Talk Back

Reflections on the Charleston Shooting

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Sadly, the most recent horrific acts in Charleston, S.C. are a sobering reminder that living in the time of a two-term Black president and persistent acts of hate, prejudice and racism are not mutually exclusive. Because of this, it has probably never been more important to understand the responsibility that comes with our freedoms, a crucial point that seems lost in our ever shrinking 24 hour news cycles. The execution of nine members of the historic Emanuel AME church seems like a headline ripped from this country’s dark past, but it speaks to much more than race relations and hate.

While none of us are immune to violence and crime, there is justifiable outrage to the continued unequal treatment of minorities by police. But we can’t lose sight of the subtext to all of these incidents that challenge our hard won civil liberties. When people’s seemingly insensitive response to the growing list of unjustified assaults and homicides by police officers is “it’s not about race” they are missing the point. It’s not only about race, but it certainly starts there. We can no longer assume that everyone understands the terms used to discuss these incidents.

Firstly, race is a social construct used to identify a group of people who share similar and distinct physical characteristics. Historically, this term has a broader context, referring to those that share a common language and national affiliation. Racism speaks to that set of ideologies and practices often used to either justify or provoke the unequal distribution of privileges, rights or products among different racial groups. This form of discrimination finds its most damaging influence through socio-economic stereotypes and institutional practices and is why understating the concept of privilege is so important.

So what is privilege? Privilege speaks to the special rights or advantages afforded a person or group. Privilege influences societal responses to not only race, but gender, age, sexual orientation, disability and social class and affects how people perceive themselves as well as how they are perceived by other groups.

So why is this important? Because we all have our opinions not based on reason or on actual experience i.e. prejudices, and prejudice and hate often find their genesis in ignorance. So, literally, knowledge in this instance can be quite powerful. This is by no means a solution to the issues we continue to grapple with, but it helps us all to be better informed as we attempt to move this discourse forward and take action in a meaningful way.

The proliferation of social media as a means of mass communication suggest that it is now easier for everyone to express how they feel in the moment which, for better or worse, means that there is no filter or means for respectful or meaningful exchange. We often witness a tone deaf defense of a group ideology instead of an exchange of ideas and it neither enriches the debate nor advances the discussion.

Like so many, I am outraged and saddened by the most recent incident of violence and the sense that Black lives are somehow of less importance. There has been much movement and some progress on the concept of equality and civil liberties, but it is dangerous for us to ignore the need for continued action and discourse to address these very real issues. I don’t know that it’s realistic to think that we will ever live in a post-racial society. The question is, should this even be an aspiration when our real strength lies in our diversity and our continued respectful engagement about our differences and shared humanity?