A mourner grieves during a prayer vigil at the Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on Thursday, June 18, 2015. Nine people were murdered Wednesday night at another historic black church in this city’s downtown. (Travis Dove/The New York Times)
Wednesday night in Charleston, South Carolina, an act of terrorism was committed against a group of Black people who gathered in prayer. The church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was a site of slave rebellions as far back as 1822 and one of the oldest Black churches in the country.
Our hearts and our prayers are with the families and communities of those who were needlessly killed.
Yesterday, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Storm Roof was arrested alive, suspected to be the gunman in this brutal and horrific tragedy. Roof went to the church and asked specifically for the pastor. He prayed with the congregation, and then after about an hour, he rose and said,
“I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
In the days following this one, many in the media will portray Roof as a mentally ill gunman with a troubled past who committed an isolated crime against an unsuspecting group of Black people. Facebook photos show Roof wearing a jacket with patches bearing the flag of apartheid South Africa. However, we at #BlackLivesMatter would assert that this is not, in fact, an isolated incident, but just one incident in a pattern of violence enacted against Black people in this country and around the world.
The real question we should be asking is: Who taught Roof to hate Black people, enough to kill nine of us, in a sanctuary? And can we really say that he is the only one?
The honest answer to the above question is that this country has never valued Black people – even though Black people have been of extreme value for this country.
Where are the calls for accountability for those who taught a young white man to harbor such a serious hatred for Black people? Where is the accountability for a nation that has racism in its very DNA?
We were never meant to survive. We were stolen from our families and our land, brought to this country in the bottoms of boats, chained together like animals. We were forced to work for, nurture and nourish, and build a country that never truly considered us human and still refuses to honor our humanity. The founding documents of this country designate us as only three-fifths of a human being. When we dared (and dare) to reclaim our humanity, we were (and are) beaten, lashed, hung from trees, limbs cut off, set on fire, shot and raped. This isn’t something that happened in the past. This is still happening to Black people in 2015. In fact, just a few months ago, Otis Byrd was found lynched, hanging from a tree outside of Jackson, Mississippi.
We were never meant to survive. We argue that Roof’s actions are not isolated, are not easily and dismissively attributed to mental illness but instead are reflections of a disease that plagues this country – racism. And we argue that until we grapple, as a nation, with the racist violence that infects this country, we will only see such acts increase.
Roof’s words remind us that Black people in this country cannot consider ourselves safe anywhere. We cannot expect protection from the police. We cannot expect to be safe in swimming pools, in churches, in stores, on buses, in our communities or even in our homes. Black children are not safe. And we cannot consider ourselves safe from the daily trauma of witnessing the violence exacted against our communities. In this case, a young Black girl played dead underneath her grandmother’s dead body in order to stay alive. Roof left one woman alive, telling her that he wanted her to tell the story of what happened that night.
The truth that needs to be told is that even our nation’s first Black President has yet to face the fact that violence against Black people is an epidemic of epic proportions. As the demographics of this country shift to that of majority people of color, there exists both a rational and irrational fear that the very people who have and continue to bear the brunt of such blatant and brutal violence will, at some point, resist. Roof’s words, “You’re taking over our country. And you have to go” reflect the fear that the right has capitalized on since the 1970s – the fear of the majority becoming the minority.
And, as Black people know so very well, being the minority anywhere can literally mean the difference between life and death.
President Obama made a statement on Thursday, saying, “Once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.” Despite what our president says, this is not merely an issue of gun control. In fact, this is an issue of the prevalence of structural anti-Black racism that results, in many cases, in anti-Black violence, and in too many cases, anti-Black murder.
Across the country and increasingly around the world, Black people – young, old and middle-aged; disabled and differently abled; queer; transgender; immigrant; incarcerated and more – have erupted in a wave of rebellion that has transformed our political landscape. And yet, there are still those who, in the face of extreme and unnecessary violence, will use that as an opportunity to call for peace, to distort the real issues, to essentially neutralize what has been bubbling under the surface for a very long time.
But where are the calls for accountability for those who taught a young white man to harbor such a serious hatred for Black people? Where is the accountability for a nation that has racism in its very DNA?
We, as a country, in the face of even more Black lives taken way before their time, have a choice to make. It is no longer a question of whether or not racism exists, nor is it a question of whether or not racism is an epidemic that plagues our very existence. The choice we have to make is whether or not we are willing to take it on in a real way.
Our lives, quite literally, depend on it.