Primarily Speaking

[Content Note: Racism; terrorism.]

illustration by Sarah Green of the nine victims of the AME shooting, with their faces, names, ages, and mini-bios
[Illustration by Sarah Green.]

Since the shooting in Charleston, the 2016 presidential candidates have been reacting to the heinous act of white supremacist eliminationist violence, with varying degrees of sensitivity, to put it far more politely than it deserves.

Although many of the GOP candidates' campaigns reacted with tweets condemning the shooting and offering prayers, none of them gave meaningful statements about violent white supremacy, most of them danced around the issue of the South Carolina continuing to fly the Confederate flag, and some of them also went on to offer statements that were straight-up racist bullshit.

Senator Lindsey Graham defended the Confederate flag, saying the flag is "part of who we are. The flag represents—to some people—the Civil War, and that was the symbol of one side. To others, it's a racist symbol, and it's been used by people in a racist way. [But] the problems we're having in South Carolina and around the world aren't because of a symbol, but because of what's in people's hearts."

What's in people's hearts. Like using "we" in a way that writes black Southerners out of the word entirely, for example. Or pretending that there is any use for the Confederate flag that isn't racist. Or diminishing an act of anti-black terrorism by calling it a "problem we're having in South Carolina," just one of many problems "around the world."

Former Governor of Texas Rick Perry meanwhile referred to Dylann Roof's mass murder as an "accident." Definitely not politicizing the shooting himself, ahem, he used the occasion to criticize President Obama for pointing to gun access as one culprit, and then said: "This is the M.O. of this administration, anytime there is a accident like this. You know, the president's clear. He doesn't like for Americans to have guns, and so he uses every opportunity—this being another one—to basically go parrot that message."

Clearly, it is much more principled to use the occasion of every mass death at the hands of a shooter to attack the President.

Former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush, speaking at the Faith & Freedom Coalition conference, well after Dylann Roof's motive was known, said: "I don't know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes." Explicitly asked later if he thought the shooting had been racially motivated, he answered: "I don't know. Looks like to me it was, but we'll find out all the information. It's clear it was an act of raw hatred, for sure. Nine people lost their lives, and they were African-American. You can judge what it is."

The reason he won't just fucking say it? Because the white conservative base is busily twisting themselves into pretzels trying to find any other motivation, and Jeb Bush wants these racists' votes more than he wants to address deadly racism.

Also at the FFC garbage conference, Senator Rand Paul said this bullshit: "We had a shooting this morning [sic] in South Carolina. What kind of person goes into church and shoots nine people? There's a sickness in our country, there's something terribly wrong, but it isn't going to be fixed by your government. It's people straying away, it's people not understanding where salvation comes from."

Yes, that was it. Not white supremacy, but not enough Jesus. (Roof, by the way, was a Lutheran. And having been raised Lutheran, I can assure you that Lutherans talk a lot about salvation.)

Senator Ted Cruz, keeping with his tradition of making inappropriate jokes in the wake of a tragedy, said at a campaign event in Iowa days after the shooting: "You know the great thing about the state of Iowa is, I'm pretty sure you all define gun control the same way we do in Texas—hitting what you aim at." He also said that there's no sense talking about Root's racist motivations: "It appears to be racially driven from what it was reported this strange man said, and a racial hate crime is horrific, any hate crime is horrific. I don't think we should be using this tragedy to try and divide people and to try and seek partisan advantage. I think we should be praying for those who lost loved ones in this horrific murder."

Cruz is one of several Republican candidates who received campaign contributions from Earl Holt, the "leader of a rightwing group that Dylann Roof allegedly credits with helping to radicalise him against black people."

As is former Senator Rick Santorum. Santorum was quick to call the shooting at attack on religious freedom, but later called it an act of terrorism and said: "It was clearly racially motivated. Clearly."

