After the killings, there was urgency about arresting Dylann Roof, but where’s the urgency to address the conditions that led to the tragedy?
ot unlike the four little girls killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, the nation and the world are saddened and outraged at the hatred and senseless killing of nine African Americans in the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The dead include its pastor and a state senator. Over three decades ago Operation Push – the organisation I founded in 1971 to improve the economic status of African Americans – held its national convention in this church.
And, not unlike the economic and political context of Birmingham, the nation and its leadership are still failing to see, understand and come to grips with the underlying economic and political circumstances that led to such a tragedy. This young white man responsible for the killings, Dylann Roof, did not originate terrorism. He is merely reflecting decades and centuries of institutional and active political terrorism. There were 164 lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950 in South Carolina.
The shooting in Charleston is the result of institutionalised racism, centuries of dehumanisation and the current denial of economic and political equality of opportunity. Today everyone is outraged at the killings, but there is not the same outrage that African Americans have the highest rates of infant mortality, unemployment, of being denied access to capital and bank loans, of imprisonment, segregated housing and home foreclosures, segregated and underfunded public schools, poverty, heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, mental health issues, HIV/Aids and more. We ignore this institutionalised state of terror and the resulting racial fears at our peril.
There was an urgency to identify and arrest Roof before he hurt anyone else, but there is not the same urgency to identify and arrest the current economic and political conditions – the institutional racism and structural injustices – before anyone else gets hurt. Today in South Carolina a historically black university, South Carolina State, is on the verge of closing, but I don’t see the same urgency to save it by the governor and the South Carolina legislature. Governor Nikki Haley appropriately asked South Carolinians to pray for the victims of these killings and their families and decried violence at religious institutions. But she denies poor people access to healthcare by refusing to accept Medicaid monies under the Affordable Care Act – which is jeopardising the economic viability of the state’s hospitals and costing South Carolinians thousands of jobs – and she still flies the Confederate flag on the Capitol grounds.
But these injustices and indifferences are not limited to South Carolina. They’re national in scope. We need a White House Conference on racial justice and urban policy to make sure no one else is being hurt because of economic, political and leadership indifference or lack of vision about what needs to be done. Racism deserves a remedy.
We need the president, the congress, the 50 governors and state legislatures to all put the same effort, resources and energy into ending the crime of racism, economic injustice and political denial throughout the nation. We’ve had enough Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Walter Scott killings. We’ve had enough infant mortality deaths. We’ve had enough unemployment –always at least twice the rate of white unemployment.
We’ve had enough of segregated and inadequately funded educational opportunities. We’ve had enough of a lack of access to capital and health care. We’ve had enough of homelessness and home foreclosures. We need prayer and we need hope, but we also need a political commitment and a financial budget committed to ending this protracted political genocide.
We need leadership with a vision for racial justice. We need an investment for economic justice – the current rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats. And we need fairness in political representation. That’s what we need if we are ever going to put an end to the protracted “political genocide” of which African Americans have been the victims for nearly 400 years in the United States. We deserve equal economic and political opportunity. We deserve equal justice under the law.