And the Tide Continues to Rise

by the editor

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The future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives [...] whether or not they are going to face and deal with and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long. What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger, I am a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, means you need it. The question you’ve got to ask yourself— the white population of this country has got to ask itself —North and South, because it’s one country, and for a Negro, there’s no difference between the North and South. There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact. If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.
— James Baldwin from an interview with Dr. Kenneth Clark

Here is what we know. In two days, two black churches in the Deep South were shot up. The first shooting resulted in the murders of nine people; thankfully, there were no casualties in the second. The first shooting was committed by a self-proclaimed white supremacist, but we know next to nothing about who committed the second shooting and why. Earlier in the week, a white man in Ohio chased a group of children with a gun, cocked and loaded, while shouting nigger at least nine times. The group of children included at least one white child, for the gun-wielding assailant reportedly called her/him a “white-trash nigger lover.”2 Though this last story has not garnered as much attention as the mass racially-motivated shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, it matters just as much. The public rhetoric revolving around this racial violence, specifically the Charleston shooting, pivots on the issues of gun control and gun violence. The day after the shooting, President Obama told the White House Press Corps that people “who wanted to inflict harm and had no problem attaining a gun." On Friday, June 19, while addressing the annual Mayors’ Conference in San Francisco, though he acknowledged the racial motivations behind the Charleston shooting, he again turned towards the issue of gun violence and Congress’s failure to take legislative action after Sandy Hook. He said, 

“But as much as we grieve this particular tragedy, I think it's important, as I had mentioned at the White House, to step back and recognize that these tragedies have become far too commonplace. Few people understand the terrible toll of gun violence like mayors do. Whether it's a mass shooting like the one in Charleston, or individual attacks of violence that add up over time, it tears at the fabric of the community. And it costs you money, and it costs resources. It costs this country dearly”

He then went on to speculate that had Congress acted in 2012 after Sandy Hook, that perhaps Dylann Roof would not have walked into the historic black church in South Carolina and opened fire. The neoliberal spin on the cost of gun violence notwithstanding, what is perhaps most disconcerting about the President’s comments is what he does not say, but what we all also know for sure. This shooting in Charleston is not a matter of gun control or the epidemic of gun violence. Nor is it about illegalized drug use, as Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested, or a matter ensuring that every American is armed and allowed to conceal carry, as the NRA suggested. No, what happened in Charleston on Wednesday night is related to what happened in Charleston on April 14, when white police officer Michael Slager murdered Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, while he was running away. It is related to what happened to Freddie Gray in Baltimore; Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO; Kajiemie Powell in St. Louis; John Crawford in Beavercreek; Shelly Frey in Houston, just to name only some the murders that have happened in the last year. The growing list of unarmed or lesser armed people murdered by white police officers and civilians is alarming. The Charleston mass shooting is just one more terrifying example of lethal racist violent crimes that are redefining our current moment as what Sundiata K. Cha-Jua calls “the New Nadir.” Though Cha-Jua uses the term to mark black Americans’ loss of “the socioeconomic gains [...] achieved by the civil rights and Black Power Movements,”4 the New Nadir also marks the rising tide of anti-black violence. Our current moment, politically, culturally, and socially, looks eerily similar to the eras of Reconstruction and the long post-Reconstruction era during which anti-black violence took the lives of thousands of Americans of color. Likening the tragedy of the Charleston AME Church shooting to the Aurora, CO movie theater shooting and Sandy Hook only obfuscates the real issue: race, racism, and the violence they produce.

That the President refuses to name this violence for what it actually is should be of no surprise. He has made it a practice to refrain from commenting on the true nature of these crimes. Yet, rather than simply deride him for his extreme caution and politicking, we should instead recognize his silence as a symptom of the times we have been living. All black leaders who have spoken out against white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, the ideology that structures this nation, have either been assassinated or exiled. None of us can imagine or understand his position as the first, and most likely that last, black politician to hold the highest office in the land. Most of us, however, can understand that the threats under which he lives because of his blackness are real and frightening; as real and as frightening as they are for any black American, whether in the assumed safety of our homes and churches or in public. That is to say, there are no safe spaces for us; we are constantly under threat of extermination. This will remain true until we take the risk of admitting that the progress and exceptionalism for which we celebrate ourselves and this nation are but myths. This will remain true until, to paraphrase James Baldwin, the white majority confronts its moral apathy in the face of black suffering,5 a moral apathy exposed by the apparent refusal to root out white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy and the returning specters of inequality. Until we acknowledge that the quotidian nature of anti-black violence and black suffering is one of the truest measures of how far we continue to move away from our humanity, freedom, and ethical comportment, we will remain haunted by our failures to build a society free of oppression and the domination of humans by humans.

NOTES

 1 James Baldwin interviewed by Dr. Kenneth Clark. “James Baldwin on Malcolm X, (3 of 3),” 7:33, YouTube video posted by Malcolm X Network November 29, 2008, https://youtu.be/kXwVnYGJ_Cw

2  Breanna Edwards, “Ohio Man Allegedly Chases Kids With Gun, Shouts Racial Slurs,” The Root (June 19, 2015)http://www.theroot.com/articles/news/2015/06/ohio_man_allegedly_chases_kids_with_gun_shouts_racial_slurs.html?wpisrc=see_also_article

3   Jaeah Lee and Edwin Rios, “Obama to US Mayors on Guns: "We Need a Change in Attitude. We Have to Fix
This,” Mother Jones (June 19, 2015). http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/06/obama-mayors-charleston-gun-violence-speech-video

4  “The New Nadir: The Contemporary Black Racial Formation,” in special issue, “Black Political Economy.”"The Black Scholar Vol. 40.No. 1 (2010): 38-58. http://works.bepress.com/sundiata_chajua/2

5 James Baldwin interviewed by Dr. Kenneth Clark. “James Baldwin on Malcolm X, (1 of 3),” 7:10, YouTube video posted by Malcolm X Network November 29, 2008, https://youtu.be/Rt-WgwFEUNQ