Last week, in the wake of the mass murder at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I wrote something on my Facebook page to express my horror and disbelief at the heinous crime that had occurred. I referred to the shootings as an “unspeakable tragedy.”
A commenter on my post disagreed with the word “unspeakable” – there are “a lot of words to describe white supremacy and racism,” she argued – we just have to be willing to use them.
I used the word “unspeakable” because its definition – “incapable of being expressed in words” and “inexpressibly bad” – fit exactly how I felt upon learning that nine African Americans were gunned down in cold blood while studying the Bible in a historic Black church. I really could not find the words.
But the commenter was right in saying that we have to acknowledge this act for what it is and we need to have some honest conversations about race in America.
For much of my life, I’ve generally believed that our country has been making forward progress on the vexing issue of racial division and that we have begun to close some of the tremendous gaps in equality that exist between white America and virtually everybody else. We’ve certainly come a long way since the days of legalized segregation, and in my adult lifetime, I can see that new progress has taken place.
And although I am enormously proud that this country has twice elected an African American president, we cannot just point to President Obama and say “see, our racial problems are over.” We can’t say, “Sure segregation and discrimination were wrong, but that’s been over for a long time now. Everyone’s equal.”
When I spoke at the Grand Prairie Juneteenth celebration a few days ago, I spoke about the significance of the holiday as occasion to celebrate that we are all equal and we are all free. But I also said that it’s not enough just to say we’re all equal – we still have work to do until there is equality of opportunity for all Americans.
We don’t have guaranteed outcomes in our democracy. But if equality and freedom are to be realities for all Americans, we have to keep working until all people truly have equal opportunity to send their kids to a good public school, to have access to affordable health care and real opportunity to earn a decent wage to support their family. We know we’re not there yet – so we have to keep working, here in Texas and across the country.
At the same time, we need to start peeling back the layers on the racial tensions and discrimination in our country and try to figure this out. It’s a good thing that the South Carolina governor is calling for the removal of the confederate flag from the state capitol. It’s a good thing that there’s serious discussion underway about removing the statue of Jefferson Davis from the University of Texas campus, and as an alum, I hope UT does this soon.
Symbols have meaning. And we should not display symbols like that flag and statue, for they are inherently divisive and represent the very worst in our nation’s past.
At the same time, when they come down – and I think they will – let’s not kid ourselves into thinking we’ve solved the problem. We’re going to have to find the answers within ourselves and within our communities. It will only happen if we start communicating more and stop making assumptions.
I don’t know exactly what the answers are. My guess is that it will be everyday Americans who lead the way on this, and not politicians – though those of us in elected office must absolutely do our part to heal these divisions. And this I know for certain: we – all of us – absolutely must to speak up, loud and clear, when we hear people using language that divides us and when we witness acts that are either overtly or covertly racist. We have to let people know that as stereotypes are perpetuated, they pave the way for intolerance. Intolerance leads to hatred, and hatred – especially when it grows in someone who’s weak-minded, gullible or mentally unstable and has easy access to a gun – can be deadly.