Incidents like the Charleston shooting pose a question mark over the U.S. administration’s capacity to ensure harmonious race relations. Affirmative action has failed to bridge the chasm
Last week’s gruesome shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, in the United States, at one of the nation’s most renowned African-American congregations, is resurrecting the city’s and the U.S.’s troubled past. This city’s history is steeped in slavery and the kind of racism that fuelled the murders on June 17. About half of all African-Americans in the U.S. can trace their arrival to the country from the Charleston region.
At the Wednesday evening Bible study, on June 17, six women and three men, including Pastor Clementa Pinckney, a state Senator, were shot dead at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, located in a predominantly white area of the city’s downtown peninsula. The 21-year old white gunman, Dylann Roof, emptied his semi-automatic handgun on an essentially African-American congregation. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is now treating this as a hate crime, a category of deviance that has become part and parcel of American life. There were more than 3,000 hate crimes committed during 2013, the last year for which statistics are available. Of these, 2,000 were directed at the African-American community. Whites were victims in about 700.
R. K. Raghavan
Importance of Charleston
Roof was in the gathering and after listening to the discourse for nearly 45 minutes, entered into an argument in dissent of what was being said by the pastor. Following what was described as a vitriolic exchange of views, Roof stood up and opened indiscriminate fire. Just before shooting, he reportedly said: “I have to do it. You rape our women. You’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Such was the intensity of his hatred for African-Americans. There have been past incidents of violence in churches across the nation. But, somehow, Charleston seemed different, and the nation, including President Barack Obama, soon rallied together to express its shock and disapproval.
Why did Roof select Charleston to unleash his savagery? In a website, “Last Rhodesian”, opened as recently as February 2015 and attributed to Roof, he said: “… I chose Charleston because it is the most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK [Ku Klux Klan], no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.” Roof will now have to face charges on nine counts of murder and one of possession of a firearm while committing a crime.
The rights movement
The history of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, one of the oldest black churches in the country, goes back to the early 1800s. A few years after it started attracting congregations, in 1822, it was burnt down by a few local white landowners who resented an attempted slave rebellion engineered by Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s co-founders. It also bore the brunt of an earthquake in 1886. Notwithstanding such tribulations, it has played a significant role in the African-American Civil Rights movement for more than a century, especially in the 1960s. It began to be recognised as “the symbol of black freedom”, and attained fame when Rev. Martin Luther King spoke there urging congregants to vote in 1962. More recently, Pastor Pinckney had led rallies against the police killing, in April 2015, of Walter Scott, an African-American youth, in nearby North Charleston, an incident which led to large-scale riots. The pastor was very vocal in the state Senate, pressing Charleston policemen to mandatorily wear body-mounted video cameras — a move aimed at curbing police misconduct. Therefore, there was enough provocation for a white backlash and rancour, especially against the pastor.
The Charleston attack bore strong resemblance to the racist attack against a politically active black church in Birmingham, Alabama, back in 1963. This incident, a bombing, was attributed to the dreaded white supremacist KKK, and contributed to the strengthening of the Civil Rights Movement. This past explains why Roof zeroed in on Charleston. The Charleston attack raises many critical issues impinging on the polity and social fabric of the U.S. There are age-old racial fissures which just refuse to go away. As Prof. Jack Greene, a leading expert on the U.S. Police and my professor at Temple University, says: “Inequality affects the poor and marginalized most, of course, and African Americans have been marginalized before and following the days of slavery.”
Reckless attacks by white supremacists are more than a menace, however infrequent they may be. For example, there was the gory incident of 1995, where Timothy R. McVeigh, formerly of the U.S. Army, detonated a truck bomb in front of a federal office building in Oklahoma City killing 168 people. Although initially described a terrorist, there was subsequent speculation that McVeigh was not acting alone, with one of his associates being a white supremacist.
Gun lobby and rights
From the criminal justice point of view, there are at least two issues here which should be a matter of concern to the U.S. The first is the vexatious question of how to ensure that firearms do not fall into the wrong hands. We do not yet know whether Roof’s firearm was licensed or not. However, it is known that in March this year he was arrested for trespass and possession of a narcotic pain killer. The cold reality in the U.S. is that persons with a more dubious record than Roof can get gun licences, taking advantage of the Constitutional “right to bear arms” — one that has been so loosely and liberally interpreted that even mentally impaired individuals and those with a criminal record can hide their past and obtain a licence and buy the most sophisticated weapons. A catalyst in this appalling situation is the clout that the pro-gun lobby, in the form of the National Rifles Association (NRA), enjoys. Mr. Obama, who waxed eloquent in favour of a stricter gun policy before he was elected, had to tone down his opposition to the NRA because the latter is politically too powerful to be antagonised. White House does go all out to give expression to its determination to put an end to the gun menace whenever there are serious incidents. Examples are the Virginia Tech case in April 2007 in which 32 people were shot dead by a South Korean undergraduate student, and the Connecticut Sandy Hook Elementary School case that claimed 26 lives when a former student went berserk in December 2012. Such resolve does not go beyond rhetoric.
The administration’s travails are compounded by a judiciary that has put its foot down against any wholesale ban on firearms. It endorses only reasonable restrictions on ownership and the right to carry a weapon from place to place.
Fragile race relations
The fragile relationship between whites and blacks in America is another reality that shows up in incidents like Charleston. We must remember here that an average African-American still believes that he can get no justice at the hands of a white-dominated jury system and militant police forces who have been excessively beefed up in the past few years by liberal federal assistance to buy heavy arms that are clearly out of place in a civilian police system. As Prof. Greene says: “ ...the continuation of ‘crime attack’ and ‘war’ ideologies, as well as the actual militarization of police.... fuels the aggressiveness and war footing of the police.”
The antagonism between blacks and the police goes back many decades. At least three important incidents are relevant. The landmark case is that of Rodney King in 1991 in Los Angeles, where the hapless African-American motorist was brutally assaulted by a posse of policemen for not stopping when asked to do so. The episode was caught on camera and widely circulated, inflaming passions across the country. The acquittal of the police involved led to large-scale riots. The mere civil liability fastened on them further infuriated the African-American population. Two decades later, in February 2012, an African-American youth, Trayvon Martin, was shot dead in Sanford, Florida, on the flimsy plea of self-defence by a neighbourhood watch volunteer. All hell broke loose and black sentiment overflowed to express what was considered to be a case of white police atrocity against an African-American youth. Here too, the policeman was let off after being given the benefit of the doubt. Most recently, last August, the fatal shooting of an African-American youth, Michael Brown, by a Ferguson (Missouri) policeman erupted in large-scale violence. The jury’s decision not to indict the officer only widened black and white estrangement.
Perhaps the most questioned aspect of the criminal justice policy and enforcement is the continued high rate of incarceration of African-Americans, considered disproportionate to their numbers in the country’s population. This perceived imbalance causes maximum offence to most African-Americans across the nation. The practice of “stop and frisk” prevalent in most police departments is another irritant. Recently, the New York Police Department has had to drastically revise its guidelines to patrolmen to ensure a more circumspect exercise of its authority. All these factors greatly reduce the administration’s credibility in the eyes of the African-American community.
In the ultimate analysis, incidents like Charleston pose a question mark over the U.S. administration’s capacity to harmonise ties between the nation’s two largest communities. No amount of official window dressing or affirmative action to uplift the black masses has helped to bridge the chasm. Undoubtedly, there is a trust deficit in the U.S.
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