Make no mistake. The terrorist massacre in Charleston at the Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday night is a backlash against #BlackLivesMatter. When a 21-year-old man guns down nine people while telling the victims that he believes that Blacks are “taking over the country,” he is reacting to a perceived ripple in the vast, undisturbed ocean of privilege, entitlement and supremacy that has been his norm and that he believes to now be under threat.
What should frighten us is how little it took. A few months of sporadic protesting and rallying and hashtagging under the umbrella of #BlackLivesMatter. That is all it took to fuel a young white male’s phobia.
This should frighten us but it should also make us recommit to the struggle. Because, contrary to what this man believed, no true victory has been won, no justice has yet been served, and no privilege has been disturbed.
So, what rattled this man so? This young terrorist is reported to have spoken to his friends about Trayvon Martin and about his desire for segregation between Blacks and Whites. What was it about the Trayvon case that bothered him? That the name “Trayvon Martin” defied most precedence and actually made it to the nation’s headlines and people’s imagination and sowed the seeds of doubt about America as a post-race society? Did he think of it as a victory for the other side?
Perhaps it escaped the young man’s notice that the not-guilty verdict in the case was really a failure for racial justice and not a success. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon is dead, not alive, and was unarmed at the time of his passing. Unlike the young man, Trayvon had no gift of a gun or anything else for his 21st birthday because he didn’t live to see it.
Was it the Ferguson protests over the death of Michael Brown? Or was it the rallies for justice for Eric Garner across the nation? Or was it the indictment of police officers in Baltimore over the death in custody of Freddie Gray? Did these events sound to this young man like a death knell for the previously unquestioned power enjoyed by lawmen of his race? Did he not find comfort in the fact that neither Brown nor Garner nor Gray were alive to “take over the country?”
Was it the last straw when a 15-year-old white teenager at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, blew the whistle when he recorded a video of a white policeman wrestle a black girl in a bikini to the ground and pin her with his knee in her back? Did the teenager’s outrage in condemning the white parents and the police in his town seem like the ultimate betrayal to the young man? Did this demonstration of alliance by white teenagers with their black friends in a town in Texas signify the most terrifying kind of “takeover,” a takeover of the heart?
Or was it the fact that ever since the young man was around 13, a black man has been in the White House? In the final years of President Barack Obama’s presidency, are we finally seeing the white supremacist murderous backlash that we had feared in those early days of the Obama presidential bid but of late forgotten to imagine?
In the last hour before the young man pulled out his gun, did he not pause for a moment to note that there was nothing to fear, no takeover, no dismantling of white entitlement? After all, wasn’t it the purest form of entitlement to know that he could approach a bible study group in the historically black Mother Emanuel church without hesitation, knowing he would be welcomed by the men and women whom he planned to murder?
Didn’t he note the naked privilege of the absence of suspicion of a white male, who would not profiled like his black male counterparts? Even though almost every mass gun shooter in this country has been young, white and male, this man knew he would not be feared. Indeed, so profound was his privilege that his victims saw in him no one but a friend.
This nation’s history is littered with instances—from Selma, Alabama to Memphis, Tennessee—when men and women who began a protest didn’t live to see it register a victory. #BlackLivesMatter now has seen an instance of fear turn into assassination. The victims in the church were not even protesting, they were praying. The only way past this pain is through it. And onward.