The Polite Racism of My Charleston

Since the inexcusable mass murder of nine of my brothers and sisters in Christ two nights ago, mere blocks from my apartment and my church, much ink has been spilled in a selfish and panicked attempt to exempt this city and it’s inhabitants from any of the guilt of racism.  Instead of owning the feelings the conviction for the pride in each of our hearts, black or white, and the grief for how divided by race we have been, the moral cowards rushed to make themselves feel better: to point out that this was imported racism from without, and not a local racism to which they would be party.  Afraid of facing our own failings, the cry of “Not My Charleston!” has been ringing loudly around the internet, pointing out that this type of racism does not exist in the Charleston we know.

They are right, this is not the Charleston we know. The Charleston we know and live in is not one of overt acts of violent racism, but politely agreed-upon silent racism.  Let us look at the schools around the scene of the crime. Across the street from Mother Emmanuel AME is a fantastic International Baccalaureate magnate school, and touted by as a diverse school. It is, if we grade on a curve. White students make up 80% of the student body there, while underrepresented blacks make up 15%. Blacks are 30% of the Charleston County population. Are the black kids a slightly higher percentage of the school population at other nearby schools then? No: blacks go to “their own” schools. Two blocks north from this “mostly white” magnate school is another county-wide elementary school. It is 97.9% black. To the south is yet another black magnate elementary, which is 96% black, 1.2% white. The worst-performing school in the city is a few blocks north, a title 1 school with 98% of students receiving subsidized lunch. The student body is 99.2% black, 0% white. The only public high school on the peninsula, the oft-troubled Burke, is 99% black. [1]

I work with all of these schools. The students are beautiful and wonderful, and I love them with all my heart. The teachers work harder than they are paid to do and pour themselves into making a difference and educating these students as best they can. I have never seen overt or covert racism from any staff in Charleston County School District. But no teacher or principle can overcome the crushing lesson that “blacks belong with blacks and white belong with whites” that our city as a whole teaches subliminally every day. A typical bar or restaurant on King street will have 0-2 black people in them on a normal night, unless you count the “servile” kitchen staff. How can we not expect our young black children to learn that to be black is to be an subordinate class, separate and unequal? Too many of our neighborhoods are one of the following three: black, white, or becoming white through gentrification. Why shouldn’t black children believe that blacks and whites shouldn’t live together when many peninsular neighborhoods are monochrome? Religiously, we have white churches, we have black churches, and far too few between. Do little black Christians imagine heavenly congregation “from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues” when they never see a white face walk in their church, and never see a black face walk out of the church next door? Legal segregation ended in 1954, yet we still live it out of an unspoken truce, teaching our children from early on that the color of our skin divides us.

This covert racism is radically harmful to everyone in Charleston, even if it doesn’t manifest itself in acute acts of evil violence like we saw from Mr. Roof on Wednesday night. But we are not guiltless, of any color skin. Every day that we let this passive racism stand unchallenged, it is as if another nine lives are destroyed. Not by bullets, but by the crushing systemic bias that communicates that blacks are unwelcome, unequal, and unworthy of anyone’s effort to change that, and whites shouldn’t “invade and appropriate” the bastions of blackness, but rather just stay separate. Every day we fail to cross that racial divide, we are culpable of the destruction of lives and we deny the body of Christ the spiritually enriching diversity demanded of us. Every time we “politely ignore” a racist assumption or comment in conversation without verbalizing a challenge to it, we are “politely guilty” of the same sins that Mr. Roof took to the extreme. Until all of us Charlestonians of every color recognize this, and our own culpability, and commit ourselves to change, we will remain the politely racist city.

Charlestonian: you are a part of the racism whether or not you admit it, whether or not you deny it exists.

American: you are a part of the racism whether or not you admit it, whether or not you deny it exists.

Christian: you are a part of the racism whether or not you admit it, whether or not you deny it exists.

Oh Lord, give us the courage to confront our sin and repent!  Hosanna, Jesus; save us now!

[1] Statistics from publicschoolsk12.com and usaschoolinfo.com
A recent article about diversity in Charleston schools can be found here.
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