The Charleston Massacre and Racial Deserts of Despair
By Lori Latrice Martin, PhD
There are no words to adequately describe the pain and anguish many feel as the details of the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina emerge. Our hearts ache for the families and friends of the nine innocent men and women murdered en masse. We simply cannot imagine the range of the emotions the faithful few gathered for mid-week bible study must have felt. Collectively, many of us are sad and we are angry. Unfortunately, we have been here before, and chances are, we will be here again.
On the issues of race and racism, we are perpetually like a vehicle at a railroad crossing with the gate down and red lights flashing. The warning signs are there, time is quickly passing us by, but we cannot move forward.
On the subject of race and racism, some people get to a point where they are outraged by overt manifestations of deep seeded racial hatred. Many call for the removal of controversial symbols, like the Confederate Flag. Some people cry out and observe a period of mourning and reflection.
At the same time, others deny either the role of race and racism inherent in the American tragedies, or use the occurrences to misdiagnose racism as a disease, or to define the concept as a set of beliefs that is taught in a relatively small number of families, or in carefully defined hate groups. Racism is not typically understood as a system of oppression whereby people of color are scapegoated, resulting in people of color experiencing unequal treatment, fewer life chances, and fewer opportunities.
When we understand race and racism as central to the ways in which American society is ordered, particularly as important parts of how institutions function in our everyday lives, then we can begin to comprehend the various ways in which we are revisited in modern times by the reign of racial terror experienced by enslaved and free blacks during antebellum America. We can fathom the assaults on black communities during Reconstruction and in the early part of the 20th century when race riots broke out in cities across the nation, including the home of “The Great Emancipator.” We are not as taken aback, in light of recent assaults on black bodies when we recall the threats and physical acts of violence visited upon named and unknown foot soldiers during the modern-day Civil Rights Movement. The pain and anger felt regarding the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the wars on poverty and drugs is more easily transferred into advocacy and activism when we truly understand how whiteness and blackness shaped American social institutions, in particular, and American social life more broadly.
So long as there are those among us who refuse to acknowledge the centrality of race and racism, and understand race and racism for what they really are, we will forever remain at the crossroads. We will remain in this vicious cycle of anger, rage, disbelief, minimization, victim blaming, and collective historical amnesia.
As we remember the nine lives lost, we must also remember the historical, political, social, and even economical processes that created the climate in which the doctrines of white supremacy and black inferiority are communicated even today, through both private actions and public policies. Lest we forget that there are those who benefit both directly and indirectly from this historic system of oppression. Until we realize that we all have a part to play, and act to transform our society in meaningful ways, we will continue to live in these deserts of racial despair.