Call Charleston Evil By Its Name

Bloomberg View , June 19, 2015

When I left South Carolina for Princeton, my head full of Faulkner novels, I assumed that racial history still defined the divide between north and south. My parents had supported the civil rights movement when that was a decidedly minority view, and I’d regularly sung its hymns and heard sermons that drew from its rhetoric. Even in the late 1970s, when public life was visibly integrated, my high school was 25 percent black, and the town proudly claimed Jesse Jackson as a native son, I believed that what made the south different was its history of segregation and slavery.

What I found in New Jersey was that the real division between north and south was no longer race but religion. The culture I grew up in, where religion permeated everyday life and everybody you met was some kind of Christian (in my high school, David and Judy Bernstein were Catholics), was utterly foreign. I might as well have transported in from the 17th century.

In fact, both racial history and religious devotion define the culture of South Carolina, and we saw them clash in Governor Nikki Haley’s initial statement about the shootings in Charleston and the angry reaction it drew from many black commentators.

“While we do not yet know all of the details,” Haley said, “we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another. Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers.” With her emphasis on the religious setting of the massacre, she spoke to what South Carolinians, black and white, have in common. It was a statement of unity and common humanity -- a declaration that she and her constituents identify with the victims. Governors of South Carolina haven’t always talked that way about black churches, and certainly not about Emanuel AME.

But this wasn’t a random crime. It wasn’t a shooting by a disgruntled former employee or an attack on Christians in general. It was a racially motivated massacre.

Despite its good intentions, then, Haley’s statement echoed the flaws in President Barack Obama’s interview reference last February to “vicious zealots who...randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.” To an American president in the 21st century, Jews can be “a bunch of folks in a deli,” which is to say regular human beings just like everyone else. Obama’s statement, like Haley’s, was an affirmation of common humanity. Like Haley, he was identifying with the victims and assuming his audience would as well.

To jihadi terrorists, however, those murdered Jews weren’t just folks. And to Dylann Storm Roof, who now faces nine murder counts, the people of Emanuel weren’t just Christians.

Conservatives went ballistic over Obama’s comments. He seemed not to take jihadi anti-Semitism seriously. Blacks had a similar reaction to Haley’s statement. She seemed not to take white supremacism seriously. That someone as young as Roof, who’s just 21, could spout the same language that once justified lynchings suggests that the past isn’t as dead as most whites would like to think. The evil lingers. And to be subdued, it must first be acknowledged.