Editor’s Note: Eric Liu is the founder of Citizen University and the author of several books, including “A Chinaman’s Chance” and “The Gardens of Democracy.” He was a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. Follow him on Twitter: @ericpliu. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Eric Liu: Race hatred -- which is "weaponized" by easy access to guns -- is a sickness in America
At least one question is put to rest: It is not possible to claim another race as personal preference
There’s a pioneering education nonprofit in Boston that uses stories of past bigotry to teach young people about tolerance. It’s called “Facing History and Ourselves.” Which pretty much sums up our national challenge for the foreseeable future.
Last week, when the Rachel Dolezal media circus was in full swing, the subtext of the coverage and debate was that “this is all so fascinatingly 21st century.” Coming so soon after Caitlyn Jenner’s transgender declaration, Dolezal’s masquerade raised convoluted, sometimes comical questions about whether it is possible or permissible now to claim race as a matter of mere personal preference.
The shooting in Charleston ended that self-indulgent reverie.
The vicious killings at the Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday reminds us brutally that race in 2015 isn’t only about fluid boundaries, elective minority status, or a postmodern sense of identity in transition. Race – for African-Americans especially – is still often a hard social marker. In this case, a target.
There is a sickness in our society, as Senator Rand Paul said, that is about violence and mental illness. But there is a deeper sickness – race hatred – which is “weaponized” by such easy access to guns. And underlying that is a deeper sickness still: the American penchant for avoiding the past and its meaning.
Today – Thursday, June 18 – the United States Supreme Court, with Justice Clarence Thomas as the pivotal vote, ruled that Texas is within its rights to ban Confederate flag license plates. Today, the stars-and-bars continues to fly at a Confederate Soldiers Monument in South Carolina. Today, images of Dylann Roof posing with that flag or the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia went viral.
Today is not, as the cliché goes, the first day of the rest of your life. Today is the most recent day of the many lives that came before yours. Rachel Dolezal’s “race, lies, and videotape” farce was the product of her desire to escape her own history, to claim another group’s history. She could not. She should not have tried.
The Charleston shooting, rooted in a deep tradition of anti-black violence, is also part of an inescapable history. There are too many anguished echoes to tally. There are the church bombings of the civil rights era just half a century ago. There are the lynchings, murders, bombings, riots, and rapes that were the enforcement arm of the unwritten codes of segregation. There is the violence, physical and legal, done to slaves since before there was a Constitution or a United States.
This racialized violence was used to make and enforce boundaries of race – and let’s be clear, to define race in terms of blackness versus non-blackness. It was not an incidental aspect of the American republic, the Confederate rebellion, or wannabe-Confederate revivalism today. It is at the very core of our nation’s history and contemporary civic life.
We have to reckon with it much more openly. Not “without judgment,” as people are prone to say in this time of fragile feelings, but with quite strong judgment of history and ourselves: with a Lincoln-esque sense that it is possible and necessary both to damn racism and to admit how much of it exists in our own hearts.
Except we shouldn’t wait for another Lincoln. We should each, in our own little domains, be another Lincoln. We should open conversations, public and private, about the real history of anti-black racialism as well as racism in our institutions – our churches, our colleges, our companies, our town squares and public buildings.
And not just in the Deep South. That’s too easy. Not even just in a city like Spokane, Washington, which has few African-Americans. But also in every part of the North and West where the Great Migration of nearly a century ago changed the face of the big cities. In every part of New England, where so many great arts and education institutions were built on the labor of slaves.
You might ask what good all this excavation of the past will do. It won’t equalize educational or economic opportunity for African-Americans. It won’t guarantee the voting rights of African-American citizens. It won’t protect African-Americans from police brutality or common criminality.
But it will remind us why those tasks matter morally and urgently – and why the hashtag #AllLivesMatter is a defensive and history-ignorant response to #BlackLivesMatter. It will make us all appreciate the responsibility we share as inheritors of all that is good – and bad – about America.
It’s the American way to blissfully forget history, to think only about tomorrow. But for the slain in Charleston there is no tomorrow. Those of us who are here today must face yesterday squarely, and commit to making a “new American way ” – of reckoning, reconciliation, and true reconstruction.