This is a sad, sad day. As I write this, the dust is beginning to settle in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof has been apprehended, and the full impact of his racist act of domestic terror is only now beginning to reverberate through the lives of those affected by the losses. There are a great many lessons we, as a culture, could learn from this tragedy. There are a great many issues it raises, and a great many opportunities here for substantive and honest national conversations about things of ultimate meaning. But, will we finally engage in any of these conversations? Perhaps one of the things that makes this even more of a tragedy is that, by the time anyone reads this post, those conversations may well be swept away in the flood of other stories. We won’t likely focus on this long enough to draw anything significant from its passing.
Undeniably, the counter conversations have already begun. This was one of the most clearly delineated act of racist terror to occur on U.S. soil in quite some time, Mr. Roof was utterly transparent in his motivation and his intent, and yet we have national politicians who are trying to deflect the conversation about racism by making it a conversation about religious freedom. A morning editorial in the Wall Street Journal declared institutional racism over with, because Mr. Roof will be tried for murder, rather than celebrated for his accomplishment. There is, at several levels, a desperate need to make this about something other than the kind of endemic racism that all too often gives rise to a Dylann Roof.
That there might be something wrong with the pervasive racism in our culture, something worth discussing and correcting, is a conversation that does not play well on the national stage. But Dylann Roof did not suddenly wake up one day, grab the handgun he bought with his birthday money, and haphazardly decide to wander in to any old church and murder nine people who, by coincidence, were African American. Dylann Roof is the sharp end of the stick, but the stick is being wielded blindly, by a nation that can’t bring itself to address the centuries-old issue of racism.
We are far too dedicated to the narrative of this being the one country in all the world where race makes no difference, where justice is blind, and everyone gets a fair shake, but the thing about institutional racism is that it so easily goes unnoticed by those of us who benefit from the system. Those of us who don’t bump up against it every day are perfectly free to imagine that the world is a more or less fair place and that we all earn our way according to our own skills and perseverance. Therefore, anyone who hasn’t attained what we have attained must not be trying. It is too easy for us to imagine that once again it is those people, with their problems, making a big thing out of a small, unrelated, tragedy. We don’t identify with it, so we dismiss it as an unfortunate punctuation mark in the regular news cycle.
But these were our brothers and sisters who were killed, while sitting in church, studying scripture. They were killed, in the hopes of sparking a race war, by a young man, so overflowing with the poison of institutional racism, that he felt cold-blooded murder was more than justified.
We may not know what to do, but we cannot do nothing. Our cultural and economic privilege will allow us to turn a blind eye to this unconscionable suffering, but we must not do that. We have to see it. We have to acknowledge it. We have to know that it is the deepest of stains in the fabric of our society, and it absolutely must be brought into the light. It isn’t enough for us to pray in secret about the victims of systemic racism. We have to speak up about it, even when it is uncomfortable to do so. Silence is complicity.