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Charleston: a Reality Check on Racism in America

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On a Wednesday night, twenty-one year old Dylann Roof entered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, joined 12 black members in their Bible study group, and sat next to the pastor, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney. The members, meeting in the church basement, welcomed him to their circle, as they prayed and sang hymns. They also studied verses 16 to 20 of Mark’s Gospel, “which likens the word of God to a seed that must fall on good soil to bear fruit,” a New York Times story stated, (“A Hectic Day at Church, And Then a Hellish Visitor,” By Richard Fausset, John Eligon, Jason Horowitz and Frances Robles, June 21, 2015)

The parable was to have deadly meaning for the friendly—and unsuspecting—Bible study group. It is a story Jesus told to his disciples about ”the sower who “sows the word” on “good soil” so that it bears fruit,” rather than sowing it on “rocky ground,” or among “the thorns” where it “is chok[ed]” and “yields nothing.” Tragically, Dylann Roof’s life was sown among “the thorns” and ”rocky ground” of systemic racism. He almost didn’t go through with it, because “everyone was so nice to him,” NBC News reported. But, “I have to do it,” he said, according to a survivor, whom he allowed to live to tell the story. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” (“Dylann Roof Reportedly Almost Didn’t Go Through With Church Shooting Because ‘Everyone Was So Nice to Him,’” By Kim Bellware, The Huffington Post, June 19, 2015) He then pulled out a Gluck 45-caliber semiautomatic handgun and shot and killed nine of the Bible study members. The horrible massacre demands a reality check on America’s racist “soil,” on which such fear and hatred of persons of color continues to be sown and nourished– and denied.

In response to this shocking massacre, certain political leaders sought to deny the unequal “rocky ground” and thwarting “thorns” of America’s racist “soil.” South Carolina governor Nikki R. Haley’s reported reaction was, “While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” (“Nine Killed in Shooting at Black Church in Charleston,” By Jason Horowitz, Nick Corasaniti and Ashley Southall, The New York Times, June 17, 2015) But a few days later, after numerous photos appeared showing Dylann Roof posing with the Confederate battle flag, the governor called for the removal of the “Confederate flag from the perch in front of the State House building here.” A front-page New York Times story, headlined “Governor Joins the Call to Take Down Dixie Flag,” quoted her as saying, “A symbol long revered by many Southerners was for some, after the church massacre in Charleston, a ‘deeply offensive symbol of a brutally offensive past.’” (By Frances Robles, Richard Fausset and Michael Barbaro, June 23, 2015)

South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican 2016 presidential hopeful, initially had difficulty associating Dylann Roof’s murderous terrorist act with racism. His reported response on “The View” TV program was that “Dylann Roof, the accused gunman, had been targeting Christians rather than black Americans.” His comment “set off a social media firestorm.” But, as reported, The next day the Republican presidential candidate “clarified” himself, “saying he believed it was a racially motivated hate crime.” ’The only reason these people are dead is because they’re black,’ he said.” (“Returning Home to Console, a Presidential Hopeful Joins the Mourning,” By Ashley Parker, The New York Times, June 20, 2015)

Senator Graham’s back-and-forth is also seen in other reports. At one point he said, “It’s him . . . not the flag.” (“Lindsey Graham on Charleston shooter: ‘It’s him . . . not the flag,’” By Walbert Castillo, CNNPolitics.com, June 22, 22015) He was quoted as saying “the Confederate flag is part of the heritage of his home state of South Carolina, rebuffing calls for it to be taken down after a mass shooting in his state.” (“Lindsey Graham defends Confederate flag: ‘It works here,’” By Jesse Bymes, The Hill, June 19, 2015) But a week later, he pivoted, saying on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “I see it as a roadblock for South Carolina . . . My state will never be able to move forward after this shooting until we take this flag down.” (“Graham calls Confederate flag a ‘roadblock,’” By Mark Hensch, The Hill, June 28, 2015) That flag is also a “roadblock” to the lucrative tourism trade in Charleston — and to Senator Graham’s presidential aspirations.

