The Massacre in a Charleston Church

Mass killings are horrendous. I can’t fathom why someone would walk into a school with the intent to murder children and their teachers. I can’t begin to understand how anyone could be motivated to open fire in a movie theater, college classroom, or shopping mall.

This week we’re shocked by yet another mass shooting, this time in the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The immediate impact of this shooting has affected me more deeply than any other. I’m struck by deep, deep sadness. It’s not just because it was in a church while people were in prayer and study, though somehow this makes it especially contemptible. It’s not just the accumulation of the despair I’ve felt over so many of these events in recent years. It’s that the killer is white and his victims are black: an act of unspeakable terror rooted in the evil of racism.

Racism can’t be explained away by mental illness or white-washed away as solely an act of individual choice, though there certainly was individual choice involved.

Racism is a societal ill, a communal sin for which responsibility rests on the shoulders of every white person. It rests on my shoulders. Racist realities are perpetuated – knowingly and unknowingly – by those of us whose skin color affords us privilege and allows us to turn a blind eye to the plight of others.

I have often seen this in my ministry. Each time I preach or teach in my overwhelmingly white and well-meaning congregation about the need to confront and combat racism I am greeted with the same refrains: “I just don’t see it.” “Don’t you think we’re beyond that now?” “You shouldn’t preach politics.” “Naturally you’re preaching about this because of where you come from.” (I am South African.) Many speak up in support of efforts to challenge and overcome racism, yet mention the “black lives matter” campaign and you’re immediately told “all lives matter.”

Sure, all lives should matter. But the point is that black lives matter; they really, really do. And, on the whole, society does not treat black lives as if they matter as much as white lives. Just a few months ago in Charleston a white police officer gunned down in cold blood Walter Scott, an African American citizen. The officer shot him in the back. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin are more than rallying cries. They are victims of societally sanctioned and approved racism that emerges all too often as state-sanctioned violence. The social and economic challenges faced by so many in the African American community stemming from pernicious structural injustices dating back to the days of slavery, the mass incarceration of African American men, the ways my African American friends are more likely than I am to be pulled over by police or followed in department stores (yes, it still happens) point to a system that is bent on exploitation and oppression.

Based on what? Based on a construct.

Race is a social construct that conveniently feeds into a hierarchy where lighter skin color equates to greater value and darker skin color to lesser value. It touches every aspect of life, personal and social. It feeds into perceptions of intelligence, ability, worthiness, acceptability. It also goes conveniently unacknowledged by most with lighter skin tones, those of us who are more prone to blame the victim than to ask the hard questions that will lead to necessary inner change. Inner change is the route to outer, societal change. And yes, it comes at a cost.

If it is difficult for many whites to acknowledge the ways our skin color leads to privilege, it is even harder to pluck out those attitudes, beliefs, and feelings that lie at the heart of racism. This becomes especially difficult when your perception of self worth is based on notions that benefit you over others, even when they’re based on something as fickle as skin color. And let’s face it, it is incredibly hard to share privilege when you’re afraid of losing what you’ve “worked” for.

In light of the massacre of African American churchgoers in a Charleston church Wednesday night, I hope that the deniers of racism and the cowardly comfortable masses of whites will open our eyes to the very real and present danger of racism. We’re not talking here about a random act of terror. Racism rears its ugly head all the time, and not always as perceptible violence. But make no mistake: it is violent by nature even if the evil of racism is mostly so subtle it goes conveniently unnoticed by those who perpetuate it in unacknowledged ways.

The responsibility to confront and combat racism rests with whites and we collectively bear the responsibility for what happened in Charleston. It’s up to us to start making the necessary shifts to confront and combat racism within ourselves and within our society. In the end, it’s up to me and that leads me to the deep, deep sorrow I feel in this moment.

As a white person I bear part of the responsibility for what happened Wednesday night in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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