After last week’s massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, there should have been no question of guilt, or motivation. Dylann Roof made it clear what he did, and why, long before his confession. And yet, the media has bungled so much of it, from beginning to, if not the end, then the point at which we continue, which today saw South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley call for the immediate removal of the Confederate flag.
Why did it take this event to lead to that? How can we reexamine the assumptions we hold and expand our inventory of ideas about the way we talk about race in America? Here are five points, just for a start.
1. EVERYTHING SLICK DON’T SLIDE
Never in my media career have I seen media outlets refuse to show the face of any adult black murderer. Never. Quite the opposite: they loop it. All day, all night. We tend to see black men on television in one of two positions: handcuffs in the front or handcuffs in the back. So what was with the burst of momentary morality that had certain talk show hosts refusing to show the killer’s face? Really? To all of a sudden decide to not show Roof’s face seemed not only disingenuous, but racial.
2. IF YOU QUOTE KING, VOTE KING
Can we stop letting pundits and politicians get away with selectively quoting Dr. King when black tragedies happen? Sure, King is the quintessential example of “nonviolence” and “love thy neighbor as thyself,” but he was also felled by an assassin’s bullet, and six years after his death, his mother was shot and killed as she sat playing the organ at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Never mind that the black folk for whom he risked his life are still overwhelmingly the victims of gun violence in America.
To quote King about the “beloved community” and not get serious about gun violence in America is at best empty rhetoric—and at worst, a malignant mangling of his message. If you’re going to quote King, then vote King: get serious about gun control.
3. TO DO NOTHING, ONE EXCUSE IS AS GOOD AS ANOTHER
It didn’t take long for partisan politicians and the chattering class to start manufacturing excuses about this tragedy. First it was an attack on faith. Then it was an “accident” that might have had more to do with drugs than guns, bumbled former Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry. Or it was all about quickly casting Roof as “mentally ill” and “unstable,” not a thug, criminal or terrorist. (Sidenote here: for all our handwringing, we are no more serious about adequately addressing America’s mental health crisis than we are about addressing the gun epidemic.) Truly unbelievably, a board member of the NRA actually blamed one of the victims of the shooting for his political position on concealed-carry gun laws. Finally, the media seized on Roof’s statement to police investigators that he “almost didn’t go through with it.” But he did.
Any excuse to do nothing, any route to circumvent the ugly truth! And what is the ugly truth? Lack of gun control. Personal and systemic racism. A political system undermined by corporate interests. Politicians who put personal gain and fleeting support above the needs of the citizens.
4. THE TERRORIST TEST
When is a terrorist not a terrorist? Apparently when he’s a 21-year-old white male in America. Were he a 21-year-old Muslim attacking a sacred site in America, the media would have declared him a “terrorist” sooner than right now and quicker than at once.
Jim Naureckas, editor at FAIR.org, said it best: “If media are going to use the word ‘terrorist’ they need to have a single standard for its application. By applying the word to a [Boston Marathon] bombing with initially unknown perpetrators, and largely declining to use it in connection with a massacre allegedly perpetrated by a white supremacist hoping to spark a race war, media failed that test.”
The media is a runner coming off the blocks. How it frames a breaking story is critical to both initial public perception and eventual public policy.
5. THE POWER OF LOVE
The most important message to come out of this tragedy is, sadly, the lesson that we will likely forget soonest: forgiveness.
Maybe it’s just me, but given our society’s unconscious biases about black men, I have a hard time believing that a 21-year-old black male in the South could just roll up into an all-white prayer circle, cop a seat next to the pastor and be welcomed like a Christian brother, no questions asked.
I was at a dinner party after Roof’s confession, and even the black folk at the table thought it was strange and abnormal that the black prayer warriors let this out-of-place white male just randomly stroll up in the church.
I didn’t agree. That’s love. Growing up in a black church, I’ve seen it happen countless times with all kinds of random visitors. Indeed, our church’s welcome, uttered in unison, went like this, “Welcome to the church where everybody is somebody, nobody is a stranger, and you belong here. Welcome!”
Sadly in this world, sometimes trust makes you vulnerable and love can get you killed. And, yet, love is the only antidote to hate. What else is there?
For a true Christian, there really is no more noble way to die. Refusing to judge folk, meeting them where they are, and sharing the Good News. Black America has learned to love this country in spite of, not because of. Even when the victim of the most heinous of assaults, at our best, we forgive so that we might live.
The next time this happens, the media won’t likely remind us of the extraordinary grace that we’re witnessing right now. So, remember Charleston.