Following the massacre of nine African-Americans perpetrated by a 21-year-old white man within the walls of a house of worship steeped in history, the aptly named church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, United States, onlookers are left perplexed by the survival of such hateful and murderous sentiments in the hearts of a minority of white Americans.
What happened on June 17, 2015 does not qualify as a minor news story. In fact, even if no doubt is raised by the racial motivation behind the assassination of nine African-Americans in a prayer room by the young white killer identified as Dylann Roof, [the event] does at least go beyond [normal] commotion, fear and astonishment to prompt [one to look again at] the persistent question of racial syndrome in the United States.
Why, during the 21st century, do a minority of white American youth continue to be inclined to reproduce mental, behavioral and ideological frameworks that are segregationist, even hateful, toward Americans with black skin?
How has this supremacist ideology and the legitimization of the reification of black skin in the United States been able to endure to the point of sowing and taking root in the mind of an individual who has not known those darks periods of U.S. history, “[when] to take Black lives [was] a duty; indeed, “an imperative for the safety and well-being of the [public]”?
Some pathways to the answers to these questions become apparent, first in the specific context of the South of the United States, then in a more global framework regarding the geopolitics of racism in the world.
The subject may seem taboo in the United States, in part because of American puritanism. But it is worth getting away from the too-brittle veneer of esteem that the world’s people and nations grant the ethical and democratic values defended by the United States.
The racial syndrome in the United States is rooted in centuries of violence, discrimination, social segregation and racial inequalities. The slave trade, slavery and apartheid have all left their marks on the consciences of Americans. Numerous kinds of racial violence that continue to fuel the daily lives of Latino-Americans and African-Americans prove that the question of race in the United States and throughout the world is a wound that has not yet been cauterized.
The “cosmetic” solutions of our time do not suffice. They are counterproductive, even. It is understood that a “live surgery” applied to the racial wound would only provide temporary healing to an evil whose bacteria are ancient. The racial syndrome is transgenerational: It is from a violence that is unheard of, blind and complete. It carries the germs of total rejection of the other and the necessity of their elimination. In this, it is a pathology of the conscience that draws its essence from ignorance.
The open investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the federal police will surely shed more light on the motivations behind this hate crime and heinous killing, as well as the killer’s choice of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
The investigations will notably determine if the young 21-year-old killer, the presumed perpetrator of the shooting or convicted as such, was aware of the symbolic importance of the church that he targeted.
Nicknamed “Mother Emanuel,” the church targeted by Dylann Roof is one of the oldest and most important black congregations in the southern United States. According to Robert Greene, doctoral student of history at the University of South Carolina: “It’s not just a church. It’s also a symbol … of black freedom.” Founded in 1816 by a black pastor infuriated by segregation, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church rapidly established itself at the forefront of the fight against slavery. In 1822, one of its cofounders incited a slave revolt. Denounced by one of his comrades, he was executed, as well as some 30 [other] people. The congregation dissolved and the church burned.
At its reconstruction at the end of the 19th century, the tradition of emancipation and civil rights in South Carolina had not disappeared. On the contrary, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church became not only a crossroads for the civil rights movement, but also a symbolic place, chosen by numerous activists who delivered speeches there, including one of its most famous, Martin Luther King, in 1962.
The church’s pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in the attack, was an activist in the local Senate for the adoption of a law that would require police officers to wear cameras on their uniform.
Even if it is said that the 21-year-old killer, perpetrator of this hate crime, ignored all symbolic meaning of the prayer room into which he slipped, the fact remains — and this is our opinion — that he was aware he was executing “a heroic and life-saving act” in a context where systematic violence against blacks endangers the very foundation of the United States, which is [purportedly] constructed upon respect for all differences. The extreme delicacy and almost reverential attention shown toward the perpetrator of the killing is, at the very least, strange when one recognizes the police repression that followed the murder of a young black unarmed adolescent, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, for an alleged theft of cigarettes in Ferguson, Missouri.
It is not inconsistent to agree with director and producer Spike Lee that, in today’s America and under the presidency of Barack Obama, the disappearance of racism is a fantasy. In reality, in the news, in their daily lives, African-Americans stress in no uncertain terms that “there’s a war against the black male and it’s tearing the country apart.”
Injustice, violence of all kind and racial inequality — like [any form of] social segregation — only contributes to growing frustrations and to pushing African-Americans into a cyclical situation: claims [of injustice], repression, then stigmatization.
The procession of evils and unfavorable biases that blacks in the United States are saddled with pertain to a power system that destines them to represent the image of misery, destitution, parasitism, trafficking of all kinds, acts of violence and crimes of all types. The author of “Racism and Societies: New Epistemological Foundations for Understanding Racism,”* Dr. Carlos Moore, notices with extreme relevancy that in mass media, notably in television, “white men represent virtue, purity, nobility. The black man is a crook, inferior. Each time he appears as a violent person … In a racist society, the institutions are racist.”*
Such an allegation cannot be contested by statistics of racial violence like those pertaining to social divides. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an organization specializing in the study of extremist movements, “784 hate groups were reported in the United States in 2014: 142 neo-Nazis, 115 white supremacists and 72 chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. Inspired by Barack Obama’s election, the number of these groups increased, passing from 888 extremist groups in 2008 to over 1,000 in 2012.”* Mark Potok, one of the authors of the report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, explains that since 2012, thanks in part to the election of Barack Obama as the first black president in the history of the United States, the number of extremist groups has gone down. But he further explained that “those numbers may be somewhat deceiving. More than half of the decline in hate groups was of Ku Klux Klan chapters, and many of those have apparently gone underground, ending public communications rather than disbanding.”
The FBI’s most recent statistics stress that close to half of the hate crimes committed in the United States were linked to a racial motive … and more than 66 percent of victims of these racist crimes were black, a trend that has remained stable over the past 10 years.
In America in 2015, how can it be justified that the life expectancy of an African-American is four years less than that of a white person? That the incarceration of blacks is six times higher than that of whites? That a white household earns around 70 percent more than an African-American household?
The authorities in charge of presiding over the influence of an exemplary America worthy of carrying the values of liberty and of the harmonious mixing of people of different races should authorize open reflection on this transgenerational racial syndrome in the United States.
The Representative Council of France’s Black Associations (CRAN) is of the opinion that the racial syndrome in the United States, as in the rest of the world, does harm to the perceptions and universal conscience characteristic of the people and races of the world.
Objectivity, intellectual honesty and truth about the origin of human brotherhood could save the world, and raise to the pediment of universal human conscience these profound words from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in “Wind, Sand and Stars”:
“My brother, if you differ from me, [my brother,] far from hurting me, you enrich me.”
*Editor’s note: Neither the publication, nor the original quotation, though accurately translated, could be verified.