America needs some soul searching

Updated 3:51 PM EDT, Fri June 19, 2015

Story highlights

Nine people were killed in a church in Charleston on Wednesday

Errol Louis: Politics that enable a troubled man to get a gun need second look

Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

In a nation that is over 70% Christian, we’d prefer not to think that a church – a place of peaceful reflection and spiritual striving – could become a target for violent hatred and the scene of wanton slaughter. But that is what happened, and not for the first time.

In a land striving to free itself from the poison of racism and making notable forward strides – we have twice elected a black man as President of the United States – we must also reckon with the fact that a racially motivated massacre is the latest in what the Justice Department says are nearly 300,000 hate crimes committed each year, which is about the same number as a decade ago.

And in a country that boasts to the world of powerful democratic institutions, our Congress, President, state lawmakers and civic institutions appear powerless to find agreement on even the simplest and most basic controls on the proliferation of firearms, despite polls suggesting overwhelming public support for stronger background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill and the drug-addicted. The suspected killer arrested for the Charleston massacre may have been both.

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

In short, we’d like to think of ourselves as a place where faith, tolerance and robust democracy all coexist in happy abundance. But the alleged rampage by 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof places all that in doubt.

“There is something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship,” said a somber President Obama from a White House podium.

But surely the president remembers the spate of arson fires that destroyed 66 black churches across the South across an 18-month stretch. The wave of fires led startled members of Congress to swiftly enact the Church Arson Prevention Act, hastily signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton, which stiffened penalties for acts of vandalism and desecration of religious sites.

“The people burning down black churches in the South are generally white, male and young, usually economically marginalized or poorly educated, frequently drunk or high on drugs, rarely affiliated with hate groups, but often deeply driven by racism,” is how the “Washington Post” summarized the phenomenon in 1996.

Nearly 20 years later, that profile appears to largely describe Roof, a poorly educated young white man with a drug problem who chose a black church as a target of racist aggression.

“Unfortunately there are thousands of young men like (Roof) who are looking for an identity larger than themselves,” says Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group. “We’ve seen a drifting away from organized white supremacy and the prevalence of lone wolf attacks.”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, a conservative evangelical candidate for President, seems to have forgotten the wave of attacks in the 1990s, offering the unlikely theory that the massacre was an attack on Christians that had little or nothing to do with race.

“It’s obviously a crime of hate. Again, we don’t know the rationale, but what other rationale could there be? You’re sort of lost that somebody could walk into a Bible study in a church and indiscriminately kill people,” Santorum told a New York radio host. “This is one of those situations where you just have to take a step back and say we — you know, you talk about the importance of prayer in this time and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before. It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation.”

Santorum’s theory feels like an attempt to slip past the obvious markers indicating the massacre was about race, not religion. Photos have circulated of Roof sporting the symbols of fallen, failed regimes built on white supremacy. He wore patches of flags from apartheid South Africa as well as that of Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. And Roof’s license plates bore replicas of the Confederate Battle Flag, flown by the traitors who violently tried to split from America to form a slaveholding empire in the 1860s.

Much has been made of the fact that the Confederate flag flies in front of the South Carolina statehouse, and by law cannot simply be lowered even though official flags were lowered to half-staff in the wake of this week’s massacre.

“Let Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, look out her window at the flag of treason that is flown proudly at her state capitol and think about these things, and speak of them, before she pronounces herself so puzzled at how something like this could happen in South Carolina, the home office of American sedition,” writes Charles Pierce at

By gruesome coincidence, a ruling from the Supreme Court, issued on the same morning Roof was arrested, held that the state of Texas can refuse to issue license plates with the Confederate battle symbol. A group called Sons of Confederate Veterans had sued in an attempt to force the state to allow the flag design on official, state-issued vanity plates.

There’s no need to obsess over the Confederate Flag issue. Those who cloak themselves in the symbol reveal more about themselves than they might realize – and if they’re comfortable waving the same flag that modern racists have claimed as a standard, so be it.

A more important question is what the future holds.

Obama seems resigned to the reality that Congress won’t pass any form of firearms control, no matter how many murdered bodies pile up from one mass shooting after another. The politics that enable a troubled man to get a gun need a second look. So does our simplistic faith that young people will rescue the country from its political and cultural ills.

As America moves toward a more diverse society – it’s estimated that nonwhites will be a majority by the year 2040 – we want to think young Americans are more educated and tolerant than the rest of us, free of old-fashioned views on race, same-sex marriage and other social issues. But that’s not necessarily true: polls show that the so-called millennial generation of people born after 1980 hold views on race that aren’t all that progressive.

“The fact of the matter is that millennials who are white — that is, members of the group that has always had the most regressive racial beliefs, and who will constitute a majority of U.S. voters for at least another couple of decades — are, on key questions involving race, no more open-minded than their parents,” writes Sean McElwee in New York Magazine. “The only real difference, in fact, is that they think they are.”

South Carolina boasts the country’s sole black U.S. senator and an Indian-American governor. It also glorifies its past as the jumping-off point of a war that killed more Americans than any other. Like the rest of the nation, the state should take time to honor and remember the victims of the massacre – but then do some painful soul-searching about how to make sure we don’t keep creating broken, hate-filled monsters.

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