I have spent much of the year since last June 17 asking myself, what does it all mean? The alienated young man with the Confederate flag and the gun. The offers of forgiveness from the families of some of the Mother Emanuel victims. The media frenzy. The soul searching. The marches and vigils. President Obama’s eulogy for state Senator Clementa Pinckney.
Perhaps we will get a clearer picture when the trial for Dylann Roof, the suspect charged with fatally shooting nine people at the historic black church, begins and we start a new round of media frenzy and soul searching. Perhaps, but I doubt it.
Eight years ago, many had hoped that the election of the first African American president would launch America’s post-racial nirvana. Maybe some were still naïve enough last June to believe that the Mother Emanuel tragedy would launch a great tantric “ohm” of racial unity.
Any honest person who has witnessed the rise of Donald Trump, the dysfunction on the Charleston County School Board, the ongoing gentrification of the Charleston peninsula, and the indifference of the Republican General Assembly toward the state’s poor, rural (i.e., black) schools will recognize ancient racial anxieties playing out in new settings.
If you don’t recognize it, that’s probably because you are white. Walking around in a white skin shapes the way one looks at the world, something most white people never understand. They don’t need to understand. It’s their world and they swim in it like a fish in water.
Understanding is something that people on the fringe must do. Those without power must constantly try to read the signs, the gestures, the thoughts and attitudes of those who make the laws, control the economy, dominate the culture. Their lives and livelihoods, their safety and freedom depend on it.
Paul Garbarini is a local tour guide who weaves the black experience through the history of Charleston in ways that few guides can and none attempted just a few decades ago. He understands the power of skin color to shape one’s politics and world view.
In an email last week, Garbarini shared these thoughts on the Mother Emanuel shootings: “There was a letter to the newspaper shortly after the event saying this isn’t ‘my’ Charleston, written by a white man. And he was right. But it is the Charleston of those who have to check their wardrobe, and their attitude everyday when they leave their homes. This is the Charleston of those who have to teach their children how to act when confronted by the police or by openly racist citizens in stores, restaurants, or on the street. Every day. There’s no break from being a person of color in Charleston. Until white people know it, there will be precious little change.”
The white world was amazed to hear family members of the Emanuel Nine offer forgiveness to the alleged gunman at his arraignment last June. Whites seemed eager to acknowledge this forgiveness as though it were for their own crimes and sins — and perhaps it was. What so many white people don’t seem to understand is that to accept forgiveness means to accept responsibility for personal change. Forgiveness without change of heart by the forgiven is an empty gesture.
Has Charleston, has South Carolina had a change of heart?
Well, we lowered the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds — finally. But frankly, it felt more like shame than a true change of heart. Republican leaders had finally been called out and convicted in the court of public opinion by the online photos of the gunman with his little Confederate flag.
Has anything else changed? When I wake up every morning, it still feels like South Carolina: the politics, the rhetoric, the distrust and simmering anger.
Barbara Gathers shares my opinion. She is a life-long activist and recent author, who grew up in Charleston public housing, earned a degree from North Carolina A&T University, and had a career with the federal Office of Equal Employment Opportunity.
“Discrimination has not changed in employment. I’m not sure a lot has changed,” she told me recently. “They took down that Confederate flag in Columbia, but I still see Confederate flags on people’s houses. Education does not seem to help….I don’t know if discrimination will ever go away.”
The greatest strides this country has made in social justice have come, not from changes in heart and changes in attitude, but from the federal government. It took Union armies to end slavery. It took Congress and the federal courts to end Jim Crow laws and to ensure voting rights and fair housing to African Americans. Many hearts and attitudes still resist those changes.
The arc of history is indeed long and we hope it bends toward justice, as Dr. King suggested. But I don’t think we have seen it bend in the last year.