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The Charleston shootings and the state of the nation


Nine African Americans, gathered together for Bible study at their church in Charleston, South Carolina, are dead, thanks to the rage of a young white racist. And a symbol of the racism he harbored, the Confederate flag, remains at full-staff on the grounds of the state capitol.

It's tempting to point to that flag, flying throughout the days of mourning in Charleston, as yet another example of Southern racism. But the flag and its flaunting symbolize much more than the bigotry that exploded from the gun in Emanuel AME Church.

They're a symbol of more than the racism that led to the destruction of a previous Emanuel AME Church building 133 years ago, retribution for a church leader's militancy. They symbolize more than the racism that killed four little girls in a church in Birmingham 52 years ago. More than the racism that killed Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis 47 years ago.

They're a symbol of the racism that thrives everywhere in this country right now, some of it openly violent, some of it confined to swagger and smirking among friends and co-workers, some of it acted out in discrimination in hiring, in education, in housing.

They're a symbol of the racism of a busload of young white fraternity members in Oklahoma singing out their supremacy. Of Rochester-area students taunting black high-school athletes.Of a town supervisor joking about "city cousins." Of suburban residents protesting proposals to let black students from the city attend their schools. Of police officers reading more into the body language of an African-American male than that of a white male.Of politicians searching for ways to limit African-American voter turnout.

Racism has many forms, but none of it is harmless. And that it is so prevalent today - 150 years after the end of the Civil War, 67 years after President Truman ordered the desegregation of US armed forces, 61 years after Brown v. Board of Education, 51 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act - is proof of how deeply it is embedded in American culture. And how hard it is to eradicate.

Equally hard, of course, is dealing with the tools used so often to act out that racism.

"I've had to make statements like this too many times," President Obama said the day after the shootings in Charleston. "Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times."

"We don't have all the facts," Obama said, "but we do know that once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun."

Each occurrence of gun violence is a tragedy, and those like the Emanuel AME Church violence come with the additional challenge of racial hatred. They leave us grieving not only for the victims and their families and friends but also for America. Not only does this country, through its laws, its political leaders, and its media, permit such events, it encourages them.

In these early days after events like the Charleston killings, there is outrage. But it won't last long. After so many of these tragedies, we become numbed into resignation.

"At some point," Obama said in his address, "we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn't happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it."

But we won't. If the massacre of twenty 6- and 7-year-olds in a school in Newtown, Connecticut, wasn't enough to get action, the killing of a group of African-American churchgoers isn't going to do it. Not in this country.

On his show the night after the Charleston shootings, a frustrated Jon Stewartdispensed with jokes. "I honestly have nothing other than just sadness, once again," he said, "that we have to peer into the abyss of the depraved violence that we do to each other in the nexus of a just gaping racial wound that will not heal yet we pretend doesn't exist."

And Stewart said he was "confident... that by acknowledging it, by staring into that, and seeing it for what it is, we still won't do jack shit. Yeah. That's us."

The Charleston tragedy, the New York Times editorial board wrote on Friday, "leaves the nation at an all too familiar juncture - uncertain whether to do something positive to repair society's vulnerabilities or to once again absorb an intolerable wound by going through what has become a woeful ritual of deep grief followed by shallow resolve to move on toward... what? Toward the inevitable carnage next time."

The Times writers didn't mask their anguish and their fury. The accessibility of guns and the "odious racism that haunts society's darkest corners," they wrote, are combining with "the public's general sense of impotence, as needed solutions are left up to a political system undermined by retrograde and timorous officials more interested in their own survival than in the broader welfare."

Is it possible to change that? One of the nine victims last week apparently had faith that it is. The extensive coverage by our sister alt-weekly in Charleston, City Paper, included this report: Just a few weeks ago, the Rev. Clementa Pinkney - Emanuel's pastor and one of the nine victims of the church shooting - had helped lead a "Requiem for Racism" after the death of Walter Scott, an unarmed 50-year-old black man shot by a police officer in nearby North Charleston.

Pinkney said he hoped the event would "help each of us to look deeply into our own hearts and minds and inspire us to root out any forms of violence and bigotry in our own lives."

Maybe Pinkney's own death will inspire some of that rooting out. I'd like to have faith that it will. But at the moment, I'm more inclined to Jon Stewart's assessment.

We still won't do jack shit.