Over the last couple of weeks, the Charleston community has been on the minds of almost every American, as the tragic events of Wed. June 17 have been at the forefront of national news for days on end. From the initial tragedy to the creation of makeshift memorials, the Unity Bridge walk, and the going-home services, every aspect of these last few weeks has been covered and consumed.
The Houston Rockets' Dwight Howard and the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton visited to show their support, and President Barack Obama took time out of his schedule to expertly "take us to church" during his eulogy of the late state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. T-shirts were made, posters were crafted with care, concerts were created, and money was raised in order to make sure the entire Emanuel AME Church knew that we were right there beside them during their time of mourning.
Today, not only does Mother Emanuel know that we stand by them, but the entire world has a shining example of how to combat hate. They've seen an entire town exhibit the kind of love usually reserved for family members. Listen Charleston, we looked good. No one can say otherwise.
But now comes the hard part.
It's easy to smile and hold hands with your fellow neighbor when CNN is looking, but now is the time that we really get to show the rest of the nation what we're made of. Now is the time for us to look like the rockstars we really are by starting the honest and often ugly process of healing. While it's unlikely that the Huffington Post is going to give the world a play-by-play of this next phase in this process, it doesn't make it any less important.
Because it's when the rest of the world isn't watching that our true character will be revealed. Those "conversations about race" start now, and instead of putting this quasi-burden on the shoulders of anyone else, allow me the opportunity to get down to brass tacks.
First, we all need to learn the difference between bigotry, prejudice, and racism.
Calling someone a racist is the fastest way to destroy any chances of meaningful dialogue because the only thing that's going to happen is the accused is going to spend all of their time arguing why they aren't racist, even if they are. No progress will be made with that blanket approach.
So let's start with bigotry. For example, someone who supports keeping the Confederate flag on Statehouse grounds is not necessarily a racist. But they are intolerant, and therefore bigoted, of someone else's ideas about their precious flag. They may not hate blacks or wish them ill; they just don't care to hear what African Americans have to say about the Confederate flag. Instead they claim the flag is "heritage not hate" anytime anyone attempts to change their minds. But don't call them racist. That is only going to force them to dig in their heels even more; it'll probably also lead them to do something drastic like buy more Confederate flags — but just not from Walmart or eBay, of course. We must also realize that we are intolerant of certain things, whether it's another religion or Clemson.
Prejudice is also something we've all been guilty of, even if we don't realize it. Previously, I wrote a column where I said that I hated it when someone gives me the well-meaning compliment that I'm "well-spoken." I caught a lot of heat from that article, but all I was trying to illustrate was that when a white person calls me, a black man, well-spoken, it only underlines their preconceived notions about people like me. I wasn't calling those folks racist, although everyone in the comment section seem to think that's what I meant. I was merely offended that someone could be so bold about what they thought of me, especially when what they thought wasn't very complimentary.
Other examples of being prejudiced include making sweeping statements about gender ("Women can't drive"), ethnicity ("Asian people can't drive"), and age ("Old people can't drive"). In my opinion, prejudice is less indemifying than bigotry because in theory prejudice is easier to overcome. Once a bigot has an idea in his mind, that's pretty much it, but someone with a prejudice can accept that their ideas are wrong. So go ahead and invite all the prejudiced people to the racial conversation! Together we'll figure out a way to reach the bigots.
Now on to the sensitive subject of racism. According to Dictionary.com, racism is the belief that because of inherent differences between racial groups, some people draw the conclusion that their own race is "superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others." Racism also includes systems of government and policies that are based upon those ways of thinking and how they are used to discriminate against other racial groups.
From slavery to declaring blacks three-fifths of a person, Charleston's extensive use of "slave tags" to mark African Americans as property, Jim Crow laws, not allowing blacks to vote, the Tuskegee experiment, creating laws where crimes frequently committed by people of color receive much harsher penalties than crimes frequently committed by whites, and the high rates of police brutality against people of color as compared to whites, American history has clearly shown that our government has no problem being racist towards black people. With all that in mind, you may see how black people might have a point when they say "The Man" is holding them back.
So if Charleston really wants to be a leader in race relations, I suggest that this is where we start. First, we must admit that we all have our prejudices, and we must be willing to call out prejudice when we see it elsewhere. Then, as a people, we need to admit that racism exists and that black people have been activity persecuted by our government since the day we arrived in America.
To the white people who may be reading this and don't acknowledge these facts, I know that you didn't enslave my ancestors. I know you didn't lynch anyone. I know that you don't feel any hatred toward the African-American community. But you have to stop marginalizing our feelings since it's pretty clear that we are constantly getting the short end of the stick.
In the end though, hurt feelings won't allow these old wounds to heal. I could certainly list more but this column isn't about keeping score. It's about proving Dylann Roof wrong. It's about coming together and acknowledging the strains in our relationship.
We can do it.