The doors of “Mother Emanuel” – the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. that was savaged by the act of racial terrorism that killed nine of its members, including the head pastor – opened for regular services on Sunday. Blacks and whites, members and visitors joined in defiant worship.
“Some wanted to divide the race – black and white and brown,” declaimed Rev. Norvel Goff, “but no weapon formed against us shall prosper.”
The congregation joined to sing “Amazing Grace,” tears streaming down faces. Faith once more overcame hate, as it did on Thursday in the extraordinary grace of relatives of those gunned down for their race offering the murderer forgiveness.
But faith and grace are not enough. “The problem of the twentieth century,” W.E.B. DuBois warned,” is the problem of the color line.” And in this century, it remains a deep and abiding wound that weakens this nation, a half century after the Voting Rights Act and the end to legal segregation. Yes, attitudes have changed for the better. Americans gave Barack Obama a majority of their votes twice in presidential elections. African-Americans star from the athletic field to the movie theater. Overt racism is less acceptable, even in southern cities like Charleston. The millennial generation is more diverse and open.
But entrenched racial divisions – and the legacy of slavery and segregation – remain. The terrorist act of Dylann Roof is an extreme individual expression. More pervasive is the brutal realities of structural racism. We see it in our segregated schools and neighborhoods, in a criminal justice system biased, too often violently, against African Americans, in extreme racial disparities in employment, wealth and security. Where once the civil rights movement sought equal protection, and liberty and justice for all, now we mobilize simply to assert that Black Lives Matter.
The racial divide, as Paul Krugman reminds us, is the central reason America is unique among developed nations in its extreme inequality, its harsh treatment of the most vulnerable, its mass incarceration of its citizenry. As Krugman notes, the best academic study on why the U.S. welfare state is so weak concludes that race is central: “American programs that help the needy are too often seen as programs that help Those People.” Not surprisingly, only one former member of the Confederacy has expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Health Care Act, refusing to take federal money to provide benefits for low-wage workers.
Some suggest that change is coming; time heals all wounds. Others suggest that demography will solve our racial problems, as America heads towards being a majority-minority nation. Some suggest African Americans must pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But we should be clear. At this point, this country is choosing to undermine its own future rather than to invest in the health, safety and education of the young people of color that will be central to tomorrow’s citizenry and workforce. More than one in five African-American young people is neither working nor in school. Hope is trampled early.
Change will only come, as Dr. King taught us, if people of conscience stand up and speak out: “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
Change will only come from struggle. The haters feel increasingly oppressed and, as Dylann Roof showed, will strike out. They can’t be countered by politicians too cowardly even to call for taking down the confederate flag in South Carolina. They can’t be countered by a people who accept the current racial divides as the natural order of things. The “Mother Emanuel Nine” must not simply be remembered in our prayers. They must be alive in our actions.