“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”
When Dylan Roof murdered Ethel Lee Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Depayne, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton he clarified a terrible thing for us all. He showed our racism to everyone. Where the supporters of racist procedures in Ferguson or New York could hide behind an official and impersonal policy veil, they cannot now. Well, except Fox News, but that can wait. Roof showed us the power of some messages that meet the desire of a young man looking for meaning.
Roof made very clear that a young white male in the United States can be drawn into being every bit the monster as the Tsarnayev brothers. A whole system exists to convince hum that blacks are sub-human, that they need to be subjugated, and glory awaits. A whole self-explaining, glorious, and motivating ideological network thrives on the internet, in bars, offices, and in living rooms. It recruits young men to terrorize and kill. The network may seem pathological because of its members’ unwavering hatred. But it’s an insult to the rest of us—the mentally ill and the perfectly sane—to blame this calamity on mental illness.
There’s some talk about whether Roof was mentally ill. Maybe he was on a psychoactive medication. Maybe the drug makes people prone to violent outbursts. Already, the white media and a radical wing of gun apologists is defensively using medicine to explain the violence away. It’s as if they fear that guns have something to do with.
But their thinking is straightforward. If it’s about brain chemistry then maybe we don’t have to do so much. Tinker with the dosage. If it doesn’t work it’s technical problem to fix. We can always reexamine the drug.
But if it’s about something else, about what we believe about one another and what matters and how much human lives matter—different human lives….BLACK LIVES—then…Well then we have an issue.
I’ve known two people whose lives have made me think about this a lot for the last few days. Dan and Leah.
In 12th grade I had a girlfriend with two younger brothers. Her first brother, Dan, was pretty funny. Kind of weird with intense eyes. I remember making jokes with them in the kitchen and going snowboarding. We weren’t great friends.
He became schizophrenic. Or was and as he matured, so did the schizophrenia. I don’t know all of the details but he became unstable. He had been living in his parents’ house with them. Then, one day, he killed them. They were “droids”—robots—and he had to fight back. He beat them to death with a baseball bat, bludgeoning his mother and father 25 and 26 times respectively. Today, he’s in prison.
Contrast Dan with the men who killed my friend Leah’s dad in the 1979 Greensboro massacre. The KKK shot Michael (Leah’s dad) in daylight in public. They did this because Michael was fighting for racial justice and the rights of black workers and citizens. Local racists described that as a shootout with outsiders. Outsiders in this case means people standing and working for racial equality, justice, freedom, and opportunity.
The KKK members were not mentally ill. They believed in hate and acted from hate to create a society built upon policies that would enforce the belief that black lives don’t matter.
Roof is not sick. He is hateful. He is the logical extension of the men who killed my friend’s dad. Roof was made hateful and violent by people and beliefs. If you accept the hateful premise, everything he did is rational. The ends justify the means.
That’s not true for Dan. His parents weren’t droids.
There has never been a group of liberated droids who a person could say, “No…you’ve raped our women and you’re taking over the country. I have to do what I have to do.” There is no flag of the nations of Rhodesia or South Africa where droids lived subjugated under an apartheid state where white men were the pinnacles of evolution. There was never an Emancipation Proclamation for droids. The south will not rise again to fight droids. The South Carolina and Confederate flag do not celebrate the “heritage” of white men whose forefathers bought, whipped, sold, raped, and murdered droids. There has never been one lynching of one droid ever anywhere.
There is no system outside of fantasy and science fiction that legitimated Dan. The oppression of black men and women in, by, and for whites in the history of the United States—and to this day!—is not fiction. It is real and all around us. If you refuse to admit that, then you are saying that black lives don’t matter as much as white lives. Period. Full stop.
Some might say it’s better than it was. A thousand people aren’t gathered in public to watch a man be lynched and inequality is less than it used to be. Tell that to the families of Ethel Lee Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Say their names out loud, look their mother’s, brother’s, sister’s, spouse’s, children’s, and fellow congregants’ black faces and tell them that things are better than they used to be. Saying it’s better than it used to be is a little too close to saying we have done enough. We have not done enough.
Racism kills. The ideology of racism and the entrenched belief in the exceptionalism of the white male kills. That’s the sickness. That’s the disease.
I can accept a little kid for being afraid of what they don’t know. But I can’t accept adults who refuse to see that we are socially, morally, and spiritually sick and impoverished in this country and need to heal.
The only way we can get out of this is by being deliberate and loving. And to do that, you need to take time and space to focus on people. So start by saying their names. Go on. One at a time.
I’ll get you started. Ethel Lee Lance.Tywanza Sanders…