After Charleston

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The tragic massacre of nine African Americans as they worshipped in an historic Charleston, South Carolina church is yet another reminder of the persistence of racism in America. Its aftermath is also a window into our distorted and tortured discourse on race. In the days, weeks and months preceding this horrific event, across the country Americans wrestled with a series of deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement, until Rachel Dolezal’s racial identity captivated our attention. But the issue of a white woman’s self-professed identification as black has been swept away by the brutal execution of nine African Americans by a young white supremacist.

These are the moments when hard truths are spoken. It is in these moments that windows and doors open, if only for a moment, through which change may come. The crust that constitutes our daily indifference and denial may soften, or even break in these moments, providing an opportunity to see and act upon matters that have seemed intractable.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s call, joined by a bi-partisan and multi-racial coalition of the state’s citizens and elected officials, to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol, is a window and a door of opportunity. Those who support the flag have long argued that it honored their ancestors and their heritage, and that it did not represent racism and white supremacy. They did not answer the questions begged by those arguments: what defined that heritage, and for what did their ancestors shed their blood so proudly? Even if the response is “states’ rights”, it ineluctably leads back to slavery and white supremacy. African Americans have always understood the origins and the meaning of the Confederate flag. We understood why the flag, which had not flown over the state capitol since Reconstruction, reappeared during the Civil Rights Movement. I understand it today, each time I drive from Chapel Hill to Washington, D.C., and pass a 30 x 22 foot Confederate flag on a 90 foot flagpole, I-95 near Fredericksburg, Virginia, apparently on private land.

Those who have honored this flag need not fall on their swords to bring it down. Those whose lives were taken in Emanuel A.M.E. Church, and their family members who offered forgiveness even without the perpetrator’s contrition, can best be honored by removing the symbol of the Confederacy and its legacy that for generations subordinated black people to white supremacy. Whether it is a matter of grace on the part of those who identify by intent or by coincidence with the slave-holding South, or whether it is another example of how progress for African Americans has always been bought and paid for in blood, this is an opportunity for change.

As important as this symbolic act may be, there are also more concrete issues that lie exposed at this moment. Gun violence is one of them. Another is the place of race in conservatism. One of the central tenets of American conservatism over the last three decades has been opposition to affirmative action and all race-conscious efforts to address continued racial inequality. Many conservatives have equated the race consciousness that is necessary to address some of the most stubborn legacies of our history of white supremacy with racism. Race may not be the sum total of the American conservative movement, yet one is hard pressed to imagine that movement without the issue of race at its core. Therein lies the challenge. The two major political parties are identified in a polar opposite manner by identification with race. It does not serve our nation well. Racial progress has not always been associated with Democrats; until 1960 Republicans, as “the party of Lincoln”, were widely supported by those African Americans who could vote. Although some say the story is apocryphal, President Johnson is said to have lamented as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that he had delivered the South to the Republicans for a generation. If Johnson said it, he was optimistic. The racial polarization of American politics has extended for at least two generations. Even if we are not prepared or unable to dissolve the link between race and partisanship, we should at least ensure that those who purvey racial hatred do not find political shelter for their agenda within any political party. When racial supremacists think they can find sanctuary, we should ask ourselves, “why”? We should then reexamine our principles, and change our conduct.

Finally, whatever redemption may be found in the aftermath of the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, will not be found in the death penalty. That is just blood for blood. We have been brought by terrible events and by unspeakable deeds to this moment of possibility. The windows and doors are open, but only for a short while. We dare not waste what has been shed.

- Theodore M. Shaw, Julius L. Chambers Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, University of North Carolina School of Law at Chapel Hill

Posted by Theodore M. Shaw (Ted) on Fri. June 26, 2015 2:31 PM
Categories: General, Race Discrimination
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