For­give­ness won’t end racism in Amer­ica

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - Ed­ward E. Bap­tist is a pro­fes­sor of history at Cor­nell Univer­sity and the au­thor of “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slav­ery and the Mak­ing of Amer­i­can Cap­i­tal­ism.” By Ed­ward E. Bap­tist

When Dy­lann Roof was ar­raigned in Charleston on mur­der charges, mem­bers of his vic­tims’ fam­i­lies stated that they for­gave him. Their words clearly grat­i­fied many white Amer­i­cans, like GOP pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Rick San­to­rum, be­cause they of­fered an es­cape from more con­tro­ver­sial sub­jects. Asked what the coun­try should do to pre­vent sim­i­lar in­ci­dents in the fu­ture, San­to­rum re­fused to men­tion gun con­trol, anti- racism ed­u­ca­tion or ef­forts to re­duce sys­temic racial in­equal­ity. What gave him “more hope than any­thing,” he said in an ABC in­ter­view, was the way the fam­ily mem­bers showed “true for­give­ness.” Black peo­ple of­fer­ing for­give­ness to a white racist killer, he be­lieved, re­vealed that “the way to over­come all of this hor­ri­ble vi­o­lence is through rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.”

What­ever San­to­rum might be­lieve, the fam­ily mem­bers’ state­ments will not de­liver white Amer­i­cans to some misty land where they no longer have to hear about the im­pact of nearly 400 years of racist vi­o­lence. For as the Rev. Wil­liam Bar­ber told the con­gre­ga­tion at Man­hat­tan’s River­side Church on Sun­day, only “the per­pe­tra­tor has been caught. The killer re­mains at large.” Roof ex­plo­sively acted out a dis­dain for black life that is all too per­va­sive in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

The vic­tims’ fam­i­lies are strug­gling with the pri­vate busi­ness of their own grief, us­ing the lan­guage of Chris­tian grace. This starts with the belief that God can for­give all sins. In turn, be­liev­ers should try to do the same for the sake of their own souls and their own de­sire to live in har­mony with God.

What too many whites seem to de­mand from these fam­i­lies’ state­ments, how­ever, isn’t re­ally grace. As the jour­nal­ist Jamelle Bouie pointed out, peo­ple like San­to­rum in­sist on what the Ger­man the­olo­gian and an­tiNazi free­dom fighter Di­et­rich Bon­ho­ef­fer called “cheap grace” — the “preach­ing of for­give­ness with­out re­quir­ing re­pen­tance” from those who have sinned. The for­give­ness they want is so cheap that I can only call it “Wal- Mart grace”: low- priced but shoddy, de­struc­tive of real com­mu­nity and built on ex­ploita­tion.

What­ever faith you pro­fess — or don’t — grace isn’t cheap. It’s one thing for a sur­vivor of trauma to tell a hand­cuffed and doomed per­pe­tra­tor that you for­give him. It’s another thing to for­give those who can still harm you. You don’t do that with­out a good rea­son to be­lieve that the per­son who harmed you has changed into some­one who will not do so again.

That kind of trans­for­ma­tion can be sig­naled by atone­ment, a painful process that starts with ac­knowl­edg­ing the wrongs one has com­mit­ted. Atone­ment may in­volve suf­fer­ing in rec­om­pense for the wrongs, and it cer­tainly in­cludes act­ing to put an end to those wrongs, even if it is costly to do so.

My fel­low white Amer­i­cans, I know this will dis­com­fit some of you, but Bar­ber was right: The killer re­mains at large, and the killer is us. Col­lec­tively we re­main com­mit­ted to be­liefs and be­hav­iors that re­sult in the de­struc­tion of black lives.

Af­ter his ar­rest, Roof was jailed in the cell next to that of Of­fi­cer Michael Slager, the white cop in the vide­o­recorded killing of an un­armed black man, Wal­ter Scott, on April 4. Roof ’s al­leged deeds were shock­ing. But many sus­pect that the only thing un­usual about Slager’s was that he was caught in the act.

The record­ing is all that keeps Slager from claim­ing “I was afraid for my life,” which has been all that thou­sands of of­fi­cers have needed to say to re­main ex­empt from pros­e­cu­tion.

Although not ev­ery case is as clear- cut as the killing of Scott, po­lice vi­o­lence against black and brown peo­ple is en­demic. Mean­while, white fear of black par­tic­i­pa­tion in Amer­i­can life en­ables the mass in­car­cer­a­tion of African Amer­i­cans and the sort of reve- nue- driven “polic­ing” iden­ti­fied in Fer­gu­son, Mo. That same fear re­port­edly led Roof to say, “You rape our women and are tak­ing over our coun­try,” as he shot his nine vic­tims.

There are wrongs per­pe­trated by in­di­vid­u­als driven mad by white fears. There are wrongs per­pe­trated by those who act in our name, with the bless­ing of white fears.

That’s why white peo­ple in the U. S. shouldn’t grab for Wal­Mart grace. In­stead, they should take this oc­ca­sion to con­sider whether they are com­plicit in our long history of white supremacy. It would be wise to start by lis­ten­ing to what non­white peo­ple have to say about the ways in which white priv­i­lege works to disad­van­tage them and ad­van­tage us.

For some, that will be a new and un­com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ence. Yet if white Amer­i­cans want rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, they will have to brave the dan­gers of atone­ment. And so what if there is dan­ger? Be­cause of what whites do or leave un­done, liv­ing while black has al­ways been far more dan­ger­ous than it should be. For African Amer­i­cans, vi­o­lent death has too of­ten been the cost of stand­ing up for black life. Some­times death has even been the cost of kneel­ing in prayer.

400 years of racist vi­o­lence

re­quires atone­ment.

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