Last week, we were once again reminded of how one man, with too easy access to lethal weapons and guided by blind racial hatred, can, in just a few seconds, shatter lives and destroy the peace of a community.
Already, talking heads and pundits are fighting over what it means that a young white man and avowed racist shot and killed nine black people — including a respected spiritual leader — in a church as they prayed, not only robbing those people of their lives, but also, by violating the sanctity of their place of worship and sanctuary, shattering the fragile sense of security this community had managed to eke out in a world often hostile to them.
What does it say about us, as a nation, that some still proudly fly the Confederate flag out of nostalgia for a time in our country when open — and violent — hatred for non-white, non-Christian Americans was not only permitted but openly celebrated? How could someone with so much hate in his heart so easily access the tools to commit atrocities in the name of that hatred? How can someone so young, still forming his personality and views, have learned to hate people so much simply because of the color of their skin? And, perhaps, most poignantly, why do apparently racially motivated acts of violence seem to keep happening again and again all across our country?
As we, in Santa Monica, meditate on this most recent instance of violence spurred by race hatred, it is important to recall that we live in a privileged community.
We are a privileged community not because we are free of prejudice. We are not and would be foolish to think otherwise.
In Santa Monica and Los Angeles, we have historically and in the present exhibited the symptoms of that national sickness, racism.
The ugly specter of bigotry has reared its head many times in our past in the form of segregated beaches and swiftly-executed plans to demolish whole neighborhoods, home to poor black and Latino residents, to make way for a freeway. In our region, many live in areas of concentrated poverty, caused by lack of public investment in poor neighborhoods of color and historically segregationist housing policies like redlining designed to force black people, Latinos and others out of white neighborhoods.
The Zoot Suit Riots, the Watts Riots, and the Rodney King Riots all serve as dramatic reminders of the simmering racial tensions in our community. Even today, less dramatic, but equally powerful, consequences of racism persist.
Still, we are a privileged community precisely because we can admit we are not free of prejudice. But we also need to be willing to examine that fact, talk about it frankly and begin to take real steps to change our relationships to one another.
This Friday marked the 150th Juneteenth celebration, which was commemorated in our town with a community-wide celebration in Virginia Avenue Park. Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the United States, and though many generations have passed from this earth since that first celebration, the shooting in South Carolina shows that we, as a country, are still living in the shadow of that peculiar – and criminal – institution.
During the Civil War, when riots erupted in New York over the newly-imposed draft in 1863, the mob specifically targeted black Americans, many of whom had lived in New York for generations.
In the wake of the carnage, the municipal government attempted to compensate black residents of Manhattan for their loss of property and life.
“Relief, and damage money, is well enough, but it cannot atone, fully, for the evils done by riots,” wrote Dr. J.W.C. Pennington, an abolitionist minister and former slave, in the aftermath.
“It cannot bring back our murdered dead. It cannot remove the insults we feel; and, finally, it gives us no proof that the people have really changed their minds for the better, towards us,” he wrote.
That his words, more than a 150 years later, are still relevant today shows precisely how much more work there is to do to overcome centuries of institutionalized racism.
Nothing we can do in Santa Monica in the wake of the Charleston tragedy can bring back the murdered dead. But, perhaps this tragedy can spur us to real action. Through self-reflection, frank discussion and education, we can recognize how our personal and national histories have profound implications for how we understand present day racial and ethnic dynamics and our role in them.
Only then can we begin to change our minds, and the minds of our children, about how we judge — and consequently treat — one another.
Laurie Lieberman,Barry Snell,Jason Islas,Irene Zivi,Leslie Lambert,Shari Davis andDebbie Mulvaneyfor Santa Monica Forward