On our way to Chicago, Lyra and I were listening to “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett on CD. I told Lyra that this story is set just a few years before I was born. This morning on our way to circus camp she asked to hear some more and we put in the next CD. By the time we pulled into the parking lot we were both rapt listening the the end of the chapter where Medgar Evers is gunned down in front of his own home by the KKK, in front of his own wife and children. I turned back to her and said, “This really happened. Medgar Evers is not a fictional character. He was a civil rights leader who headed a chapter of the NAACP, and he was killed exactly as they tell it." She nodded, eyes full and aware, and we got out of the car and said our goodbyes for the day. I get back into the car, and turn on the radio and I am faced with Charleston. I am listening to the beautiful voice of Pastor Clementa Pinckney, and even though I don’t know him or his congregation, or his work as a democratic state senator, I find myself keening in my own head, “No… Not this man. Not this beautiful voice. Not this man. Not this gentle, insistent leader. No.” Never mind the other 8 people who were shot dead in their own church, Other church staff, ministers, mothers grandmothers…. People. From 26 to 87 years old, shot dead for the color of their skin. And I am glad Lyra is no longer in the car with me. I can’t bear it or explain it. My eyes are welling up and I am full of sadness and rage. My anger is rooted in the fact that we are somehow still debating whether racism is a factor in our society, in our law enforcement, in our housing policy, in our, hiring practices, in our voting laws, in our education system, in our subconscious response to people of color in every facet of life in our country. I have been listening to people on FOX News bend over backwards to suggest that the mass murder in that Charleston church was somehow an act of aggression against religion and nothing to do with race. I listen to Rick Santorum speak and I am out of my right mind, and grateful that I don’t own a gun myself. Though I’m sure that I could get my angry little hands on one by this afternoon if I wanted it (Thank You NRA). It would be tempting to write off FOX as a fringe network, but they are not fringe. It would be tempting to write off Santorum and his ilk as radical outliers, but they are not. They are the leaders of, and the mouthpieces for a lasting and entrenched ideology in America. When I see them I see people unable to see or acknowledge racism in our systems of government, in our society, nor in themselves. We must never stop trying to change that. But we progressives, our hands are not clean. We hurl the words “racism” and “racist”, away from ourselves, usually with fingers sharply pointed, and righteous anger turned up high. Usually to the right, and to the white. I am going to say this right here and it’s the truth. – I am racist. And I think you are too. I don’t care what color your skin is. As for me, I have instincts and gut reactions that prove it to me. They’re not really obvious or strong. They are subtle, but very real. I am not proud, nor am I ashamed. What I am is curious, interested, determined to identify and understand how it operates in me. I don’t care how progressive you are or what the color of your skin is. I think you are racist too. Don’t get defensive…get curious. I think we ALL need to stop shaming one another, throwing the word “racist” at people like it’s a hot potato that doesn’t belong to us all. Yes we need to get angry and clamor and march and shout in order to move the needle. We need to demand that those in power open their eyes to the racial injustices that do harm to so many, and demand that they act to change them. But AS we do these things, we have to demand the same of ourselves. And teach our children to do the same. Have we made progress since 1963? Yes. But we have important work right in front of us.
I’m thinking of the families in Charleston who are burying their dead, and I’m hoping that I don’t have to talk to Lyra about how a man can walk into a church and gun down 9 people for being black, and why our country can’t seem to do much to stop it. But I know I’m going to have to have that conversation. This is the country our children are inheriting from us. Right now.