Certain other Republican presidential candidates evidently have difficulty seeing what is plainly a matter of “black and white.” Jeb Bush, for example, reportedly said at “the Faith and Freedom Conference, ‘I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.’” And, “when pressed for a follow-up by the Huffington Post, Bush continued to equivocate: ‘It was a horrific act and I don’t know albertscpministerwhat the background of it is, but it was an act of hatred.’” When asked “whether the shooting was because of race, Bush added, ‘I don’t know. Looks like to me it was, but we’ll find out all the information. It’s clear it was an act of raw hatred, for sure,’” Bush added. “’Nine people lost their lives, and they were African American. You can judge what it is.’” (“Why Can’t Republicans Admit Dylann Roof Was Racist?,” By Jonathan Chait, NYMag, June 19, 2015) But Jeb Bush had difficulty judging “it.”

Certain mainstream media also steered clear of the racist “soil” on which the seed of Dylann Roof’s life was “sown.” An Associated Press story headline announced, “Suspect has long been on troubled road to radicalization.” The story says that interviews with “his friends and family” portray Roof as “troubled and confused . . .grew up in an unstable, broken home . . . apparently fell under the thrall of racist websites, But how and why are questions that remain unanswered.” (By Mitch Weiss and John Mone, Associated Press, Boston Sunday Globe, June 28, 2015)

A number of commentators have focused on Dylann Roof’s assumed “mental illness” as the cause of his murderous behavior. And some took this rationalization to a most bizarre extreme. Like Fox News Medical A-Team psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow, who said that “Roof, who allegedly shot and killed nine people at Emanuel AME Church . . . showed all the signs of severe and worsening mental illness.” Ablow recognizes “that Roof expressed hateful white supremacist opinion. But,” he said, “we also know that psychiatrically ill people can channel their paranoia or depression or extreme self-loathing into bizarre beliefs that sometimes lead to the destruction of others.” For this psychiatrist, the signs of Root’s mental illness are seen in him being “an isolated 21-year-old,” with “ a history of dropping out of high school . . . using drugs , , , withdrawing from friends, starting to sleep in his car and beginning to tell people that he intends to start a race war and then kill himself.” Ablow’s prescription: if a family member or a friend had reported Roof’s behavior to the police, he would have been “transported to an emergency room,” seen by a psychiatrist, “admitted to a locked psychiatric unit . . . detoxed . . . and being treated with the right psychiatric medicine.  And, then, all this might not have happened.” (“Charleston: Why didn’t anyone help Dylann Roof,?” www,foxnews.com, June 22, 2015)

The media coverage of white Dylann Roof’s brutal killings of the nine black church members contains numerous quotes about his assumed mental illness. “What happened in Charleston is simply pure irrational evil,“ said Tate Reeves, South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, “assert[ing] in a statement that the violence in Charleston should not be linked to a flag.” “The flag didn’t kill anybody. It was a deranged young man who did,” Kenneth Thrasher, lieutenant commander of South Carolina’s Sons of Confederate Veterans, was quoted as saying. (“Calls Rise to Remove Symbols of Confederacy,” By John Eligon, The New York Times, June 24, 2015; “Supporters of Confederate Battle Flag Watch as Symbol Is Stripped From Public Eye,” By Campbell Rob3ertson, The New York Times, June 24, 2015)

“I just think he was one of these wacked-out kids,” Senator Graham originally said, adding, “I don’t think it’s anything broader than that. It’s about a young man who is obviously twisted,” and “later amended his remarks, calling Mr. Roof ‘a racial jihadis,’ and saying that the only reason the victims had died was their race.” (“From Ferguson to Charleston, Anguish About Race Keeps Building,” By Lydia Polgreen, The New York Times, June 21, 2015)

Similar to mental illness, Dylann Roof is portrayed as a “loner,” which also helps to distance him from the racist American “soil” on which he was raised. A Washington Post story stated that, after suspect Dylann Roof was apprehended by police, “authorities declined to say whether he had confessed to the shooting, but police said they think he acted alone.”   The story characterized him as a “troubled loner.” (“Suspect captured in deadly shooting at black church in South Carolina,” By Robert Costa, Sari Horwitz and William Wan, June 18, 2015)

