A Different World

Sorry, but there’s nothing unfathomable about 9 black people being killed in Charleston church

A man kneels across the street from where police gather outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. | Wade Spees AP
A man kneels across the street from where police gather outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. | Wade Spees AP

What happened in Charleston Wednesday night is only unfathomable to those who have refused to pay attention to the still pernicious ways race affects our daily lives, in ways large and small, during high-profile tragedies and an everyday, largely unseen - often unacknowledged - ongoing crisis.

There’s a reason I spent so much time in the lead-up to this year’s Atlantic Beach Memorial Day Bikefest trying to explain why things weren’t as dangerous as many claimed, that there wasn’t as much to fear as many believed.

I knew the all-too-real potential for ugly things.

When you demonize an entire group - even unintentionally - you make it easier for others to harm, shame or kill them, because the group is no longer seen as a collection of human beings just as complex as you are, but, instead is just one big threat that it might make sense to take out with a rifle.

According to the cousin of one of the victims, the gunman said this:

“You rape our women and you’ve taken over our country, and you have to go.”

That’s taking black stereotypes to their logical conclusion.

Those stereotypes, rolling around freely and unchallenged in too many minds, are also why so many people are unmoved by enormous racial disparities found at every level of the criminal justice system - which is itself a daily violence inflicted upon black (and brown) people.

It’s why when a young black dude walking home from the store, armed with nothing more than a fruity drink when he’s stalked and then killed by a strange man, it becomes a discussion, not about that senseless act and how police refused to do a complete, timely investigation, but about “black on black” crime.

It’s why when a young man has his spine severed while in police custody or a 12-year-old is gunned down by a cop for playing with a toy gun in a park, or a man is choked to death for allegedly selling loose cigarettes, or black boys are expelled from kindergarten because they are seen as threats, or black men with a college degree and no criminal record have job prospects similar to those of white men with high school diplomas and a criminal past, or black women abused by those wearing badges are essentially invisible, it’s mostly chalked up to black people not believing in personal responsibility or making too many excuses or talking about race too much.

As long as a group can be distilled into that kind of nothingness, there’s no reason to examine what’s really driving the struggles they face.

That’s why a group of black people in a Bible study in a church founded during the Civil War era because blacks were seen as threats, less than human then, too, is seen as no different than a group of black “thugs” on the streets of Myrtle Beach or Baltimore. A lone gunman on Wednesday night allegedly targeted a group of black people with his gun, but black people are more frequently targeted with hateful words and out-of-context statistics that are used to explain away the challenges they face.

As tragic as the Charleston shooting is, it’s akin to pouring salt into an open wound that’s never been allowed to heal.

For a long time, I feared Myrtle Beach would be the site of such an event.

For months leading up to this May’s Bikefest, I had been receiving all kinds of messages, including from several people who told me they would be armed and would be purposefully going out into the crowds. Not because they had to, but because they wanted to teach those nasty, ugly, violent black Bikefest participants a thing or two.

I knew they were serious but, frankly, didn’t know what to do about it. I also knew that I’ve heard from many people like that over the past couple of decades, and most of them don’t follow through.

But it creates a dilemma every time. Do I alert the authorities and others just in case?

Or do I ignore it, hoping they are just letting off steam?

I still haven’t figured out how to handle it.

I mostly swallow it in the same way I’ve swallowed racially-charged threats aimed my way, not wanting to give credence to such things, which is why I’ve rarely written about them - even though over the years I’ve watched as my wife had to suffer with how best to process those threats, and that we’ve had to quietly take precautions with our children.

And yet, even though I do that, I’m often accused of ginning up unrest and overplaying the issue of race - because I know more about what I speak than those demanding my silence.