Posting something here that I first posted on LinkedIn because I want to keep this conversation going. There are broad truths behind what on its face is obviously an abhorrent act by an individual. We need to talk about them.
It is well known now that a white male entered a Charleston, South Carolina church and fired a gun, killing an entire group of worshippers. The church is both a local house of worship and a recognized icon of resistance and resilience in the face of generations of deep racist animosity and outright violence.
Job one for most of us right now is to be honest about what happened: Terrorism on behalf of a system of belief in white supremacy that for centuries has given privileges to all whites in America regardless of whether or not we agree with it.
These killings are indeed acts of terrorism because by design they were committed not only to harm (kill) their direct victims but also to send a message. The message delivered by this killer and the belief system he represents is very clear. They seek a collective disintegration of, dissolution of, or at the very least, departure by the class of people to whom the message has been sent: Black people.
It is tempting as a white person to hear this terrorist’s message as targeting our racially diverse society. While not untrue, it is time we hear this message in its purest form. The target here is not me or the society I desire to help create. The target is African American people and their very existence. This story is not about me except to the extent that it is about the violence that has for centuries protected a privileged status that I enjoy every day simply because I am white.
The message of this particular attack is that people of African descent are unwelcome in this nation to which their ancestors were dragged in chains and which they subsequently have enriched. Black Americans have enriched America and white Americans through labor and sacrifice that was extracted by force and through diligence and ingenuity that has flourished in merely 150 years of quite often spuriously defined freedom.
The message of this terrorist says that those who share the lineage of the nine who perished and the others who miraculously survived are less than human; or at the very least are less human than those of us who are white.
Fundamentally, the message of the Charleston terrorist is that Americans of African descent are not worthy of the otherwise universally held privilege that could accurately be called the right to life itself.
It’s pretty easy to understand why many are living in fear in the wake of this violence. After all, who has the right or reason to assume that if it could happen to one, it couldn’t happen to another? Who has the right or reason to suggest that it is ever going to stop?
The very nature of crimes like the Charleston attack – what makes them distinct, and worthy of special designations like “hate crimes” and “terrorism” is that those who make up the class targeted by the message have no way to satisfy the perpetrator without destroying themselves.
As many of us who teach police about the special nature of hate crimes have stressed for years, as bad as a robbery is, you can often satisfy a perpetrator by giving up your wallet, your phone and your watch. Not so when the criminal seeks to eradicate your very identity.
What would America like Black people to give up in order to make their tormentors leave them alone?
Americans who happen to be white have a job to do now. That job is to demonstrate that we understand the difference between calling this perpetrator a crackpot, and acknowledging that he is in fact a terrorist. The job is to say unequivocally that we heard his message and he does not speak for us, even knowing that our statement won’t make it stop. The job is to wrestle with the privileges we have that have been safeguarded by terrorism for centuries.
The job is to ask why our country does not see the fragility – the vulnerability – of Black life as a crisis of our collective making and our job is to take responsibility for failing yet again to protect our neighbors.
So, for my part:
You don’t speak for me though I know my burden is lighter because of the myth of white supremacy and the paradigm of white privilege that your violence defends.
My African American neighbors, friends, teachers, brothers, sisters, fellow residents and citizens may be tired and broken today but they are resilient, resourceful, defiant, determined, innovative and courageous. They will prevail over hate whether we do our job as white America or not.
Mr. Terrorist: It is no more likely that you can ever take these things away from African American people than it is that they can ever surrender them to you. Not going to happen.
Mr. Terrorist: Right here, your message is received. And your message is rejected.