Recently, driving toward Manchester on Route 101, I briefly trailed a New Hampshire-tagged red pickup (could it have been any other?) flying both American and Confederate flags. Although it’s an uncommon, though not unknown, sight in New Hampshire, I find such encounters unsettling.
What level of hatred can motivate someone, I always wonder, to freely fly a symbol so associated with the enslavement of an entire community? Sadly, I always answer myself:
From John C. Calhoun and the founding statements of the Confederate secessionists, through Jim Crow, through opposition to Brown v. Board of Education, through opposition to Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, to the racist opposition to our first African-American president, the hateful presence of the Confederate flag is but an idol that represents an institution designed to racially subjugate some Americans.
I write early this Friday morning during the holy month of Ramadan, a time when Muslims who are physically able fast from dawn to sunset.
Ramadan is a time to reflect and renew, to heal relationships and try to keep from getting agitated or angry toward others. Ramadan is a challenge from God to all of us: be mindful, be just, be compassionate.
“It was the month of Ramadan in which the Quran was (first) bestowed from on high as a guidance unto man” and its first verse was, “Read in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created man out of a germ-cell. Read, for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of the pen, taught man what he did not know!”
I use my pen to write early this Friday morning as I wait for President Obama to eulogize Pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of nine Americans assassinated by a Confederate-flag-bearing white supremacist in a premeditated, racist, terrorist attack.
Despite the absurd Wall Street Journal assertion that, “Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists,” racism is a plague resistant to any moral imperative, seen and unseen, from Route 101 to Charleston.
Dylann Roof was driven by the ahistorical white narrative of prejudice that sustains white separatists – a narrative cynically exploited and well articulated in 1981 by an adviser to President Ronald Reagan, South Carolina’s Lee Atwater.
Atwater, author of the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy,” defined how to use racial tension for political advantage:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N—–, n—–, n—–.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n—–’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now (that) you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is (that) blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N—–, n—–.’ ”
I use my pen to write this Friday morning as I listen, as I fast, struggling to make sense of what I know – of what I do not know.
In April, in a sermon titled “Requiem on Racism,” Clementa Pinckney preached: “Regardless of our faiths, our ethnicities, where we are from, together we come in love. Together we come to bury racism, to bury bigotry, and to resurrect and revive love, compassion and tenderness.”
Love. Compassion. Tenderness.
I know, for example, that while we are told, “Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another” (Quran 49:13), there are those who believe that we should not know each other – that some are superior to others.
I know that the attack on Mother Emanuel was a terrorist attack, that it reflected the institutional bias of those who do not wish “to know one another” and who wish to sustain segregation. It was not simply an aberrant act of an individual – it was a criminal act in support of a fully repudiated philosophy that has persisted since before the Civil War.
Roof’s act of terror reflected an attempt to return South Carolina to March 21, 1861, when Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens argued, “(The Confederacy rests) . . . upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” I know, too, that the reluctance to name “terror” reflects a deep-seated bias that when white people kill, it’s mental illness; when Muslims or African-Americans kill, it’s cultural or religious.
Racism is to not acknowledge that to be black, especially in America, is to often be in a state of fear where there is no refuge, no escape, no sanctuary – not even in a church.
Such assumptions insulate white supremacists from having to confront incidents like the murders at Mother Emanuel and insulates ambitious Republicans, who have yet to repudiate Atwater’s Southern Strategy, from having to call the attack racist or terrorism as they consider the approaching primary in South Carolina.
Racism and white privilege is taught and instilled. Roof did not emerge from tar sands untouched by human influences; his crime cannot be divorced from the ideology of white supremacy that animated him, and from the idolatry of its most potent symbol – the Confederate flag.
Witness that the first time we see Roof in a courtroom, the chief magistrate, perhaps in an attempt to be inclusive, blind to his own privilege and prejudice when he remarked, even before the relatives of Roof’s victims could speak, “There are victims on this young man’s side of the family. We must find it in our heart at some point in time to not only help those who are victims but to also help his family as well” – a reflection of the insulting tone-deafness that afflicts American race relations.
Unwilling to condemn the terrorism, unwilling to acknowledge the racism, unwilling to play a role in healing wounds, the callousness exhibited by magistrate Gosnell, by defenders of secessionist traitors, by presidential contenders and their cohort is inexcusable – and un-American.
We have been taught to resist those who deny life, freedom, dignity and justice. We have been taught that grace, forgiveness and love from our Beloved is limitless, and we have been taught that we will be welcomed back whenever we stray.
Out of tragedy we’ve witnessed moments of triumph: We’ve witnessed, as a friend preached, “The Kingdom of God in the courtroom” when the victims’ relatives forgave Roof. Together we’ve witnessed extraordinary grace, love and forgiveness with which the people of South Carolina have addressed the trauma visited upon them.
Such is Grace. Such is the path to reconciliation.
Referring to the introspection and reconciliation taking place as a result of the assassination of the Emanuel Nine, President Obama said of Roof: “He didn’t know he was being used by God.”
“If we can find that grace, anything is possible,” the president said. “If we can tap that grace, everything could change.”
This column appeared originally in the Concord Monitor.