With the shooting that occurred in Charleston last week, America once again went through the motions that have become disturbingly common in recent memory: families and friends grieved for their loss, leaders at the highest levels of government and industry denounced the tragedy, and news sources attempted to inform a shocked public about an incident that is hard to make sense of. They were victims of a senseless killing spree, perpetuated by someone who was filled with nothing but contempt and hatred. This, in itself, has become the scene for many American towns over recent years. But underlying every action was one collective thread that linked back to the shootings that took place in Ferguson, in North Charleston, in Florida, and many other places across the country; something specific that has become more noticeable in the past year: the victims were black.
Now we are continuously told that we live in a post racial society, that the actions that occurred in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s were extreme and necessary because of the overwhelmingly racist society, but now that is something that no longer needs to be worried about. When the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964, all of our problems went away concerning race and we were proudly walking into a bright new future. That was a hope that has been shown time and time again to not be true. The racism that prevails to this day in many parts of the country, the indiscriminate hate crimes, and the persistent oppression of people of different races all speak out against equality. This is made evident even in the media, when they choose not to accurately report—or even report on at all—black deaths that come as a result of unwanted aggression.
But nowhere has this inequality surfaced more prominently than in the recent riots that have taken place in Ferguson and Baltimore. Two historically large black areas, two completely different areas of the country, and yet they share one common attribute. Years of ambivalence by leaders, both in these communities and at the highest levels of government, allowed poverty, unemployment, and violence to fester. These citizens of the United States were repeatedly told to stop being lazy, to make something of themselves, and stop being a burden on the system, a system that had abandoned them, dooming them to a constant struggle of survival as they fought to stay afloat and, if they were lucky, get ahead. It is no wonder that, with the deaths of their own at the hands of those who were supposed to protect and serve, the cities went up in flames as years of anger, desperation, and misery poured out. But we are not as a country ready to admit that there is a race problem that still pervades our society. Not when poverty serves as a fitting scapegoat, even though it is a poverty brought about by corruption and a lack of investment. Gang violence seems to be another easy enough fault, as long as you forget that becoming a member of a gang is oftentimes the only means of advancing oneself, albeit for a relatively brief amount of time. It is therefore easier to equip town police forces with military grade software and equipment, clear the riots, and hope the problem goes away. Promises will be made, fundraisers held, and maybe the whole house of cards holds together a little bit longer. At least until the next innocent is killed, and a city must react with the only way that it knows how: destruction.
It is in this mindset that we travel to Charleston, to the mind of a twisted individual: an individual who supported the apartheid in South Africa, who was known to visit plantations around the South and revel in what he perceived as the glories of slavery. This is not a man who was racist, but rather one who is simply misguided. There was no need to correct him for his perverted beliefs, because this country does not have a race problem. Best to just leave it alone and hope he outgrows the problem. Because what is the worst that could happen when a bigoted, maniacal person is allowed to purchase a gun? What could possibly go wrong when he is given the freedom to believe that discrimination is okay, when over 300 years of history and thousands of deaths have definitively shown that he is wrong? Good actions are remembered for a brief period of time, while acts of injustice often go down for eternity. The United States, in terms of race relations, is finding itself heading towards the wrong side of history.
Now as depressing as this sounds, it is not something that needs to necessarily happen. This course that we are currently on is not one that is pre-determined for us, but rather is one that we can get off just as easily as we have gotten on it. Before any action can be taken though, one glaring truth must be admitted: the proverbial “elephant in the room.” We are not living in a post racial society. There, that feels a little better now. We are relieved of the perceived responsibility to perpetuate the mantra that these events are just random coincidences that don’t point to a underlying problem. We are now free to admit that each murder, each mass shooting, and instance of brutality is simply perpetuating a society where racism is okay. Once we acknowledge this, and truly understand that racism is never okay, then perhaps we will be able to impact real change, and the tragedy of last week will no longer be a potential of the future. It will reside where it belongs, in the past.