The close of June has seen a stunning series of events for President Obama, our Democratic Party and the American people. The last few weeks were marked by farce, horrific tragedy and soaring triumph. And we seem to be on the verge of a serious and long-needed national conversation about the impact of race and racism on our society.
Let’s start with the triumphs. The U.S. Supreme Court handed President Obama his first victory this session by, once again, upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. After dozens of tries, the GOP failed in its latest attempt at stripping millions of Americans of their health coverage. Next, the high Court majority thwarted a right wing attempt to gut the Fair Housing Act by affirming the doctrine of ― “disparate impact,” meaning that people suing over racial discrimination don’t have to prove racist intent, but only that the offending behavior had a racially discriminatory effect. And finally, love won out over bigotry as the Court upheld and expanded the fundamental right of gay and lesbian couples across America to wed.
But for every step forward in human rights, it seems we take three steps backward when it comes to race in America. We seem no closer to stopping the epidemic of police violence against unarmed black and brown people, even when the victims are innocent children simply trying to go to a swim party. And just when we thought it couldn’t get worse, it got worse. A young man addicted to the high of white supremacy and drunk on hatred of black people, walked into a Charleston, South Carolina, church with a gun and slaughtered eight parishioners and their pastor, who was also a popular state legislator. The national conversation had suddenly moved from questions of racial identity surrounding the bizarre story of the Spokane, Wash., NAACP leader, who for years had posed as a black woman, to a discussion of racial violence and racist symbols.
Black people in Charleston were immediately exhorted to forgive the alleged killer, and family members of the victims did so publicly within two days of the tragedy. But I know from reading many commentaries in online publications and on social media, that many other black Americans do not forgive and are tired of the constant pleas for black people to ―turn the other cheek‖ when it comes to racist violence. To not call this act of violence a terrorist attack — which it most certainly was — not only disrespects black people, but it’s also hypocritical. Whenever an act of gun violence is committed by someone who is Muslim, it is immediately deemed a terrorist attack and Muslims are unfairly lumped together for collective accountability. But when an act of gun violence is committed by a white American, the go-to explanations are “lone wolf,” “hate crime,” and/or “mental illness” – never terrorism. This, despite the fact that according to a recent study by law enforcement experts, right-wing, anti-government extremists have been involved in many more deadly terror attacks in the U.S. than jihadists.
That the Charleston massacre took place at a church famously known for its civil rights activism is telling. South Carolina was the first southern state to secede during the Civil War, and old feelings die hard. For decades, a majority of the state’s legislature had defiantly rebuffed calls to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of their capitol. However, it looks like the flag might not be there much longer. Unfortunately, it may have taken the lives of nine innocent people to finally shame South Carolina officials towards getting rid of that symbol of slavery, racism, violence and outright theft. But removing symbols is easy. Dismantling America’s institutionalized racism is a much harder task.