I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” said US President Barack Obama in the wake of the murder of nine black churchgoers by a white supremacist in Charleston, South Carolina. Indeed, through his presidency, Obama has offered similar condolences after mass shootings 14 times. It’s a morbid routine. After gunmen invade universities, elementary schools and places of worship, the nation is shocked and outraged. Politicians, especially Republicans, are quick to pin the blame in ways that seem designed to absolve the gun industry: these are mentally disturbed individuals, they say, and never mind how they got the guns. On occasion, as after the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, in which 20 six-year-olds were slain, the White House tries to rally support to institute meaningful gun control measures that fail to pass Congress.
This time, accompanying these depressingly familiar rituals, was an image that encapsulates America’s unhealed racial wounds: the flag of the Confederacy fluttering at the statehouse in Columbia even as other flags flew at half-mast. It took South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley almost a week after the hate crime to call for this symbol of oppression and slavery to be removed. She, too, asserted that the killer had appropriated the flag in a “sick and twisted” manner. But, as Obama put it, “the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in almost every institution… casts a long shadow” — still.
In some ways, in fact, the inauguration of the Obama era has more clearly exposed the deep racial tensions simmering under the complacent narrative of an America that has come to terms with its past. From the persistent obstructionism displayed by the Republican Party towards Obama to the structural racism of the criminal justice system that has led to the deaths of so many innocent African Americans, it is all too clear that the election of a black president has not spelt the end of racism in America. In Charleston, the most poisonous of the country’s problems — guns and racism — came together in the most tragic way.