Why America needs to reject the Charleston massacre's dangerous narrative of forgiveness

Well-intended forgiveness has been seized on by the media and those in power as an excuse to ignore white supremacy

Published June 27, 2015 1:29PM (EDT)

  (AP/Chuck Burton)
(AP/Chuck Burton)

Unfortunately, forgiveness, that element of moral sanctity which facilitates assuaging of grief, has morphed into a barrier obstructing the path to justice and accountability in the United States -- a place weakened by the ubiquitousness and insidiousness of racism.

Although it's tough to direct a critical lens at the concept of forgiveness when the situation involves grieving family members tearfully addressing an expressionless, depraved killer who isn't even asking for it, for posterity's sake this must be done. What happened in Charleston, South Carolina, last week wasn't an anomaly or isolated incident. It's just the latest of many incidents of racial hatred exploding into a violent expression of a flawed, commonly espoused belief: that black people are to remain dehumanized and oppressed.

One has to admit it's absolutely stunning to hear a hurt family member speak publicly so soon after the loss of a family member to such a heinous crime as the one that resulted in the sanguinary terminus of a prayer meeting in one of the most sacrosanct places: a place of worship. What kind of twisted criminal justice system does South Carolina have that would even encourage a family member to address a killer before a trial has even transpired? Charleston County Chief Magistrate James B. Gosnell Jr., a person who allegedly once uttered the word "n***er" in court, ought to be ashamed of himself for even exposing grieving family members to videotape of the cretinous killer standing with his back to armed guards less than 48 hours after the shootings. The looming question is: Who is protecting and advising these families which are now permanently damaged by the massacre of their loved ones in this moment of extreme shock, sorrow and bottomless dejection?

It should be argued the people who benefit most from a public offering of forgiveness are those who actually don't have those moments of deep introspection that cause them to walk away from hatred, abject ignorance and the pervasive tentacles of systemic racism. It lets them off the hook in the same way Dylann Roof's family, friends and the sick culture he comes from have been let off the hook. It's the status quo, and none of the people who benefit from it the most are willing to or convicted enough in their hearts and souls to change it.

Renouncing white privilege in a society where the dominant culture suffocates and subjugates any forms of otherness and maintains its tightening grip on the jugular of blackness is something most white people either refuse to or simply manage to avoid doing. That's understandable. Why would someone suddenly exchange the birthright benefits of being white to board the same sinking ship everyone else is chained to ad infinitum? Yes, poor whites often say they have no privilege, but they are confused about something: Simply being white opens all kinds of doors even the richest black people never have access to. To be white isn't just a race thing, but often also a money thing. The two are inextricably linked, not mutually exclusive. Read any book by Ferdinand Lundberg, especially "The Rich and The Super Rich: A Study in the Power of Money Today" and "America's 60 Families," and it becomes clearer how power structures operate here and how most Americans -- not just black people -- are actually poor. Lundberg's focus wasn't on race, but he deftly and inadvertently examined the American beast from inside out and outside in. All the unhealed sores and festering wounds of racism the beast knows about but refuses to seek ointments and tinctures for continue to be under-examined and unhealed. The truth is, President Obama needs to bring the hammer down when it comes to race and stop worrying about what some deluded, disengaged white people think by circumventing the obvious ugly truths. For anyone to be willfully obtuse in these times is a luxury none of us can afford. Ducking and dodging when it comes to systemic and cultural racism only keeps the racist inebriated as if said person just drank a whole bottle of moonshine and doesn't have a care in the world. And this country was built in part on the genocide of Native Americans, the crippling Three-Fifths Compromise and a number of other originally flawed documents, including the U.S. Constitution -- all of which justified systemic racism.

