25 June 2015


What happened in Charleston, South Carolina last week, on the 17th of June – with six women and three men, all black, being gunned down in a historical black Methodist church by a young white supremacist – is, I am finding, incredibly difficult to talk about. There are simply no words adequate for me to express either my outrage or my grief about this horrific crime that cries to Heaven for vengeance. I am not sure there can be words adequate to describe such wanton desecration of the living icons of God, within a place set aside for prayer, for reasons of ideological or racial purity. Yet this incident cannot pass by unremarked, and it must not pass by unnoticed and forgotten. The victims deserve far better, and we as a country owe them both remembrance and redress.

This is not simply to be treated as an isolated incident. Nor is it simply to be treated as a mental illness. The murderer cannot have acted alone: he had to have gotten the gun from somewhere, yes, but he also had to have gotten this heinous ideology from somewhere. And the ideology, more so than the gun, is the truly troubling thing.

But we aren’t mature enough yet to talk about ideology, and so we get into surface-level arguments over symbolism and markers of tribal affiliation. I am not in favour of the flag of the Army of Northern Virginia being flown from public buildings. I see no sense in the cause of the Confederacy which it is supposed to represent. The flag’s having been used over and over throughout American history as a symbol of race hatred – including most recently by the murderer in Charleston – is bad enough. But the fact that the original use was as a symbol of political anarchism and revolutionary violence in defence of (take your pick) slavery, violent territorial expansionism or nakedly-exploitative trade and taxation policies makes it (at least to my monarchist-inclined mind) an odious political symbol anyway. The odious uses of this flag should not, of course, be ignored; nor should the particular legacy of racism as tied up with slavery and Jim Crow in the American South. The geographical context of the shooting matters.

But this argument shouldn’t stop with the flag. A discussion over a church shooting like this shouldn’t even primarily be about the flag, but rather the ideology the shooter meant it to represent. The people who make this argument about the flag and other markers of Southern identity politics are indulging in a deliberate distraction. It makes racism and white supremacism a ‘Southern problem’, when in fact it is a problem which concerns all of us. Put as simply as possible, for starters, every portion of the country which has endorsed, signed onto or practised redlining policies is directly complicit in white supremacism. From 1934 to 1977, American taxpayer dollars went into explicitly discriminatory housing subsidies aimed at keeping widespread segregation of the black community from mainstream white America a de facto part of public life. And it’s a de facto part of public life which, in many Northern urban centres particularly, has not gone away.

The entire regional aspect of the American race debate, at least on the part of white liberals and white conservatives, seems counter-productive to me. Blaming the South for racism allows Northern liberals ‘off the hook’, leaving many of their own racial presumptions and practices unexamined. Likewise, blaming the South for racism perpetuates there a horrid kind of wagon-circling politics with its own racial blind spots not only left unexamined but actually flaunted. Blaming the South for racism is an oversimplification, and like all oversimplifications, it has a tendency to be wrong as often as it is right. And, as Rod Dreher so aptly puts it, ‘This is how cultural conflict turns into trench warfare, and [how] sin — yes, sin — does not get confronted, and repented of. It’s a dead end.’

The facts of racism in America are not, and should not be, comfortable. Particularly not to Northern white liberals (or even ex-liberals like me) who like to think of our hands clean of it. Charleston is our problem, too. Shame on us for thinking we can rinse our hands so easily of it by bickering over a flag. Prayers for the people of Charleston, and especially for the parishioners of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, for the souls of the victims (may God make their memories to be eternal), and for their families. And Lord have mercy upon us all.

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