The racially motivated terrorist attack/hate crime against the peaceful bible study participants at a Charleston church this week by one very sick individual has outraged our country and the world, opening us, yet again, to attacks by other countries–safe in their holier-than-thou gun control laws, convinced that these types of things wouldn’t happen elsewhere. They do. Mental illness is universal. Random acts of violence, by their very nature, are impossible to prevent except by excessively strict police states that we as a nation have not embraced–yet.
But America has a very real problem that this attack has turned the national spotlight on again. Good. As Jon Stewart said in one of the opening paragraphs of his scathing monologue, “I’m confident . . . that by acknowledging it, by staring into that [abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other and the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal, yet we pretend doesn’t exist] and seeing it for what it is, we still won’t do jack shit. Yeah. That’s us.”
I wish Bill Nye, right as he is, were the voice we all listened to: “The color of our ancestors’ skin and ultimately my skin and your skin is a consequence of ultraviolet light, of latitude and climate. Despite our recent sad conflicts here in the U.S., there really is no such thing as race. We are one species — each of us much, much more alike than different.”
Tribes exist, even in the animal kingdom. Cultural differences? Oh yeah, we’ve got those. White people are historically terrible at talking about race, but pretending that a “gaping racial wound” doesn’t exist because underneath our different skin colors, we’re really all the same? I’m a scientist at heart, and Lord know I’m an idealist, but even I know that’s not the answer.
We bleed racial differences. In our diverse schools, our gospel churches, our black pride parades…we are different. This is beautiful. This is terrifying. Black culture is different than white culture in America, is different from Muslim culture is different from Jewish culture is different from the many other wonderful ethnic cultures that are part of our not quite melted melting pot, and it is okay to recognize that. Violence associated with it is not. Tribal differences are part and parcel of being a hairless ape. Stereotypes are wired into our brain, probably somewhere deeper than the frontal cortex. To open our eyes and see the person underneath the skin adapted, more or less, to ultraviolet radiation–this is being human.
We have a long way to go. But we have to get there.
After the Charleston murders, Britain called us a nation of “too many guns” and “racially divided.” “America’s Shame,” their headlines said. But America is not alone. We did not, alone, cause this gaping black and white racial wound. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, eleven million women, men, and children were stolen from their African homes and taken, against their wills, to the Americas. Though the destination was almost always somewhere in the Americas, often the American South, the predominant slave traders were European, including the British. According to the National Museums Liverpool, “The London-based Royal African Company was the most important [slave trading company] and from 1672 had a monopoly of the British trade.” The main European nations involved in slaving were Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. That’s a lot.
Abolition was also not exclusive to the Americas–in 1808, slave trading was banned in Britain, and elsewhere. It continued illegally until shortly after the Civil War put an end to legal slavery in America.
But the scars remain. Scars caused by a slave trade driven by the European Imperialists, on one end, and the American market, on the other. No one’s hands are clean. Britain shares a part of that “gaping racial wound,” even if it’s not bleeding on their soil.
So don’t blame our gun laws, Britain. The weapon is not the killer. This was an act of terrorism, an act of hate, a horrible, horrible, crime. It was committed by one individual with hate in his heart, fear oozing from his pores, and illness in his mind. It highlights the shame we all feel for the terror that was committed against the African people many years ago, the consequences of which we are still trying to figure out how to make amends for. Our racial division is our shame, but if we look deeper, into the roots of history, we will see that it is not ours alone.
It might have begun when one white man walked onto a continent of people who looked not like him. He felt fear in his heart…and chose hate as the response. Echoes of Charleston this week?
For the record, except for some accidents of history, it could have happened the other way around.
But it didn’t.