Death in Charleston: Trapped by the tragic, unheeded lessons of the nation’s racial past

June 19, 2015
A capacity crowd fills the pews during a prayer service for Wednesday's shooting victims held at the Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston

A capacity crowd fills the pews during a prayer service for Wednesday’s shooting victims held at the Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Randall Hill

America’s latest incident of racial violence, the massacre of nine people at historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, echoes some of the horrific scenes out of the civil-rights era. A young white shooter allegedly committed mass murder at a sacred space of black activism, spiritual renewal and educational commitment. The slaughter provides a stark reminder of the way in which racial violence has been used to limit the hopes and aspirations of the black freedom struggle.

Following a white North Charleston police officer’s killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed African-American, which was captured on a cellphone camera, the Charleston killings look to be the second act this year of lethal anti-black violence to emerge out of South Carolina, a state that proudly flies the Confederate flag over the State Capitol building.

A Confederate flag flies outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia

A Confederate flag flies outside the South Carolina State House in Columbia, South Carolina, January 17, 2012. REUTERS/Chris Keane

The nation’s contemporary racial climate evokes images that, shorn of social media’s ubiquitous presence, would not seem out of place 50 years ago, during Selma’s roiling voting-rights protests or, indeed, a century before that in the aftermath of the Civil War and the end of antebellum slavery.

In 1964, music legend Sam Cooke released A Change Is Gonna Come, one of the most important songs recorded during the civil-rights era. The song’s genius lay in its ability to capture in miniature racial oppression’s personal intimacy, political impact and policy reverberations.

Cooke’s passionate narrative of Jim Crow’s unforgiving assault on black bodies contained the dual recognition that racial segregation also harmed the American body politic. “It’s been a long time, a long time coming,” he lamented, “But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.”

For many, President Barack Obama’s watershed election in 2008, and re-election in 2012, ushered in audacious change on a scale that Cooke and the generation of civil- rights activists who battled Jim Crow could have scarcely dreamed of. The euphoria accompanying Obama’s inauguration included open, often self-congratulatory discussion that the United States had finally achieved a new “post-racial” age in which race mattered less than it ever had.

The congregation holds hands during a prayer service for Wednesday's shooting victim held at the Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston

The congregation holds hands at a prayer service for Wednesday’s shooting victims held at the Morris Brown AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Randall Hill

The age of Obama made the sight of a black first lady and attorney general and the presence of powerful African-American civic, business, and cultural leaders seem ordinary. In 2012, for the first time in history, the percentage of the black-voter turnout exceeded that of whites. Racial progress, as manifested through Obama’s political and personal biography, became the dominant narrative of American race relations.

But hidden beneath the pageantry of the first family’s extraordinary achievements was another country, one in which millions of African-Americans resided far away from the spotlight of mainstream narratives of success or myths of post-racialism.

The rise of mass incarceration, proliferating rates of poverty, public school segregation and high unemployment remained defiantly persistent in too many black communities. Residential segregation, scant job opportunities and failing public schools were, in our post-civil-rights era, passed down ways of life that were exacerbated, not relieved, by public-policy choices that reinforced urban and suburban ghettoes.

The roiling #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations, urban uprisings in Baltimore, Maryland, and Ferguson, Missouri, anti-black police violence in McKinney, Texas, and now a mass shooting in South Carolina echo the racial turmoil, political protests and community organizing of the civil-rights era. Then, as now, African-Americans lived under a regime of racial oppression that constrained their life chances.

On June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy characterized civil rights as a “moral issue” and told the nation, “Those who do nothing are inviting shame as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right as well as reality.”

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Martin Luther King Jr. REUTERS/Rowland Scherman/U.S. National Archives

Perhaps none acted as boldly as Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer. Malcolm, the Harlem-based black nationalist and Muslim preacher spoke truth to power in bone-rattling sermons that exposed American democracy’s contradictions even as he empowered African-Americans by re-imagining the expansiveness of black identity. Baker, a feminist and radical labor activist, organized the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a group that breathed new life into American society by bleeding for democracy alongside poor black folk in the South.

King found his clearest voice in championing the poor, speaking out against the Vietnam War and calling out the United States as an imperialist power, the world’s foremost purveyor of violence and an unapologetically racist nation.

