Like many others, I stayed up late Wednesday night following the coverage of the shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. I awoke this morning to reports that the killer had still not been captured and watched the news as the suspect was identified by photo, then by name and later apprehended, followed by statements from local officials, the U.S. Attorney General and the President of the United States.
I watched as South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley broke down in tears as she spoke about the pain of the shooting. I watched as reporters speculated about the mental health of the young white man suspected in the shooting. And I watched as some television commentators professed ignorance about the possible motives of the shooter.
After too many hours of Twitter and TV news coverage, I took a deep breath and contemplated the elaborate 13-hour national farce I had just witnessed. We've spent the past year arguing that Black lives matter only to watch a 21-year-old white man erase the Black lives of nine South Carolina churchgoers. And after all the education about selective use of critical language, analysts were quickly retreating to old familiar formulas of white innocence.
Yes, this was a hate crime. The killer had been identified in photographs wearing flag patches from the racist apartheid government in South Africa and the racist colonial government of Rhodesia. One of the killer's victims, State Senator Clementa Pinckney, co-sponsored a bill in the South Carolina legislature this year that requires police to wear body cameras in the wake of the Walter Scott shooting. The massacre took place in one of the most prominent Black churches in the south, in a sacred space where Denmark Vesey plotted to lead a rebellion against the system of slavery. And it took place in a state where the Confederate battle flag still flies outside the capitol building.
Yes, this was also domestic terrorism, which federal law defines as a U.S. criminal act "dangerous to human life" that appears to be designed "to intimidate or coerce a civilian population." What other purpose but racial intimidation could explain this white man shooting nine innocent African-American victims at such a prominent Black church?
Lawyers will argue over the application of hate crime and terror statutes, but the larger question here is not about statutory interpretation of state and federal laws. The larger issue, of course, is America's ongoing saga with racism and white supremacy.
Nikki Haley's tears at today's press conference do not erase her support for South Carolina's racist Confederate flag. Calls for prayer and healing from lawmakers today do not erase our memory of their racially coded language to win southern white votes.
President Obama used the occasion to address the nation's epidemic of gun violence, which he noted was exceptional in the civilized world. "At some point," he said passionately, "we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries...with this kind of frequency."
The president then addressed the elephant in the room, the vexing issue of race, the very divisive issue that critics have used against him since he announced his candidacy for president in 2007. It was the issue that forced him to deliver a speech about his Black pastor during the campaign and compelled him to host a "beer summit" after he dared to defend an African-American Harvard professor who had been wrongly arrested. And now it had become the issue in Charleston, S.C.
"The fact that this took place in a Black church obviously raises questions about a dark part of our history," the president said. "This is not the first time that Black churches have been attacked and we know that hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to democracy and our ideals."
His words were eloquent and accurate, as usual. But they were also cautious in their critique of white American racism. We know from painful experience that the president can only say so much about racism before facing condemnation from right-wing critics. So he never mentioned the word, although the intent was clear to many observers.
This, to me, reflects the problem and pervasiveness of racism, in that it limits our dialogue about its existence. To simply call out racism flatly is too far a bridge to cross for some Americans who choose to dwell in the fantasy world of a post-racial society.
I certainly don't think a deranged young man who had just been arrested for drug charges in March should have been given a gun a month later. But this tragedy is bigger than the problem of guns. It's bigger than Dylann Storm Roof. It's bigger than Gov. Haley or any other elected official.
The tragedy here is that racism in 2015 is still being defined and discussed in isolated and limited incidents instead of acknowledged as the ubiquitous problem that it remains.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: AP Photo/David Goldman)