A Wall Street Journal editorial stated that the shooting to death of nine black church members by a white man will inevitably raise “the issue of race in America . . . It does not matter,” the editorial continued, “that the alleged killer, Dylann Roof brings to mind the mentally troubled young men who committed horrific mass murders of innocents inside buildings in Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; or Virginia Tech. “ The editorial proceeded to challenge President Obama’s statement about the massacre, in which, he referred to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s comment on the Ku Klux Klan’s 1963 bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Baptist Church that killed four young black girls. Quoting King’s remarks on the bombing, Obama observed, “We must be concerned . . . about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.” The editorial argued otherwise: “Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists.” The editorial’s final words: “What causes young men such as Dylann Roof to erupt in homicidal rage, whatever their motivation, is a problem that defies explanation beyond the reality that evil still stalks humanity. It is no small solace that in committing such an act today, he stands alone.” (The Charleston Shooting: An echo of 52 years ago, but also a crucial difference,” June 18, 2015) Here, again, we have a remarkable denial of racism as a continuing problem in our nation; and this from a newspaper which seeks to speak for some of the most powerful and wealthy corporations in the country.

Dylann Roof does not “stand alone” as the inexplicable embodiment of “evil still stalk[ing] humanity.” He did not “act alone,” as police assumed. He had plenty of company. And much of that company is mainstream—“respectable” and “God-fearing.” His racist belief that black persons are “rap[ing] our women . . . and taking over our country” was “sown” on solid American “soil.”

A manifesto, attributed to Dylann Roof and found online, reveals the company he keeps. That company includes the Council of Conservative Citizens (CofCC), a white supremacist hate group that helped to nurture his belief in the inferiority of black persons and the threat “the integration of the races” poses to the United States’ white “European-American heritage.” (“Statement of Principles of CofCC, conservative-headlines.com) The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman led Roof to Google “black on white” crime,” which took him to CofCC’s website; and it’s portraying of blacks attacking whites as an “epidemic” led him to reportedly write, “I have never been the same since that day.” (“Dylann Roof Photos and a Manifesto Are Posted on Website,” By Frances Robles, The New York Times, June 20, 2015; see also, “Inside the White Supremacist Group that Influenced Charleston Shooting Suspect, ”By Josh Sanburn, time.com, June 22, 2015)

Nor is the Council of Conservative Citizens so “far right” that it doesn’t keep company with the American mainstream. The title of a Guardian story by Jon Swaine reveals the reach of this white supremacist hate group: “Leader of group cited in ‘Dylann Roof manifesto’ donated to top Republicans.” Swaine writes, “The leader of a rightwing group that Dylann Roof allegedly credits with helping to radicalize him against black people before the Charleston church massacre has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Republicans such as presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum.” When informed about the donor by theguardian, all three indicated they plan to give the donations to Emanuel AME Church to assist the families of the massacre victims. With Santorum’s spokesperson dissociating him from the massacre in an e-mail: “Senator Santorum does not condone or respect racist or hateful comments of any kind.” Swaine stated that Holt [CofCC leader] “has also distributed tens of thousands in campaign contributions among prominent Republicans in Congress, such as Representative Steve King of Iowa . . . Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas . . . Senator Jeff Flake . . . and former Minnesota congresswoman and presidential candidate Michele Bachmann.” (June 22, 2015)

The company the Council of Conservative Citizens keeps has included Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council (FRC), which “advance[s] faith, family and freedom in public policy and culture from a Christian worldview.” (“Vision and Mission Statements,” www.frc.org)   As reported by mediamatters.org, The Southern Poverty Law Center “has designated FRC a ‘hate group’ since 2010, owing to its promotion of extreme and bigoted myths about LGBT people and calls its employees to criminalize homosexuality.” (“ABC’s This Week Hosts Anti-Gay Hate Group to Discuss Marriage Equality Ruling, By Rachel Calvert, June 28, 2015) Perkins connection to the CofCC? The Right Wing Watch states that he “spoke at a 2001 meeting . . . of the Louisiana chapter of the Council of Conservative Citizens. When asked about it several years later,” the story continues, “Perkins said he could not ‘remember speaking at the event.’ Unfortunately for him, there’s a picture.” (“The Religious Right’s Council of Conservative Citizens Connection,” By Miranda Blue, June 24, 2015) Nevertheless, Perkins has considerable access to mainstream media, and is a frequent guest on Fox News.

