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Forgiveness in the wake of the Charleston shooting does not absolve America of racism

The memorial at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.
The memorial at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of the Charleston mass shooting, when 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study session at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church and gunned down nine of the church’s black parishioners:

  • Clementa Pinckney, 41: state senator, church pastor, and rising star in the South Carolina Democratic Party
  • Cynthia Hurd, 54: St. Andrews Regional Library branch manager for the Charleston County Public Library system
  • Sharonda Coleman-Singleton: a church pastor, speech therapist, and coach of the girls’ track and field team at Goose Creek High School
  • Tywanza Sanders, 26: who had a degree in business administration from Allen University
  • Ethel Lance, 70: a retired Charleston Gaillard Center employee who previously worked as the church janitor
  • Susie Jackson, 87: Lance’s cousin and a longtime church member
  • DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49: who retired in 2005 as Charleston County director of the Community Development Block Grant Program
  • Myra Thompson, 59: a pastor at the church
  • Daniel Simmons Sr., 74: who died in a hospital operating room

No less than 48 hours after the shooting, loved ones of the victims appeared at Roof’s arraignment, one by one, saying they forgave Roof. The family members were applauded for their strength of character.

But for whom is forgiveness beneficial? Is forgiveness necessary? Is forgiveness enough?

The shooting at Mother Emanuel was a racist hate crime. Forgiving the shooter, immediately after the tragedy or a year later, neither absolves nor clears America of the history of racism that contributed to the tragedy. And while we use today to remember the lives lost in Charleston, the following is a selection of articles that also address the complicated ties between racism and forgiveness itself:

1) As Emory University political science professor Andra Gillespie noted, part of the obsession of forgiveness had to do with a double standard on the proper way black people are expected to mourn even the most heinous acts committed against them:

And I also understand the frustration of people like Willie Glee, a member of Mother Emanuel. We had a chance to talk in the green room before the taping. He told me that he was very concerned that the broader community was hiding behind the families’ forgiveness as a way to deflect dealing with centuries of racial division and hierarchy.

Mr. Glee makes an important observation about racial reconciliation on the cheap. The media frames that were deployed in the immediate aftermath of the shooting did sometimes have a troubling subtext that often went unexamined. For instance, when people praised Charlestonians for not rioting after the shootings, they were making implicit comparisons to Ferguson and Baltimore. While I was very glad that Charleston did not erupt in violence, the implicit juxtaposition made me wonder if the Emanuel Nine would have been deemed less worthy by the media if there had been a riot? Or would the Confederate flag issue not have risen to the top of the political agenda in the wake of civil unrest? In raising these questions, I do not mean to support or condone violence. However, we really need to ask ourselves whether we as a country were more sympathetic with the victims of the Mother Emanuel shooting because they were socially upstanding and because the reaction of the townspeople was more palatable? And once we discover that answer, we need to go deeper and ask what that says about us — not those who were directly affected by the tragedy.

2) In a powerful op-ed for the New York Times, professor and author Roxane Gay pointed out that forgiveness has less to do with how African Americans mourn and more to do with America finding a means to absolve itself of confronting racism:

Black people forgive because we need to survive. We have to forgive time and time again while racism or white silence in the face of racism continues to thrive. We have had to forgive slavery, segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynching, inequity in every realm, mass incarceration, voter disenfranchisement, inadequate representation in popular culture, microaggressions and more. We forgive and forgive and forgive and those who trespass against us continue to trespass against us.

Mr. Roof’s racism was blunt and raggedly formed. It was bred by a culture in which we constantly have to shout "Black lives matter!" because there is so much evidence to the contrary. This terrorist was raised in this culture. He made racist jokes with his friends. He shared his plans with his roommate. It’s much easier to introduce forgiveness into the conversation than to sit with that reality and consider all who are complicit.

What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution. They want absolution from the racism that infects us all even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins. They want absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of racism, great and small. They want to believe it is possible to heal from such profound and malingering trauma because to face the openness of the wounds racism has created in our society is too much. I, for one, am done forgiving.

3) Joshua L. Lazard, the inaugural C. Eric Lincoln Minister at Duke Chapel, discussed the way forgiveness narratives at times deny the validity of anger when confronted with injustices as they transpired in Charleston:

Part of [our response to collective anger] is fueled by respectability politics that govern much of public speech, but it’s also due to an innate cultural sensibility that anger is not a healthy emotion to have. The Christian tradition doesn’t uplift anger as a human experience worth having. Anger is reserved for God. The fact that the liturgical calendar doesn’t have a season for anger, or include in its canon a "Righteous Indignation" Sunday, speaks to just how ingrained our anti-anger theology truly is.

Forgiveness is something on which Christianity hangs its hat. Not only is it a biblical cornerstone of the faith, it’s also a cultural expectation that, if you’re a Christian, society requires it of you. The hurdle for forgiveness is pretty high and the road is paved with hurt and pain. While forgiveness may be the final resting place after an emotional roller coaster, Christians should not be taking a shortcut around anger to get there.

4) Ebony magazine senior editor Jamilah Lemieux, like Gay, was not offering Roof forgiveness. But in an essay she wrote for the Nation, Lemieux discussed how forgiveness is wrapped up in African Americans’ relationship with the black church and how forgiveness can be a powerful means of addressing the idea that black people are always expected to forgive and those who choose to do so anyway:

At a moment when our entire race had cause to be angry, we were reminded that we are loving, forgiving people — a people that are required to be hyper-moral and superhuman in our tolerance of abuse.

...

I have come to realize black folks are my church, preaching the value of black life is my ministry and blackness is my sanctuary. That requires me to open my arms and accept my people even when I can’t co-sign their values. Wanting nothing more than to affirm us during these difficult times and to keep us focused on our true enemies (white supremacy and structural racism), I am working to take a cue from my religious brothers and sisters, and to forgive our people for being so forgiving.

I will never forgive Dylann Roof and the country that made him. But I will release my anger at how other black folks find a way to keep themselves sane in the face of madness, and I will provide the unforgiving rage towards our enemies that others simply can’t.

5) But as Cornell University history professor Edward E. Baptist wrote for the Los Angeles Times, forgiveness does not rest on African Americans. Instead, forgiveness is a call for white Americans to "brave the dangers of atonement" instead of seeking "cheap grace":

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 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.

Forgiveness is complicated, especially when it comes to such profound, harrowing events with such clear racist motivations. The Charleston shooting last year was a sobering reminder of how far America has to go to redress racism, one of its foundational sins.

People do not age out of racism. Racism will not simply disappear if we don’t talk about it. But talking about it does little if the terms of the conversation don’t change.

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