Hamer, who remains less well known than she should, represented the organic intellectual. She was a sharecropper from Ruleville, Mississippi, who defied the politics of white supremacy at the 1964 Democratic National Convention by exposing racial violence, threats and harassment directed at people, like herself, who wanted dignity and equal citizenship. “Is this America?” she asked the nation.

More than half a century later, the answer to Hamer’s question is a resounding yes. This is America, a nation where 28 percent of black people live below the poverty line, 40 percent of black children live in poverty and 46 percent of black children attend high-poverty schools. African-Americans, while only 12 percent of the U.S. population, make up 28 percent of all arrests and now make up 38 percent of prisoners in local jails and 39 percent in federal prisons.

Police lead suspected shooter Dylann Roof into the courthouse in Shelby, North Carolina

Police lead suspected shooter Dylann Roof into the courthouse in Shelby, North Carolina, June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Jason Miczek

As sociologist Monique W. Morris’s important book Black Stats (from which I have drawn these figures) illuminates in panoramic scope, African-Americans reside on the margins of society regarding health, justice, employment, education, wealth and income. And yes, a nation in which the African-American church, the resounding symbol of freedom and progress during and after slavery, remains a primary target of racial terror in a supposedly post-racial age.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, America continues to embrace denial as a cure to the persistence — and at times growth — of national racial inequality. America’s tortured legacy of slavery, racial segregation and violence against people of color continues to shape society’s institutions, political philosophies and public policies.

The nation is, it seems, caught in a perpetual feedback loop — destined to repeat the tragic, unheeded lessons of a racial past that we refuse to acknowledge exists in our present.

18 comments

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Confederate = Traitor. I burn every confederate flag I see.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

While the authors stats concerning the Black community are accurate, the author fails to mention the number one reason; the breakdown and non-existence of the Black family. The number one reason for poverty in the Black community is single-parent families. Sen. Daniel Moynihan ( a Liberal Democrat)wrote about this in the 70’s and they nearly crucified him. As Latino and Caucasian family statistics are starting to mimic those within the Black community, we are seeing a corresponding rise in poverty and incarcerations among those groups as well. Fix the family (traditional nuclear family) and you will fix the Black community.

Posted by wilx1 | Report as abusive

Pray to God for relief, but do not act upon your own initiative.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

So we have a young, middle-class, white male who has exhibited anti-social behavior, dropped out of high school in the 9th grade, had run-ins with police, aligns himself with white supremacist hate groups…

…and Daddy buys him a gun for his birthday.

“Responsible Gun Ownership” my rear.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Well this is nothing new, all groups have those with mental illness. Islam seems to capitalize on these as well as other radical groups. Just this time he happened to be white. Others like Muhammad were just plain evil.
“During three weeks in October 2002, Muhammad and accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo, then 17, killed 10 people and wounded three, while taunting police with written messages and phoned-in threats and demands.”

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Well this is nothing new, all groups have those with mental illness. Islam seems to capitalize on these as well as other radical groups. Just this time he happened to be white. Others like Muhammad were just plain evil.
“During three weeks in October 2002, Muhammad and accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo, then 17, killed 10 people and wounded three, while taunting police with written messages and phoned-in threats and demands.”

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Well this is nothing new, all groups have those with mental illness. Islam seems to capitalize on these as well as other radical groups. Just this time he happened to be white. Others like Muhammad were just plain evil.
“During three weeks in October 2002, Muhammad and accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo, then 17, killed 10 people and wounded three, while taunting police with written messages and phoned-in threats and demands.”

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Well this is nothing new, all groups have those with mental illness. Islam seems to capitalize on these as well as other radical groups. Just this time he happened to be white. Others like Muhammad were just plain evil.
“During three weeks in October 2002, Muhammad and accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo, then 17, killed 10 people and wounded three, while taunting police with written messages and phoned-in threats and demands.”

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Meanwhile in Ukraine, Russian speaking Ukrainians lives don’t matter according to Western nations and the Baltics. Hypocrites of the west still support despotic nations like Saudi Arabia no matter their human rights records.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Meanwhile in Ukraine, Russian speaking Ukrainians lives don’t matter according to Western nations and the Baltics. Hypocrites of the west still support despotic nations like Saudi Arabia no matter their human rights records.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Meanwhile in Ukraine, Russian speaking Ukrainians lives don’t matter according to Western nations and the Baltics. Hypocrites of the west still support despotic nations like Saudi Arabia no matter their human rights records.