No, Dylann Roof did not act “alone.” The death sentence he pronounced on the nine members of Emanuel AME Church before executing them—“You’re taking over our country, and you have to go”—echoed Tea Party rallies calling for Republications to “Take Our Country Back,”(See for example, “Republicans hold ‘Take Our Country Back’ rally in Greenville, By Andrew Doughman, GoUpstate.com, Sept. 14, 2012)

Dylann Roof was not a “loner.” The company he keeps includes a big crowd in the nation’s capital itself—a veterans-led march and rally protesting the (Republican-caused) government shut-down that resulted in the closing of Washington monuments. The Confederate battle flag could be seen flying at that protest. Seen also—and heard– were former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas speaking at the rally, Cruz having played a major role in the shut-down. Being quoted talking out of the other side of his mouth, Cruz asked, “Why is the government spending money to create barricades to keep veterans out of this memorial?” And Palin stated, “You . . . see these barricades and you have to ask yourself, is this any way that a commander in chief would show his respect, his gratitude to our military?” (“Rallier tells Obama to ‘put the Quran down,’” Posted by CNN’s Ashley Killough, Shannon Travis and Brian Rokus, politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com, Octo. 13, 2013)

The reported company at this Tea Party-inspired veterans-staged event included “Larry Klayman of Freedom Watch, a conservative political advocacy group . . . [who] went so far as saying the president was a Muslim and separately urged the crowd of hundreds to initiate a peaceful uprising.” Klayman’s version of “take our country back” was coded: “I call upon all of you to wage a second American nonviolent revolution, to use civil disobedience, and demand that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up.” (Ibid) Neither former governor Palin or Sen. Cruz repudiated Klayman’s hateful anti-Obama rant. Klayman used the “M” word, but he meant the “N” word—and most in his audience are assumed to have gotten his meaning.

Dylann Roof may have been a high school drop-out, but his life-long schooling in white supremacy was reinforced by educated leaders. Another example is last February’s National Prayer Breakfast. President Obama provided a historically documented message on “humility” to his mostly interfaith audience, saying, “And lest we get on our high horse and think this [hijacking religion for murderous ends] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” He then became more specific: “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.” (“Remarks by the President at National Prayer Breakfast,” wwwwhitehouse.gov, Feb. 5, 2015) His lesson on” humanity” did not go over well. The extensive condemnation of his words included the reaction of former Virginia Republican governor Jim Gilmore: “The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve heard a president make in my lifetime.   . . . He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This,” he raged on, “goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we share.” (“Critics pounce after Obama talks of Crusades, slavery at prayer breakfast,” By Juliet Eilperin, The Washington Post, Feb. 5, 2015)

“”Obama does not believe in America or the values we share.” Shades of the Council of Conservative Citizens whose principles include “oppos[ing] all efforts . . . to destroy or denigrate the European-American [white] heritage.” Shades of the words of a racist-at-large saying to his black victims, “You’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Shades of a black president, whose occupation of the White House, threatens the very foundation of the white supremacy upon which this country was “discovered,” conquered, expanded and continues to justify itself. Possible shades of the current rampant killings of black men by white police officers, which may be influenced by long-harbored resentment of a president who is black.

President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney at Emanuel AME Church provides quite a different– and informed– setting and audience from that of his National Prayer Breakfast address. At Emanuel Church, he didn’t hold back; and his predominately black audience– unlike many of his listeners at the Prayer Breakfast– had no problem with his references to history. The people at Emanuel Church loved and hung on his every word. Being black, he and they shared a common history. To repeated thunderous applause, he said, “For too long, we’ve been blind to the way the past injustices continue to shape the present.” He asked “tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty . . . or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without the prospects for a job or for a career.” (“Transcript: Obama delivers eulogy for Charleston pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.” By Washington Post, The Washington Post, June 26, 2015)

President Obama’s eulogy flushed out today’s hiding place of many white Americans: the belief that racism is an individual, not institutional issue. That it is about social interaction, not structural discrimination. About getting along, not getting by.

