offenders are consistently termed "mentally ill" while other offenders are termed "terrorists". An excellent comparison is the recent shootings in Garland Texas, where two gunmen attempted a similar crime at an art convention that asked for submissions of the Prophet Muhammed's likeness--a grave offense to the Islamic community. Both gunmen were quickly painted as terrorists, even though no material or financial connection was found between them and any terrorist group. Much like Dylan Roof, they acted alone on ideological grounds. I have yet to find any speculation on the mental state of either of the Garland gunmen. This double standard sheds light on another peculiar happenstance having to do with process. Note that the content of each crime is almost identical, yet the justice system and the media process one as an act of terrorism while they react to the other with sad musings about mental health issues in America. Why?
Could the answer lie in perspective; as in WHO is being terrorized by these crimes? In Garland, the primary targets were White "artists" intent on exercising their right to free speech against Islamic extremists. These "artists" presumably would not have held this convention if they did not perceive Islamic extremists as a threat already. That is, this convention was held because of fear; because the majority believes that Islamic extremism poses a threat to their way of life. Therefore they must exercise their own show of power through "art". So, when the majority's identity is threatened, they are terrified, and the "terrifiers" are labeled as such. Yet, what happens when the same crime is committed on ideological grounds that are NOT a threat to the White majority's identity? This is what happened in Charleston.
The system has trouble seeing the Charleston shootings as an act of terrorism because White Supremacy does not pose a threat to a system run by a White majority. But let's ask the question, are there people who feel coerced, intimidated to stay silent, and terrorized by these actions? I think the answer is quite clear. Our Black community does not feel safe, and the risks they take to advocate for their racial equality are considerably more risky than those taken by the American Freedom Defense Initiative to advocate for their right to offend religions other than their own. My response to this debate: if the American government does not interpret a crime that terrorizes its Black citizens as an act of terrorism against the United States, then it seems that they are communicating (via process) that the United States and Black Americans are mutually exclusive in their eyes. So if we think that our government views it Black citizens equally, I think we are wrong. We're not even 3/5ths of the way there yet.
As we move forward as a nation, I wish that one practice will become more prevalent. I wish for us to begin to listen to the Black community and other citizens of color. If we had been listening to them, we would have realized that the Confederate Flag was offensive a long time ago. If we had been listening to them, we would be moving to protect our Black community from further attack via legislation; realizing that they are still targets. We wouldn't need to be reminded that "Black Lives Matter" if we had realized that Black opinions mattered from the outset. Blogs, news outlets, and documentaries are all asking, "What is the racial situation in America?" I'm saying, if you want to know ask the people who live it. They have known for a long time. Our continued indifference to their opinion and feelings about the matter is evidence enough that we have not reached racial equality in America.
Finally, if you have trouble viewing Dylan Roof as a terrorist, please ask yourself why? If you see nothing wrong with calling every Middle Eastern gunman a terrorist, while every White gunman is "ill", take a moment to reconsider how you see our citizens of color. Do you react differently to people of color? If so, why? This is more likely to result in more questions for you than answers, since most White people do not go about their day consciously thinking about oppressing minorities. But if we think that is enough, we are wrong. Minorities are still oppressed.