Dr. Ben Carson penned an editorial [CN: disablism] for USA Today in which he wrote: "Not everything is about race in this country. But when it is about race, then it just is. So when a guy who has been depicted wearing a jacket featuring an apartheid-era Rhodesian flag walks into a historic black church and guns down nine African-American worshipers at a Bible study meeting, common sense leads one to believe his motivations are based in racism. ...We know what's at stake here, so let's stop all the interpretive dance around the obvious. ...When an event of this magnitude occurs in the middle of an election cycle, politicians are often quick to try to score political points, look for scapegoats and easy answers. That's the lowest common denominator of politics at a time when we need true leadership. ...I know we can [heal the sickness of racism]. But first we have to face the facts."

Dr. Carson is, of course, the only black Republican candidate.

On the other side of the aisle, Senator Bernie Sanders drew ire after holding a political rally "just feet from a Capitol Hill prayer vigil for the Charleston shooting victims in South Carolina," the day after the shooting. "The chants from the rally reportedly overpowered speakers at the prayer vigil." I don't even know what the fuck he was thinking.

Later in the day, he offered this message: "The Charleston church killings are a tragic reminder of the ugly stain of racism that still taints our nation. This senseless violence fills me with outrage, disgust, and a deep, deep sadness. The hateful killing of nine people praying inside a church is a horrific reminder that, while we have made significant progress in advancing civil rights in this country, we are far from eradicating racism. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and their congregation."

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used [CN: disablism] the occasion of her speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors over the weekend to talk about the shooting, to observe that racism is still a powerful force in the country, and to talk about white privilege. After reiterating the President's message about the need for gun control, Clinton said:
But today, I stand before you because I know and you know there is a deeper challenge we face.

I had the great privilege of representing America around the world. I was so proud to share our example, our diversity, our openness, our devotion to human rights and freedom. These qualities have drawn generations of immigrants to our shores, and they inspire people still. I have seen it with my own eyes.

And yet, bodies are once again being carried out of a Black church.

Once again, racist rhetoric has metastasized into racist violence.

Now, it's tempting, it is tempting to dismiss a tragedy like this as an isolated incident, to believe that in today's America, bigotry is largely behind us, that institutionalized racism no longer exists.

But despite our best efforts and our highest hopes, America's long struggle with race is far from finished.

I know this is a difficult topic to talk about. I know that so many of us hoped by electing our first Black president, we had turned the page on this chapter in our history.

I know there are truths we don't like to say out loud or discuss with our children. But we have to. That's the only way we can possibly move forward together.

Race remains a deep fault line in America. Millions of people of color still experience racism in their everyday lives.

Here are some facts.

In America today, Blacks are nearly three times as likely as whites to be denied a mortgage.

In 2013, the median wealth of Black families was around $11,000. For white families, it was more than $134,000.

Nearly half of all Black families have lived in poor neighborhoods for at least two generations, compared to just 7 percent of white families.

African American men are far more likely to be stopped and searched by police, charged with crimes, and sentenced to longer prison terms than white men, 10 percent longer for the same crimes in the federal system.

In America today, our schools are more segregated than they were in the 1960s.

How can any of that be true? How can it be true that Black children are 500 percent more likely to die from asthma than white kids? Five hundred percent!

More than a half century after Dr. King marched and Rosa Parks sat and John Lewis bled, after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and so much else, how can any of these things be true? But they are.

And our problem is not all kooks and Klansman. It's also in the cruel joke that goes unchallenged. It's in the off-hand comments about not wanting "those people" in the neighborhood.

Let's be honest: For a lot of well-meaning, open-minded white people, the sight of a young Black man in a hoodie still evokes a twinge of fear. And news reports about poverty and crime and discrimination evoke sympathy, even empathy, but too rarely do they spur us to action or prompt us to question our own assumptions and privilege.

We can't hide from any of these hard truths about race and justice in America. We have to name them and own them and then change them.
I have said before that Clinton has not seemed confident or well-prepared talking about race previously. This isn't perfect, but it is a marked improvement.

I am especially grateful that she drew a direct line from racist rhetoric to racist violence, and said plainly that this is not an isolated incident, but a terrorist act firmly centered in institutional racism.

I never imagined I'd have occasion to say this, but I agree with Dr. Ben Carson: Anyone who is not willing to talk about racism, even in the wake of eliminationist violence against nine black women and men perpetrated by an avowed white supremacist, is not fit to lead this nation.

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