On a warm summer evening two years ago, I took two of my nieces to a RiverDogs game. One of them asked how the batters could ever hit the ball seeing as it moves so fast. I tried to explain but couldn’t. Shoot, I’m not exactly sure how they do it either!
After about four innings, my nieces reached their baseball limits and were ready to leave. I promised if they stuck it out for a few more innings, I’d take them to get ice cream after the game. They reluctantly obliged. When we finally left the game, I decided to take Calhoun Street to King Street so that I could hit up Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams but miraculously, after about five minutes into the ride home, both girls feel asleep. So instead of stopping at Jeni’s, I decided to save that money and head back to North Charleston. I remember seeing a bunch of blue lights ahead of us near the Courtyard Marriott before I turned left to get on King but I brushed it off. Never in my wildest dreams would I have envisioned that a literal massacre had just taken place.
In the aftermath, I wrote two columns for the City Paper. The first was written to inform Dylann Roof that his attempt to create a race war did not work and that, if anything, it had the opposite effect. In column two, I asked if Charleston would continue to be unified after the Anderson Coopers of the world picked up their cameras and moved on to the next big story.
But today, in the time since the murders, I’ve been thinking: With all that hand holding on the bridge, candlelight vigils, and talk of “unity,” has anything really changed? I mean, the majority of South Carolinians turned right around and voted for a man who vilified Mexicans, openly mocked a disabled reporter, and routinely spat hateful rhetoric that would have emboldened a Dylann Roof to do what he did. And the election wasn’t even close. Trump won the Palmetto State in a landslide. According to The State newspaper, 80 percent of white Evangelical Christians voted for a man whose idea of making America great includes a watered down form of North Korea’s brand of international separatism.
If you can ignore the idea that millions of people believed the U.S. had somehow lost its way in the last decade (and how that concept reeks of white supremacy), let me give you something else to ponder: How many of the white Evangelical Christians that voted for Trump prayed for Mother Emanuel, updated their Facebook status in solidarity, attended a rally, or some type of panel discussion about race in America? To me, it’s a hard concept to separate. How could they be there for Mother Emanuel on June 18, 2015 but not on November 8, 2016?
Yeah, we were all very nice to each other after Dylann Roof became a part of our collective consciousness but can we say that we are collectively better off? And by “better” I mean in terms of the thing Roof tried to use in order to separate us: race. There’s a strong argument to be made that, in that regard, nothing really changed and that we are all pushing ahead in a very business-as-usual manner. Let me explain.
A year after the murders, South Carolina did their part to put President Trump into office. That same year a lot of South Carolinians fought against Senator Marlon Kimpson’s attempt to close the “Charleston Loophole.” His proposed provisions would have made the path to gun ownership more stringent so that, hopefully, situations like the Emanuel massacre wouldn’t happen again.
Two years later, realtor.com lists Charleston as the fastest gentrifying city in all of America, and I know a lot of people are wondering what any of this has to do with Mother Emanuel but trust me, it all connects.
Gentrification disproportionately affects people of color, that’s a fact. The only way you are able to afford things is if you have the financial means to do so. And since there has been no purposeful shift to close those economic disparities, conversely, there has been no change to our arrest rates. Numerous studies show a direct correlation between poverty and crime, so if crime is a function of money and we haven’t done much to close wage gaps, then are we really doing anything about crime? Blacks and Hispanics still make up over 60 percent of the South Carolina prison population, according to the S.C. Department of Corrections, despite being only 33 percent of the total state population. With numbers like that looming, can the police really build inroads within communities who, historically speaking, don’t have a reason to trust them in the first place?
Since June 17, 2015 we’ve pledged our allegiance to this idea of a new, unified Charleston. But what has been done to make sure all of Charleston can enjoy the increased wealth flowing into the region? What have we done to make sure all of Charleston feels safe and is protected by those that wish to do harm? Yes, there have been new alliances formed and friendships created but, in many ways, we’re still just spinning our wheels. In our attempt to show Roof that he couldn’t beat us, an unforeseen consequence took place: We kept the status quo intact. We spent so much time making sure that “Roof didn’t win,” we ended up losing out on the chance to shake up the world. We could have come together in ways that weren’t simply symbolic, to make long lasting changes that showed the rest of the nation what “unity” really looks like. But instead of creating those opportunities, we built more hotels.
In hindsight, I still think it made sense to respond to the Mother Emanuel tragedy the way we did. Love will always trump hate in terms of making positive change in our respective communities. But, I can’t help but think we treated their murders like a speed bump instead of a stop sign. Our desperate need to show love unfortunately stood in the way of opportunity to create lasting change. I bet none of us saw that coming.