Charleston is now one-year removed from the violence at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, violence which came to the city on a mission few could understand. It was a reminder of a type of hatred and mistrust we may have thought we left behind long ago — an open and brutal hatred that expressed itself in a manner both unthinkable and one that can never be erased or forgotten.
Memorials are still being created throughout the city, as they likely will be for years to come. Charleston International Airport announced plans for one in March. A mural honoring Reverend Clementa Pinckney was unveiled last month at Redux Contemporary Art Center. There’s a book drive in honor of Cynthia Graham Hurd going on this month through the Charleston County Library. But despite these reminders, are we destined to forget other uncomfortable truths, just as we thought we had forgotten what unchecked hatred is capable of doing.
The racism that entered Emanuel that June evening — after weeks of planning and years of hating — the racism that sat down next to people it would an hour later murder, is a visceral and vicious racism. It’s the kind of racism that’s easy for people to point out. It’s easy to condemn. It’s easy to write a song or poem about. It’s easy to paint a picture and even easier to visit a mural someone else painted. It’s the racism that isn’t supposed to exist anymore, outside of scattered enclaves of white supremacist organizations.
And perhaps it was that sense of rarity, combined with the senselessness of it, that brought the people of Charleston and the surrounding communities together, however briefly, with a show of unity and power against open hatred. This was a proper response. But was it enough?
The feeling of unity in Charleston that was prevalent last year now seems relegated only to the memorials; the murals and book drives, the poems and songs are too narrowly focused on the obviously violent racism that stole life from Charleston. The unity that came as a result of the violence at Emanuel last year was a response to the obvious and repugnant strain of racism that took so much from so many. It also covered over other issues that we haven’t yet dealt with. Not since last year. Not since the 1960s. Not since Jim Crow. Not since Reconstruction.
Instead of a starting point for dealing with larger, subtler forms of racism in Charleston and America, unity became the end point — a way of maintaining a status quo by allowing the system to largely move on in the way it always has. This happened because there are differences between the racism that killed nine people at Emanuel and the racism that assaults people of color in everyday life.
It is the racism that closes schools. It is the racism that forces people out of communities they’ve called home for decades. It is the racism that simply cannot wait for a trial before convicting a suspect. It is the racism that makes people question the motives and methods of those who dare to demand better from their elected leaders by calling them unreasonable. It is the racism that allows us to keep talking about whether the heritage of the South is good or bad while denying the ancestors of the very people enslaved a voice in the discussion. It is racism to hold that people who never enjoyed the riches of this nation, which they built over hundreds of years of violence, should nevertheless be happy simply because they are now free to make a go out of life.
Those thousands who gathered and held hands and marched for unity in June dwindled to just several hundred a few months later when the Days of Grace rally marched through downtown, past Emanuel, and into Marion Square. When unity is replaced with a call to action, people get nervous. They get defensive. They get upset. Unity, after all, is about peace and love and understanding and, most of all, not disturbing the status quo.
Unity says “we’re all one and we’re all in this together”, even as we refuse to acknowledge all the ways we are not all one and we are not all in this together. Unity allows us to forget all of the difficult things about America and pretend that there really isn’t anything wrong after all.
Because while it’s easy to want to hold hands and talk about unity after a shocking and violent tragedy, the everyday violence of racism goes on without rallies and marches and murals and songs and poetry.
We forget these other, seemingly different kinds of racism which are still prevalent in 21st century America. The racism last June at Emanuel A.M.E. is a different kind of racism than the one that killed Walter Scott a mere two months earlier. They’re linked, yes, and part of the same system, but only one of these incidents inspired thousands to march. The other is denied even to exist, but it does exist and it exists in countless ways and causes its own forms of violence against its victims.
These are problems for which unity cannot be an easy answer, because it isn’t even a question. It’s racism that is explained away by people in power as simply how things are.
That these forms of racism don’t draw out huge crowds in a show of unity does not erase their existence. That they are, perhaps, not even intentional acts against the black community does not matter. That they don’t leave people dead on the floor of a church does not mean they are not violent in their own ways.
In the meantime, if we are to congratulate ourselves for showing unity in the face of a grotesque, brutal, yet singular act of violence, then we need to make that unity mean something more than a photo-op of thousands of people on the Ravenel Bridge. It is time to stand and make sacrifices, so that the victims of casual, systemic, everyday violence are lifted up as high as those victims of the Emanuel massacre and to insure there will no longer be victims.
Far too much has been lost in this community already. How much more must we lose before we’re ready to make that stand?