LSPC Staff Perspectives on the Charleston Massacre

At a recent LSPC staff meeting, we found that we were so shaken up by the racist terrorism in South Carolina that we were unable to continue with the meeting as planned, and devoted most of the meeting to a deeper conversation about it. The perspectives here by five staff members come out of that larger, very impassioned and honest, discussion amongst all of us. Our hearts go out to all those in Charleston and elsewhere grieving this tragic loss.

The murder of nine people in Charleston is part of a larger picture – it is an act Dorsey-Nunn_close-up-with-plant 2that could take multiple generations to heal. Last night I was watching this on the news with my granddaughter. She knows me and how I react. When the story first broke, all we heard was that it happened in an AME church, so I immediately knew it was Black folks and that it was probably a white person who did it.

There are certain defining moments when people remember where they were when they heard about it, like the assassination of MLK or JFK or, going back further, the bombing of the Birmingham church or the murder of Medgar Evers. This could be one of those moments for my son, my grandchildren, and my great grandchild.

Dylann Storm Roof said that he was trying to take back his country. But how fringe was he really? Some of those same kinds of statements are being made in the public domain by theoretically respectable politicians. On a real level, if racism could be so openly practiced towards the president, the highest office in the land, how long was it going to be before this kind of atrocity happened?

With this messaging as accepted practice, the people in Emanuel AME didn’t stand a chance. Moreover, if we continue to capitulate to force and fear on the part of the police and the criminal justice system, why wouldn’t racist individuals think that they too can murder with impunity? Public policy and practice gives rise to and reinforces private practice.

Nine Black people were killed yesterday in a South Carolina church. How many millions of people in this country, of all ethnicities, were injured by it?

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Manuel_June-2014 2Although President Obama shared his “deep sorrow over the senseless murders that took place last night,” there is nothing senseless about the killings of nine people at Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Nothing ever happens in a vacuum.

It is easy to look at one person – in this case, 21 year old Dylan Storm Roof – as the sole perpetrator of violence. If you take a step back and attempt to look at it through a historical lens, history will reveal that the U.S. throughout its history has been an incubator of both systemic and interpersonal violence perpetrated against black people for centuries – the very church the massacre occurred in was co-founded in 1816 by Denmark Vesey, a Black freed man who was hanged for organizing enslaved Blacks in Charleston.Endria-Richardson-web-cropped

If Dylann was the perpetrator of the murders of nine people, we must acknowledge that he was not born violent. Rather, he was shaped by the environment he was – and continues to be – submerged in.

He is submerged in a culture that does not fundamentally or unconditionally accept Blackness in America. Like many other individuals, regardless of race, he is part of a culture of white supremacy in America. This is at the root of Dylann’s actions. His actions are symptomatic of an exclusionary culture.

In order to really begin the healing process as a collective body of people fundamentally against racism, we must first acknowledge that white supremacy and racism are alive and present as fundamental aspects of American culture, imbedded in our social fabric through laws and policies that allow black teenage boys and girls to be shot,detained, and assaulted; segregated schools and workplaces; and a dearth of stories told by and about black people in our movies, television shows, and books.

We must challenge the way racism, white supremacy and the devaluing of black lives show up in our work and ourselves. Along with challenging racist and deadly laws and breaking down the dominant narrative told about black and brown formerly incarcerated people as well as third world people, we can ask ourselves these simple questions:

  • How is your solidarity with Black people, in particular Blackness, reflected in your own personal life?
  • Do you have Black friends who are in touch with their Blackness over for lunch or dinner on a consistent basis?  If so, when was the last time?
  • Are you able to name five Black authors who reflect Blackness and have had an influence in your life?
  • Are you able to name five historical Black Colleges in America?

It’s not an end, and it won’t bring justice to America. But it’s a start.

Brittany_headshotAgainst the backdrop of heightened media attention to police killings of unarmed black and brown men, many of us reacted to the tragic news from Charleston by thinking “oh no, not again.” This was my first thought.  Indeed, the most heart-wrenching aspect of this story is not that it is senseless and random, but that it is tied to an ideology of white supremacy that is unexceptional in this country. Dehumanization of people of color is, in fact, the norm. It plays out in more and less obviously violent ways, but we are nonetheless exposed to it every single day.

On days like today, the absurdity of claiming that racism is dead in America becomes inescapable. Most days, however, I see white people, whether explicitly or implicitly, struggling to support this claim. Many of us fail to see, for instance, that when we ignore or justify the inequities and abuses of the prison industrial complex, when we cling to the trope of individual accountability, we tell ourselves a lie that reinforces the dehumanization of people of color.

This is because it is psychologically impossible to uphold our system of incarceration without simultaneously fostering racist beliefs that black and brown people are somehow more deserving of punishment. If we, even unconsciously, see people of color as less innocent, as less human, it becomes easier to cage them and, sometimes, to kill them. In this way, a color-blind approach to looking at the criminal (in)justice system – and other systems of oppression in this country – is literally deadly.

Color-blindness – the tendency to claim that we live in a post-racial America – allows for the continued dehumanization of black and brown folks. It allows us to accept the status quo and to avoid the uncomfortable work it takes to remake ourselves and our country. The sad truth is that white supremacy pervades our society. It exists in the police, in “lone gunmen” in the South, and here in “progressive” California, but we owe it to future generations to stop repeating this story.

So to those of you who are thinking today “oh no, not again,” and especially to my fellow white allies, I encourage you not just to pray for the families of those lost in Charleston, but to ask yourself honestly what role color-blindness within you or those around you plays in the dehumanization of people of color.

Denise-300x225This morning I woke up to the horrific news that nine people were shot and killed by a white gunman in a Charleston, South Carolina church. I felt a jolt go through me that literally took my breath away and brought a sick feeling to my stomach. I sat down and cried at the breakfast table with incoherent grief and rage. The question that came to me then, that still lingers, is how long will this kind of racial terrorism continue to happen? How long will we continue to put up with it?

At a Coming to the Table conference on racial healing, I learned about “social trauma” from two Black women who taught a genealogy class specifically for descendants of enslaved people and descendants of families who “owned” “slaves.” Social trauma is the understanding that, because we are all connected in a web of consciousness, when atrocities and oppression are practiced towards any group it actually hurts us all. Not in the same way, not remotely…but even those of us who are not directly impacted, if we have an open heart and a conscience, and if we do recognize the humanity of all people, can feel tremendous pain.

White supremacy and all its atrocities have been passed down through the generations, and shows no signs of weakening its death grip on this country. It is practiced on a daily basis by police, by prison guards, by courts and legislatures. It is a poison, a great blistering disease of our body politic. Today I am asking myself, as a white person who has inherited this horrifying state of affairs, including white privilege – am I doing the most I can to fight the system of white supremacy, by challenging other white folks and speaking out about it? What else can I do, starting today?

// NOTE(kyle) 3/24/15: This fixes the broken sidebar tabbing behavior of the // Tabber Widget. The original JS is still there but has been commented out.