Responding to the Tragedy in SC

Today when I checked the news, I was deeply saddened to hear of the tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina. If you are unaware of what happened, here is the gist: last night at 9:00PM, a 21-year-old white man walked into a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and opened fire. He killed nine people, spared two others and then fled. He has since been arrested.

The Charleston police spokesman Charles Francis claims, along with the leading investigators, that it was indeed a hate crime; the victims, he says, were killed “because they were black.” Photos on the shooter’s Facebook page also suggest that the act was rooted in hate.

Hate crimes take many forms. Some hate with words, some with silence. Some hate by taking, some by refusing to give. Some hate with non-lethal force, and some elevate themselves to the status of a god and judge their “enemies” by taking their lives.

People who hate often do so because they are afraid. Acts of hate such as this shooting are based on a refusal to entertain the idea that you could in fact share something with people who look different from you or belong to different group. They are closed-minded acts and, ultimately, acts of cowardice.

Although hate burns us, I do try to remember that a fire cannot burn if it has no fuel. What do I mean by this? Nothing can burn in an atmosphere of carbon dioxide; fire needs oxygen. In America, the fuel for the fire of hate crimes and racism is made up of many things: bigotry is one of them, but so is the existence of racist institutions. While we might not be able to remove bigotry completely from the human condition, we can change our cultural atmosphere to stifle the spark of bigotry before it grows into a full-fledged flame.

Much of my research has dealt with the ways in which black optimism in America (with regard to their socioeconomic prospects, etc.) is far greater than their actual attainment. This is partly due to the false belief that, in this country, race no longer matters. Incidents like this massacre in SC, however, remind us painfully that it does matter. It kills. Mother Emmanuel church was founded in 1816 by blacks seeking liberty. This shooting is an attack on black liberty.

Until everyone in this country—whatever the color of their skin—realizes how terrible the effects of race really are, racism and violent bigotry will continue to hold back our march to freedom.

In the meantime, let us join the nation in mourning this tragic loss of life. Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston has created the Mother Emmanuel Hope Fund to support the grieving families. To donate, send a check to the following address:

Mother Emanuel Hope Fund
C/O City of Charleston
P.O. Box 304
Charleston, SC 29402

Color-Blindness Hurts

Color-Blindness Hurts

What exactly happened to Tahera Ahmad on that United Airlines flight?

According to news reports, a flight atteimagesK8O95V7Jndant denied Ahmad an unopened can of diet soda.  “Big deal,” you might think. “It’s probably just some obscure airline regulation about canned drinks, right?”

Unfortunately, no.  This is about race.

In Ahmad’s words, “This isn’t about me and a soda can.  It’s about systemic injustice that is perpetuated throughout our community.”

Specifically, it’s about the way that our system can overlook or even justify the most horrific prejudices.  It’s about how nobody stood up for Ahmad when another passenger told her to “f… off” because she “knew that [she] would use [the unopened can] as a weapon.”  And most importantly, it’s about the myth of color-blindness, a doctrine that is still actively being spread today.  This doctrine states that color doesn’t matter anymore, that minorities have won the battle for equal treatment, and that they no longer have any reason to think they are oppressed.

But what happened on this airline reminds us that color does matter.

And more than that, Ahmad reminds us that it’s not just non-white color that sends the system into defensive-oppressive mode.  It’s the colors of minority religions and cultures, too.  It’s about islamophobia propagated by irresponsible and unreflective media run by the privileged.  Not only do people’s visible differences still affect them.  They affect them every day—and it hurts.

Tahera Ahmad was in tears.

She wrote on her Facebook that she was “in tears of humiliation.”  She had hope that some fellow passenger would stand up and defend her, but all she received were profanities and the shaking of heads.

United Airlines is an institution like any other corporation.  Its top priority is self-preservation.  After this blunder by one of its flight attendants, the airline swiftly “redeemed” itself by terminating her employment.  While this is surely a gesture of its disapproval of religious prejudice, it still serves to sweep the issue under the rug.

The more the Civil Rights movement sinks into the background of our minds as an event in “history,” the more the doctrine of color-blindness sinks into our minds like a poison.  The ideology of color-blindness doesn’t make us immune to racism.

Ironically, color-blindness makes us blind to the real importance of color in our everyday lives.

In 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the commencement address at Oberlin College.  He said to them, “Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work…without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation” (King, 1968).

I agree with Dr. King.  Every day that we spend waiting for justice is another day that injustice has triumphed.  What should you do?

Follow the example of Dr. King.  Lead peaceful collective protest of United.

And tell everyone you know.