Charleston, South Carolina, like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is such a beautiful town. Except for all the markers of slavery customs and monuments to the Confederacy, it's actually one of the few places in America that looks like a painting come to life. The beauty of the place is false, though. It's still one big functioning plantation in the 21st century. It's a place where time just sat under the bridge like an ogre and decided to curl up and die. Nothing has really changed there. It's easy to wonder why a black person would even want to live in such a place, but packing up and leaving doesn't necessarily solve the problem. The real problem are all those people who are comfortable with racist beliefs and do absolutely nothing to address their own shortcomings in this area. It's not just a South Carolina problem or a Southern problem, but a nationwide problem. And though this incident has rightly been labeled a massacre and an act of terror, it's also an assassination. Why are so few people using the term assassination in reference to the shooting of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who also served as a South Carolina state senator -- a man deeply concerned, ironically enough, with the aftermath of the Walter Scott shooting? The loner tropes and outlier narratives being ascribed to Mr. Roof are part of some larger spiel to get us to forget all the real ugliness of racism and hatred behind these killings.

Well intended forgiveness is actually being manipulated, as it always is, when a black person dies so violently for reasons which suggest black skin is itself perceived as a weapon. Forgiveness in itself has unfortunately been twisted into a narrative; not by the families, but by the mainstream media, the systems in place, politicians, and the public. Forgiveness, which is a right and also often a necessary component of healing -- a moral bridge between devastation, solemnity, and true peace with freedom attached -- should never be used in the way it's being used now: as an escape hatch to a neverland where the deep rooted problems of this country are never fully confronted and never resolved.

Last month, Sheriff David Clarke of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, someone who often says the wrong thing at the wrong time, said black people need to forgive America for slavery. There are plenty of backwards (sometimes, unctuous or clueless) people who want black people to forgive, forgive, forgive, as if that is the main portal we all must enter to solve the problems of this country. Again, forgiveness has its place; it should be a more personal space, though, and not a "carrot" dangled publicly in front of those who've done no work towards being worthy or towards resolution. Now that the Voting Rights Act has been eviscerated and it seems as if the specter of Jim Crow is dancing a jig right now, it's also worth pointing out there is an air of anti-black sentiment which continues to threaten and undermine America's integrity and position as a global power.

Racism isn't some gargantuan Sasquatch hiding in the hills, who only occasionally makes appearances in the South. Racism is practically encoded in the DNA of the majority of people who think we're living in a post-racial, evolved society. It exists in every state of the Union. All the recent incidents of police brutality against unarmed black citizens prove there is no place of safe harbor for black people anywhere in this country. Malcolm X effectively hit the nail on the head when he said, "As far as I'm concerned, Mississippi is anywhere South of the Canadian border." Isabel Wilkerson's Jan. 10, 2015, New York Times column titled "When Will the North Face its Racism?" complements the idea of racism being a ubiquitous phenomenon.

Still, the shackles and strictures which have been placed on black South Carolinians for centuries do need to be addressed. The bloody Stono Rebellion of 1739, which occurred near Charleston, claimed 44 black lives and 21 whites, is a reminder of how racism functions to stifle and oppress. The black slaves, under the leadership of a commander named Cato, wanted to escape South Carolina to join the Spaniards in Florida. Denmark Vesey, one of the founders of the church which later became Emanuel A.M.E. Church, was executed along with five other black slaves on suspicion of organizing a slave revolt in 1822. The "South Carolina Black Code" dated December 21, 1865 was used against black citizens in a post-Civil War environment suggesting there would be no true upward mobility for former slaves. The Orangeburg Massacre, which transpired in Orangeburg, South Carolina on February 8, 1968 claimed the lives of three young black men: Delano Middleton, Samuel Hammond, and Henry Smith; numerous others were also injured. Black residents of Orangeburg were simply protesting segregation practices at the local bowling alley called the All-Star Bowling Lane.

Bakari Sellers, a former member of South Carolina House of Representatives, had the right idea when he typed the following words: "In 2015 you can get murdered because of the color of your skin. Let that process for a moment. Then pray. #CharlestonStrong." Perhaps the best way to honor the nine victims of the church massacre is to do away with racism once and for all. Tears, flowers and discussions are a good starting place, but true progress has to be the end result.

By Ericka Schiche

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Charleston Dylann Roof