Posted by americangrizzly | Report as abusive

Much has been said about racial problem!
Why they say racial problem? African American is not the only “Race”.Many races like,Spanish,Kenyans,Italians,Chinese,Ko reans etc.My question is why African Americans suffers most the so called discrimination in matters like job opportunities,victimization by police etc.My question is why other races have prospered more than African Americans?
With my 25 years observation as a hospitality business owner,I had opportunity to observe closely African American customers.What I saw as a basic difference with African Americans among other races is the
Culture or living habits.They do not show flexibility for adopting the main stream way of living as like other races9Even poor).They live in their own communities,they like only easier jobs to make money,they have instictual apathy for education.They do not adopt healthy eating habits or control of body weights.No doubt there are some exceptional individuals but this is generally speaking of masses.They keep away from white people because they feel strongly they are neglected community.Rather I see them carrying some inferiority complex.They are not prepared to accept “Blood is thicker than water”They are not willing to do do like Romans in Rome.This mass characteristics make other talented people of their community also to suffer.Yes they are civilians but coming originally from Africa as like Indians coming from India since generations.They must endeavor.They must not lag behind as my Indian family has done.All are well off at par with whites.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

I highly doubt that “the age of Obama made the sight of a black first lady and attorney general and the presence of powerful African-American civic, business, and cultural leaders seem ordinary.” I remember in one of my college literature classes last semester, we had a discussion about this topic. President Obama doesn’t represent the African American society at all, in stead, he has picked one side from the very beginning. (For political reasons and his personal stories). People always talk about “hate crime” nowadays, however, I don’t think Roof’s case is a hate crime. I personally feel the cause of “hate crime” is jealous. In this case, what makes Roof so extreme is not jealous. The biased social justice misleads some unwise teenagers that we live in a society which fulfills of “hate.”

Posted by BrianCai | Report as abusive

The Confederate Flag is a symbol of a supposedly Christian society that built its economy not by exploiting starving illegal Hispanic migrant workers, as is the accepted norm today, but by kidnapping and enslaving in forced labor people from another continent. Beatings, rapes and lynchings were “justified” by laws that made an African less than a person. The defeat of this society in 1865 did not change the perceptions of White Southerners towards Blacks and segregation laws were strictly enforced to prohibit any intermingling of the races. Unfortunately the majority of minds in several states have not evolved since the civil rights movements forced legislative changes. The Confederate flag does not represent a noble army of virtuous Christians with charismatic leaders. It represents the darker side of mankind and is an insult to the descendant of those who were deprived of their freedom. True Americans fly the American flag. Traitors and sociopaths fly the Confederate flag.

Posted by Entanglement | Report as abusive

AmericanGrizzly, most of America would agree with you. Flying the confederate flag (a flag of terrorists, white supremacists, traitors and life-long losers) is a form of mental illness. South Carolina is officially a mental handicap state.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Growing up in the South, I had the option to buy into the past and all the negativism and delusion that entailed or to respectfully leave that behind. Fortunately, I was born into a family where two direct ancestors fought for the Confederacy and one who was from a southern border state and fought on the other side for the U.S. Army all through the Civil War. Even my Confederate ancestors left the past behind as did my Union ancestor. I never saw a Confederate flag until I was old enough to see one in a history book. So far as I knew my ancestors were not slave holders, so they were caught up in the war through regional loyalty. When the war was done they were done with the southern cause and bravely faced a grim survival during Reconstruction. I was taught to revere General Robert E. Lee as a great general and a dignified gentleman. I was not transmitted any racial hatred or “the South shall rise again” foolishness. My Confederate great grandparents abhored the KKK as “riff-raff” to be avoided and disdained. Thank God I was spared any generational racial hatred connected to a lost cause.

Posted by Axadental | Report as abusive

“The rise of mass incarceration….” is the reason for the dramatic decrease in violent crime that has occurred over the past 20 years.. However, this is about to come to an end and we will then see a dramatic rise in crime of all nature.

Posted by EdwardMax | Report as abusive

The United States has a flag. And each state has its own flag to represent local flavor. Then there’s the confederate flag: Something to urinate on, and throw in the trash. It is a terrorist rag.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive