June 28, 2015

Are Racial Attacks Not Acts of Terrorism?

R Arun Kumar

IN one of the most gruesome racial attacks that we have heard in recent times, a 21-year old white man had shot dead nine Afro-Americans, who were attending a Bible study at the AME Church in Charleston. This is indeed more horrendous than the bomb attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, by the KKK (white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan), a tragedy that had galvanised the Civil Rights Movement in the US. In that attack, four girls died and it was termed as a 'terrorist act'. But today, many commentators are terming the attack on the Charleston church as an act carried out by a 'mentally deranged' individual, and not an act of 'terrorism'. How far has the US traversed since the Civil Rights Movement!

Dylann Storm Roof, the man who had carried out the attack, was stated to profess deep-seated racial hatred. Roof was so thoroughly influenced by racist ideology that he wanted to start a 'civil war' against the blacks. According to his friend, who recalls his talks with the attacker, and was surprisingly nonchalant, states: “I never heard him say anything, but just he had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs...He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don't really take them seriously like that.” (Emphasis added). It is this attitude of 'casualness' towards racist prejudices, left unchallenged by the 'angels' that let the 'devils rule roost'.

The attack on the Charleston Church is also very symbolic, as it is a church with a rich history of struggle against slavery and injustice. Sarah Kaplan writes in The Washington Post (June 18, 2015): “It was founded by worshipers fleeing racism and burned to the ground for its connection with a thwarted slave revolt. For years, its meetings were conducted in secret to evade laws that banned all-black services. It was jolted by an earthquake in 1886. Civil rights luminaries spoke from its pulpit and led marches from its steps. For nearly 200 years it had been the site of struggle, resistance and change...The congregation was founded in the era of slavery by Morris Brown, a founding pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1816, frustrated with the racism he encountered in Charleston’s segregated churches, Brown decided to form a church of his own...From the beginning, the congregation was a focal point of community organising and anti-slavery activism...white Charlestonians constantly monitored the church, sometimes disrupting services and arresting worshipers”.

Not just that. Indeed the church also served as the meeting point for one of the most notable slave uprisings in the US. “Denmark Vesey, the organiser of one of the nation’s most notable failed slave uprisings, was a leader in the church”. In 1822, he and other leaders planned a rebellion on June 16, ie, exactly 193 years and one day before the present attack. The rebellion led by Vesey was crushed by the white slave owners and more than 36 people including Vesey were executed and many more were 'banished' from the city. Not satisfied with this, “South Carolina instituted a series of draconian measures against African American churches and communities, including a ban on services conducted without a white person present. The Charleston AME congregation was dispersed and their building set ablaze”. Despite this repression, the Afro-Americans continued to organise underground congregations. The church was rebuilt after the Civil War had ended in 1860s.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s had this church as its focal rallying point in the state. It is this that made the recent pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was one among the dead in the attack on the church, state to a group of visitors two years ago: “Where you are is a very special place in Charleston. It’s a very special place because this site, this area, has been tied to the history and life of African Americans since about the early 1800s”. The attack on the church is, thus, not just only about the present, but has clear ties with the past that cannot be ignored.

The Charleston church attack is following a recent pattern of attacks carried on the Afro-Americans in the US. Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, North Charleston, Cleveland, McKinney, Fairfield and many other cities in the US have witnessed killings and attacks on Afro-Americans by white police officers and in most cases the culprits are let out unpunished. Even the courts of justice appear to be biased towards the accused. All this proves, how wrong are the claims that US is a 'post-racial' society.

New York Times (May 5, 2015) notes that 61 percent of Americans now say race relations in the US are bad. “That figure is up sharply from 44 percent after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown and the unrest that followed in Ferguson in August (2014), and 43 percent in December (2014). 44 percent of Americans think race relations are worsening, up from 36 percent in December (2014)”.

The recent economic crisis more than ever proves that racial bias in the US is not just a social oppression, but also comes together packed with economic exploitation. A recent report in the New York Times (June 20, 2015) notes: “The Great Recession wiped out twice as much black wealth as it did white, and the raw numbers are even more stark: Post-recession median household wealth for a white family in 2014 was almost $142,000, down from $192,500. The median wealth for black households had fallen to $11,000 from $19,200. There are 1.5 million black men 'missing' in America, because they are either dead or in prison. Black people were overwhelmingly excluded from the largest opportunities for wealth creation in the 20th century, from federally subsidised homeownership after World War II to the job training programs that created millions of middle-class livelihoods. Life expectancy rates for black Americans lag those of white Americans, and infant mortality rates are higher”. The wealth of white households was 13 times the median wealth of black households in 2013, compared with eight times the wealth in 2010, according to a study conducted by Pew Research Center. These inequalities made the Pew comment that “racial and ethnic wealth gaps in 2013 are at or about their highest levels observed in the 30 years for which we have data”.

These growing inequalities on the lines of race are widening the hate lines already prevalent in the US society. They are exposing the hollowness of the US claims of human rights, democracy and justice, as all the recent attacks show their very absence. The euphoria generated after electing the first Afro-American as the president of the country, or the appointment of first Afro-American as the attorney general, or as the defence secretary, or Supreme Court judge, etc, are all proving to be short-lived and not enough to bridge the racial divide and heal the racial wounds. Indeed, many among the US are once again feeling the need for a movement on the lines of Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr.

What really is needed in the US today is an innovative, imaginative movement that can amalgamate and address both the concerns of economic exploitation and social oppression. It need not be reiterated that such a movement should mobilise vast sections of the society cutting across racial divides.