This post was originally published in The Memphis Flyer.
Emancipation by veracity is a beautiful, if elusive, concept.
People in search of comfort may turn to scripture after last week’s massacre of nine black churchgoers by a lone white gunman in Charleston, South Carolina. I am drawn to John 8:32, in which Jesus tells his disciples: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Emancipation by veracity is a beautiful, if elusive, concept. It puts freedom within anyone’s reach. But this nation is committed to lies, never more so than when it comes to racism.
Confessed killer Dylann Roof explained his racist motivations in an online manifesto. In it, he calls black people violent and inferior. He says the authors of slave narratives spoke highly of the institution. He writes that integration sent white people running to the suburbs in search of whiter schools and fewer minorities.
If racism is a continuum, Roof is at the far right end. America’s systems and institutions — all of them — are not as far to the left as we tell ourselves. Typing that — being honest — fills me with anxiety. To state unflinchingly, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did, that America is racist is to open yourself up to attack.
The (direct or indirect) beneficiaries of racist systems have a powerful incentive to be dishonest. So they lie and insist that racism doesn’t exist. How do they lie? Let’s count just a few of the ways.
They lie when they refuse to unflinchingly describe what happened.
This was not an attack on Christianity. It was a calculated terrorist attack on black parishioners at Emanuel A.M.E. Church by a white racist young man. Do not blather about mental illness or speculate that the killer was on drugs. Do not paint him as an outlier. Do not disconnect this racism and this violence from the less graphic but still racist violence of segregated neighborhoods, hyper-policed communities, needless voting restrictions, and attacks on public-sector jobs.
But instead of candor, we get obfuscation, as offered by South Carolina’s Governor Nikki Haley during a press conference last week. “We’ve got some grieving too. And we’ve got some pain we have to go through,” she said, through tears.
Conveniently, the Republican did not elaborate. Is it the pain of grief? Or is it African Americans’ collective pain of political disenfranchisement, economic exclusion, and mass incarceration, all of which are rooted in racism?
They lie when they ignore the echoes.
According to a survivor, Roof said: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.”
Said Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul in April, when announcing his campaign: “We have come to take our country back.”
Slightly milder iterations of Roof’s racism are as close as the worst of conservative talk radio, where fears of a colored menace — or perhaps a rebellion like that planned in 1822 by Emanuel A.M.E. founder and former slave Denmark Vesey — loom large.
Similar rhetoric pours from the mouths of right-wing politicians. And it is parroted by too many conservative voters, many who would insist they are not racist because they don’t use the n-word and have a black friend.
Roof wrote in his manifesto: “The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens.” The Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group, is a sponsor of “Political Cesspool,” which airs on Memphis radio.
We lie when we say never again.
I am unmoved by interracial unity marches and vigils and the unsatisfying, fleeting displays of kumbaya that follow such tragedies. Arguments over removing the Confederate flag from its place of honor miss the point. The symbols hurt, but the spirit that upholds those symbols kills. And because there is no appetite for exorcism, the demon of racism remains.
The lies dishonor the dead.
They are Susie Jackson, 87; Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45; Rev. DePayne Doctor, 49; Ethel Lance, 70; Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Myra Thompson, 59; and state Senator Clementa Pinckney, 41, a pastor of Mother Emanuel. But we will not remember their names, just as we do not remember the names of the four black girls bombed to death in 1963 in a Birmingham church by white racists.
I feel like I can have hope or honesty, but not both. The truth is that this massacre could lead America to atone for racism. In the truth lies liberation that could unshackle African Americans from the nation’s bottom rungs. But we can’t handle the truth.
We prefer to lie.