White People, Take it In: On Racism and the Charleston Murders

Charleston murderedWe were checking out various apartments and homes for rent around our new town, Charlotte, North Carolina. My husband, Ralf, stopped to talk to different folks in in what appeared to be a diverse neighborhood.

I was sitting in the car looking at newspaper ads when Ralf got back into the driver’s seat.

“Find out anything?” I asked. For a moment, Ralf was silent.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“I can’t believe the language I just heard,” he said. “I was just talking to that white man over there in that front yard. He told me we should think about whether we want to move in to this neighborhood.”

“Why not?”

“Because – and these were his words – the ‘niggers’ are taking over.”

It was 1990. Neither one of us could take it in.

Photo by James Keivom, originally published in the NY Daily News

That was a quarter century ago. And now? We are taking in Eric Gardner on the sidewalk, choking to death. We are taking in the vision of a 14-year-old African American girl pushed to the ground and kneed in the back by a white police officer. We are taking in Dylann Storm Roof’s murder of nine African Americans in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. During bible study, no less.

The list is, of course, endless. And we white people? We are, apparently, not sick enough.

There are so many pernicious ways for racism to run its course. Just cut out the facts of history, for example.

In 1999, I worked for the North Carolina State Department of Cultural Resources as the bicentennial coordinator for Reed Gold Mine. Reed Gold Mine is the location of the first documented discover of gold in America, and almost as soon as the family had sold enough nuggets, Reed began purchasing slaves to search for gold.

The white manager of the site called the place “John Reed’s farm.” John Reed’s enormous wealth was made on the backs of slave labor, but that went unmentioned in the tour shpiel which was delivered then, not unsurprisingly, mostly to white visitors.

Does this fact seem innocuous in comparison to the police brutality we have been witnessing in videos and pictures on YouTube? To a criminal justice system that routinely rounds up African Americans for, among other things, driving? To a mass murder of the faithful in a church sanctuary?

How about this (not small) fact: After WWII white people fled to the suburbs, often financed by banks who refused loans to African Americans. The result? Over decades, lower class white people were able to build home equity and inheritable wealth while African Americans were confined to decaying inner cities. One group got a hand up to the middle class; the other was prevented from moving at all.

These facts are among the millions of facts underpinning American racism. Racism is systemic, pervasive. It is not merely unacknowledged in this country, it is nourished by the white world’s inability to take it in.

Since 2000 I have seen more and more African American students in my classes at UNC Charlotte. They seem different from those I was teaching in the 1990’s. They are more self-assured, more confident. They seem, generally, to trust that I want to help.

Why should they?

Why should African Americans trust any white person who has a position of authority? Why should they trust any white person?

White people have enslaved black people, we have oppressed and persecuted black people, we have made it impossible for any black person to be born into true freedom.

A thousand, a million, an uncountable number of cuts. Banks, police, the criminal system – white America is sick with hatred and violence against African Americans. But not yet sick enough?

Why did those members of “Mother Emanuel,” the oldest AME church in the south, invite in a lone white man into their community? Into their sacred space? Into their sanctuary?

“They were so trusting,” church historian Liz Alston said.

Now it is time: White people – all white people must consider what they must do to earn such trust.

Take it in.


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