Like many, I reeled in despair and disbelief at the news of the murder of nine innocent people in Charleston, South Carolina, by a delusional young person whose motive was racism. My primary response is concern and compassion for the victims, their families, and the community of good people in Charleston. Beyond that, I am concerned about what the crime says about the current state of racism in the United States (as Jon Stewart so eloquently describes). I’m appalled that racism still exists, and I consider it a failure of our education system and collective upbringing that people still manage to make it through school and into adulthood without being exposed to the perspective that people are equal regardless of their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.
I don’t see the issue as being about gun control. I personally don’t think anyone needs a gun, but I know a few people who have guns and use them responsibly, for hunting. One may despise and disagree with the practice of hunting, but I would argue that it is a more holistic means of attaining food than buying and unconsciously consuming the factory-farmed and overprocessed Frankenfood that is sold in big box stores and that is making us fat and sick.
This is not about the North vs. the South, either. I was born in the sixties, and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. I saw some lingering remnants of the institutionalized segregation held over from the previous generation, before our country’s Civil Rights movement shone a light on inequality, and demanded better. Some job and apartment listings in the newspapers of that time contained lines like, “no c.p.” (colored people.), in brazen defiance of the legal and moral mandate to desegregate. But some of the most racist people I have ever known grew up in northern states. In Detroit Michigan in the 1940s, for example, racial unrest reared its head in the ugliest of ways. Even here in idyllic New England in 2015, I occasionally observe expressions of racism and it astounds and perplexes me every time.
In my view, the main issue is education. Despite my being brought up in an era and an environment where racist beliefs could well have taken hold, I went to amazing elementary- and high schools where I studied under teachers and alongside peers of all backgrounds, colors and sexual orientations. I was fully steeped in one of the brave, beautiful, and forward-thinking perspectives of the New South: the teaching that we are all equal. Equally smart. Equally deserving of love and opportunity. Equally entitled to peace and the pursuit of happiness. Equally good. Equally divine.
And I’ve had the good fortune to have worked for organizations that employ people from different cultures. Every day the message of equality is reinforced: we are human, and we want the same thing: love and happiness. We are all equally smart, competent, capable, valuable, and deserving of equal pay for equal work. As a society, why can we not attain happiness without denying it from another? Were it not for the seemingly weekly reminders of injustice that I read about in the news, I could easily envision a fully integrated society where all people live and let each other live. But all too frequently my idealism is smashed, and I am reminded that there are many people who still hold a radically different view: the arrogant conviction that they are better than others who are different from them.
Another issue that allows racism to fester is the human trait of habit-proneness. Erroneous, lazy, and habitual thinking is tenacious. Consider the child who is hit by their parents whenever they have done something “wrong.” Do you think that beatings teach a young person the difference between right and wrong? I think not. Spankings exist solely to allow an immature adult to release repressed anger. It’s not about the child.
But the victim soon becomes a perpetrator: the child learns the lazy mental habit of retaliation and develops the erroneous reflex that striking back, whether through physical violence or vitriol, is acceptable and accomplishes its intended goal. This is, I believe, how racism gets propagated: from parent, community, and educator to child—everybody going through the motions without questioning the paradigm and choosing a better one. A modern expression of this violent and retaliatory tendency is the trolls that we encounter on the internet, who are quick to anonymously unleash their repressed anger upon unsuspecting prey. It’s the same miseducation and cowardice that fosters racism and sexism, just a different medium—our electrified global society.
The lazy habit propagates down through the generations. I myself have felt vestiges of that erroneous early training. A small, retaliatory voice inside my lizard brain had a knee-jerk reaction to the news from Charleston: “Maybe South Carolina should secede from the Union, and then the U.S. could treat them the way it has historically treated other ‘rogue’ nations—with brute force.” But then I remember that I am a conscientious objector to war. The higher me realizes that there are many good, progressive, egalitarian people in South Carolina who don’t deserve the tarnished reputation that their racist neighbors invite. The higher me believes that whatever the question, there is a better answer than institutionalized violence. Violence begets more violence, and the original problem remains unsolved. It takes a lot of patience, introspection, and compassion to arrive at the way of peace. And it is in these virtues that our beloved United States are sorely underdeveloped.
I don’t understand the neurotic obsession about race, and the bizarre, arrogant belief in white superiority that people who are racist maintain. It’s based upon such an obscure and unprovable assumption. The fact that we still experience so many racial inequities a half of a century after our Civil Rights movement is disappointing, and speaks of a failure of our social and educational systems to self-correct.
Nevertheless, I have hope that we can (shall?) overcome, but it is going to take a lot more work by everyone: parents, communities, news media, educators, political bodies, and ultimately individuals to take a long, hard look at ourselves and decide to grow up.