The Massacre at Emanuel AME Church and Our “White Problem”
Last night around 8pm, a twenty-something year-old White male walked into the historic Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. He came there with a loaded gun and at least five rounds of ammunition. As the twelve Black men, women, and children who were present in that church prayed and invited this man into their Bible study session for the evening, he contemplated their deaths. He thought about what he would say as he killed them. He figured out who he would let survive to tell the story. Then, about an hour later, after spending time with his victims, he shot and killed eight congregants. A ninth person died at the hospital. The murderer allowed a grandmother and her grandchild to live to tell the story. This ensured that he would be established in a long line of White Supremacists who came before him.
According to reports, the final words he settled on were, “You rape our women and are taking over our country – and you have to go.” While mainstream news outlets tussle over the term “hate crime” rather than calling it the literal result of racism, hatred, and White Supremacist thinking in the United States, Black citizens are reminded that when this murderer said “our women” and “our country” his words were rooted in a long tradition of exclusion for Blacks in this country. While many will focus on this singular event like it is an aberration or an anomaly, I argue that this is yet another incidence steeped in the structural dismissing of White Supremacy, the efforts to perpetually pacify Black Americans, and the commitment to de-humanizing Black people in any public or private space.
Just this week, a 12-year-old girl was slammed against a police car while visiting a community pool in Fairfield, Ohio. Her family members were all handcuffed and pepper-sprayed during this altercation with at least a half dozen police officers. Their offense was “swimming while Black.” We saw a similar incident at a swimming pool in McKinney, Texas just a few weeks ago. What we don’t see, however, is any sense of responsibility for the brutality against Black people from Whites.
What we never see is a collective shaming or guilt from those who have the privilege to exist in public as they wish. These very same people whose sons and daughters riot at their college campuses or mow women and children down in their drunken stupors see Black Americans who are swimming, walking, praying, standing, or just existing as a threat to “their country” and “their women.” They see us as vermin which “needs to go.”
The reason why these news outlets don’t and won’t call events like the Charleston AME Church Massacre a hate crime is because many White people can’t seem to understand how they can possibly be guilty of hating something that they don’t see any worth in. Many Whites don’t see Black Americans as equal citizens. They don’t classify Blacks as being rightful members of “their society.” It isn’t about hate or crime for them. How could they commit a crime against individuals they mentally place lower than their pets?
The three-fifths clause was added to the US Constitution in 1787. While slaves could not vote and would not be granted freedom for another 100 years or so, the law meant that non-voting slaves still counted as “three-fifths of a human being” so that southern slavers and plantations owners could have hefty sway over the proceedings of the US government. The law remained unchallenged until 1865 when it was nullified as a result of the Civil War and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. But does that mean that, in the eyes of White Southerners, Black Americans just magically became whole people? Like, instantaneously?
What always strikes me about thinking through the codifying nature of slave and lynch law is how many White Americans see the abolishment of these written rules as the physical end of the sentiments which perpetuated them. Somehow, many White people believe, once schools were integrated and legal segregation ended with the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, everyone just started to like the idea of not being racist. But we have seen the images of a little Black girl walking into a schoolhouse amongst angry, cursing White men and women enough times to know what really happened. We’ve seen how Whites followed and intimidated the Little Rock Nine. We have seen images of the four little girls who were murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Alabama in 1963. This happened almost a decade after the Brown decision. We know what really happens when White people are denied the full exercise of their racism.
Rather than calming relations between racist Whites in the south and terrorized Blacks trying to survive, forward progress toward equality as always resulted in further violence against Black Americans. There are so many examples of this in history that it’s confounding as to why many Whites continue to treat incidents like Charleston like they’re new. They simply aren’t.
To further complicate the obfuscation of the terrorizing of Black Americans, especially in the South, the Confederate flag is still hanging in South Carolina at this very moment. They had the nerve to lower it to half mast in honor of those who were killed at Emanuel AME Church. Those victims, six women and three men, included the church pastor and South Carolina state senator, Rev. Clementa Pinckney. This issue is the epitome of racial hatred. The powers in South Carolina only reinforce anti-Black sentiment by using the Confederate flag as a “symbol of pride.”
When this White male murderer, a far more commonplace member of this society than many Whites would like to admit, entered this church, spouted his hatred in the name of “their country,” and killed Black men and women, he wasn’t acting out of random animus. This wasn’t the manifestation of mental illness. It was the very historical, completely normal behavior from racist White Americans who still see Blacks as an encroaching population. These are the Whites who see Blacks as “three-fifths human.” These are the Whites who don blackface and demand entry into safe spaces for Black women. These are the Whites who would stand outside of a school to curse a little Black girl carrying a book bag. These are the Whites who want Black kids to stay out of the community pool. These are the Whites drunk on White Privilege and enamored with the dominion it grants them. This is “their country.” “Our” doesn’t include us for them.
This is what terror in the United States looks like. As many people wrestle with ideas like “reverse racism” or question why many Black Americans recoil at the idea of accepting Whites into their social circles, events like these (and many, many others) remind us of an era long gone chronologically but very present substantively.
When are we going to start addressing the very real “White Problem” here in the United States? Isn’t the time right now?
This article was originally written for Water Cooler Convos.
Jenn M. Jackson is the Editorial Assistant for The Black Youth Project. She is also the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Water Cooler Convos, a politics, news, and culture webmag for bourgie Black nerds. For more about her, tweet her at @JennMJack or visit her website at jennmjackson.com.