To more tremendous applause from his knowing audience, the president put his finger on how unconsciously conditioned we white people are to our favored position on America’s white-controlled hierarchy of access to political, economic , legal, and religious power. “Maybe we now realize the way a racial bias can infect us,” Obama preached, “even when we don’t realize it so that we’re guarding against not just racial slurs but we’re also guarding against the subtle impulse to call Johnny back for a job interview but not Jamal.” (Ibid) The people filling Emmanuel Church responded with a standing ovation.

Had President Obama provided such a reality check on racism when he ran for president, he would not have been elected. And had he provided such clear leadership upon entering office, some might not be surprised at the speculation that perhaps someone else would have given the eulogy at his funeral. Even though Obama continued an imperialistic foreign policy against The Other in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, following in the footsteps of of George W. Bush, his father, and Bill Clinton. A policy that has hurt both“Jamal” and “Johnny.”

North Carolina NAACP president Rev. Dr. William Barber points to the “climate” that nurtured the “soil” on which Dylann Roof’s racism was “sown.” On June 18, the night after Roof shot and killed the nine church members, Barber said on MSNBC, “You know the real issue here is not just one murderer but the climate that produced someone who said, “You are taking over our country, and I want to kill you.” Barber “thought about the kind of pastor that Rev. Pinckney was; we call it prophetic social justice—understanding the Gospel as liberation.” Referring again to the “dangerous climate,” Barber stated, “I would say to the governor down there . . . if they’re serious, we don’t need closure right now. We need crying and we need change. And,” he went on, “if they’re very serious about honoring that family, just bring that flag down, pass medicaid, stop doing voter suppression and show that we can move beyond these issues to what is just and right.”

Writer David A. Love provides a fitting ending for Rev. Barber’s words, saying, “Let’s all hope the flag get removed forever and that Roof receives full and swift justice for violently ending nine beautiful lives. However,” Love warned, “it will be at our nation’s peril if we confuse these two symptoms for our nation’s true disease—the cancer of systemic racism.” He ended with, “As the Reverend Dr. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP eloquently said, ‘The perpetrator was caught in Shelby, but the killer is still at large.” (“The danger with making the Confederate flag and Dylann Roof the face of racism,” the grio.com, June 22, 2015)

The horrific massacre in Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston has led numerous faith leaders to offer prayers, in their pulpits and newsletters, for the victims and their families—and the country. While prayer can be comforting and empowering, it is often another way of folding one’s hands and doing nothing to change the “soil” on which white privilege remains institutionalized.

The lack of courage that leads many faith leaders to use prayer to an ethereal “God,” as a hiding place, rather than confront the structural “soil” that benefits them, is addressed in a personal e-mail by Rev. Dr. Brian Childs, former president of the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. He joins Rev. Barber in providing a reality check on America’s racist “soil” in writing,

An indication of this loss of courage is the proclivity of so many now to gush and marvel at terms such as reconciliation and forgiveness after Charleston. Yes the ability to forgive by the folks in the Emanuel congregation is inspiring and humbling, but nobody has stood up to say that to really forgive the forgiven needs to confess wrongdoing. Even more, that we support a system of systemic oppression economically, educationally, nutritionally and though many can claim they were never raised as racist still enjoy a system that requires subjugation of many so that a few may flourish. It was not an isolated disturbed young man who shot and killed in the Bible study; it was a young man supported by a system that  encourages guns, violence, and keeping some poor in order for the spoils to go to the few.

The “good soil” that nourishes life? Jesus referred to it in the same Mark’s Gospel the Emanuel Church Bible group was studying that fateful Wednesday night: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2: 27) It is about institutions. People are ends in themselves, not means to serve the ends of the well-connected. Rather than creating a hierarchy of human worth, institutions should protect and nurture the inalienable rights of everyone equally. And the mission of faith leaders and their congregations especially calls them to lead the way.

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Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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