The Massacre at Emanuel AME Church and Our “White Problem”

Emanuel-AME-Church-CharlestonLast night around 8pm, a twenty-something year-old White male walked into the historic Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. He came there with a loaded gun and at least five rounds of ammunition. As the twelve Black men, women, and children who were present in that church prayed and invited this man into their Bible study session for the evening, he contemplated their deaths. He thought about what he would say as he killed them. He figured out who he would let survive to tell the story. Then, about an hour later, after spending time with his victims, he shot and killed eight congregants. A ninth person died at the hospital. The murderer allowed a grandmother and her grandchild to live to tell the story. This ensured that he would be established in a long line of White Supremacists who came before him.

According to reports, the final words he settled on were, “You rape our women and are taking over our country – and you have to go.” While mainstream news outlets tussle over the term “hate crime” rather than calling it the literal result of racism, hatred, and White Supremacist thinking in the United States, Black citizens are reminded that when this murderer said “our women” and “our country” his words were rooted in a long tradition of exclusion for Blacks in this country. While many will focus on this singular event like it is an aberration or an anomaly, I argue that this is yet another incidence steeped in the structural dismissing of White Supremacy, the efforts to perpetually pacify Black Americans, and the commitment to de-humanizing Black people in any public or private space.

Just this week, a 12-year-old girl was slammed against a police car while visiting a community pool in Fairfield, Ohio. Her family members were all handcuffed and pepper-sprayed during this altercation with at least a half dozen police officers. Their offense was “swimming while Black.” We saw a similar incident at a swimming pool in McKinney, Texas just a few weeks ago. What we don’t see, however, is any  sense of responsibility for the brutality against Black people from Whites.

What we never see is a collective shaming or guilt from those who have the privilege to exist in public as they wish. These very same people whose sons and daughters riot at their college campuses or mow women and children down in their drunken stupors see Black Americans who are swimming, walking, praying, standing, or just existing as a threat to “their country” and “their women.” They see us as vermin which “needs to go.”

The reason why these news outlets don’t and won’t call events like the Charleston AME Church Massacre a hate crime is because many White people can’t seem to understand how they can possibly be guilty of hating something that they don’t see any worth in. Many Whites don’t see Black Americans as equal citizens. They don’t classify Blacks as being rightful members of “their society.” It isn’t about hate or crime for them. How could they commit a crime against individuals they mentally place lower than their pets?

The three-fifths clause was added to the US Constitution in 1787. While slaves could not vote and would not be granted freedom for another 100 years or so, the law meant that non-voting slaves still counted as “three-fifths of a human being” so that southern slavers and plantations owners could have hefty sway over the proceedings of the US government. The law remained unchallenged until 1865 when it was nullified as a result of the Civil War and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. But does that mean that, in the eyes of White Southerners, Black Americans just magically became whole people? Like, instantaneously?


Daisy Bates/Little Rock Nine (Source: Tumblr)

What always strikes me about thinking through the codifying nature of slave and lynch law is how many White Americans see the abolishment of these written rules as the physical end of the sentiments which perpetuated them. Somehow, many White people believe, once schools were integrated and legal segregation ended with the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, everyone just started to like the idea of not being racist. But we have seen the images of a little Black girl walking into a schoolhouse amongst angry, cursing White men and women enough times to know what really happened. We’ve seen how Whites followed and intimidated the Little Rock Nine. We have seen images of the four little girls who were murdered in the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in Alabama in 1963. This happened almost a decade after the Brown  decision. We know what really happens when White people are denied the full exercise of their racism.

The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair)

The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair) Source: Wikipedia

Rather than calming relations between racist Whites in the south and terrorized Blacks trying to survive, forward progress toward equality as always resulted in further violence against Black Americans. There are so many examples of this in history that it’s confounding as to why many Whites continue to treat incidents like Charleston like they’re new. They simply aren’t.

To further complicate the obfuscation of the terrorizing of Black Americans, especially in the South, the Confederate flag is still hanging in South Carolina at this very moment. They had the nerve to lower it to half mast in honor of those who were killed at Emanuel AME Church. Those victims, six women and three men, included the church pastor and activist, South Carolina State Senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney. This issue is the epitome of racial hatred. The powers in South Carolina only reinforce anti-Black sentiment by using the Confederate flag as a “symbol of pride.”

When this White male murderer, a far more commonplace member of this society than many Whites would like to admit, entered this church, spouted his hatred in the name of “their country,” and killed Black men and women, he wasn’t acting out of random animus. This wasn’t the manifestation of mental illness. It was the very historical, completely normal behavior from racist White Americans who still see Blacks as an encroaching population. These are the Whites who see Blacks as “three-fifths human.” These are the Whites who don blackface and demand entry into safe spaces for Black women. These are the Whites who would stand outside of a school to curse a little Black girl carrying a book bag. These are the Whites who want Black kids to stay out of the community pool. These are the Whites drunk on White Privilege and enamored with the dominion it grants them. This is “their country.” “Our” doesn’t include us for them.

This is what terror in the United States looks like. As many people wrestle with ideas like “reverse racism” or question why many Black Americans recoil at the idea of accepting Whites into their social circles, events like these (and many, many others) remind us of an era long gone chronologically but very present substantively.

When are we going to start addressing the very real “White Problem” here in the United States? Isn’t the time right now?

Photo Credit: (Feature) Google Street View of Emanuel AME Church

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

1 Response

  1. Sarah says:

    There is a person who drives his truck around part of the town where I work with a confederate flag on his car. Driving haphazardly, too. A reckless person and an idiot (bad combination). The first time I saw the flag I wasn’t sure I was seeing correctly. But I was, and I’ve seen it several times since. There is another person who does the same thing around where I shop for groceries. I don’t like when I have to go to those places anymore. I’m white. Even though I know where I live is still pretty upside-down I was scared and mad when I saw those stupid flags. I have good friends who they’re hurting with that, so it’s my problem too. It’s not a “they” problem. It’s apparently common for some people to act horrible because the amendments give the right of free speech. I wish more people would take that responsibly and know rights can be taken away, but they don’t.

    I thought of the Montgomery church bombing when I heard about this. I remember reading about it in high school, around the same time my class was reading “Warriors Don’t Cry”, along with other poems and literature from the Civil Rights Era. It stuck with me. I realized I didn’t know why some people thought it was so great to be white. Being white doesn’t feel great. It kind of feels normal, but then definitely not a great thing when racial superiority (no thanks!) comes into play. White should just be there, not a standard, not a glowing ideal. If the United Statesbwere really about freedom and fairness then we’d all be paid equally and have good education opportunities and we’d all be safe and skin type wouldn’t mean a thing.

    I’m sorry if I’m saying the wrong things. Sometimes I do say the wrong things and I make situations worse. I’ve never been as into blogs as much as these Water Cooler Convos (because you tell the truth) so I want to join the discussions and comment (even if my comments might be weird or bad) and help if I can. If my comments are bad I’ll learn to do better ones. I’ll share these articles and recommend them, and I hope that will be a good start. If empathy gets out there, a value that I think isn’t seen as important in America as independence (hah), then I think that will be a really good thing.