By Choetso Amnyetsang
The recent shootings of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, in addition to the Charleston church shooting just two week ago, have brought an intense discussion about race into mainstream culture and news.
African Americans and non-black people of color have experiences that are markedly different from white Americans, but recent events have pushed this critical question to the forefront of the American public: Does America still have a race problem?
One way in which racism manifests itself is how the media chooses to describe black Americans. Former FBI special agent Jonathan Gilliam was quoted saying that Dylann Roof, the Charleston Church shooter, likely “has some mental issues” and didn’t know he had done anything wrong. White criminals being humanized and portrayed as victims of their alleged “mental illness” is a common trend Even those who have committed the most heinous crimes have been afforded the privilege of being labelled “misunderstood” or “troubled,” including Newtown shooter Adam Lanza and Aurora shooting gunman James Holmes. In contrast, black Americans who are the victims of such crimes often have incriminating details about their lives highlighted by the media, as if to justify their killings.
That the victims of domestic terrorist Dylann Roof were engaged in Bible Study before being brutally murdered after welcoming a white American into a historically black church has left us baffled; not only at the horror of the crime itself, but also by the way in which some individuals in positions of power and authority have reacted.
Although politicians like Nikki Haley have publicly expressed sorrow at the devastation this tragedy has caused, those from the political right have also made outrageous comments suggesting the act was an attack on Christianity rather than black America. E.W. Jackson, a conservative pundit and Christian minister appeared on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” talk program, attributing the murder to “rising hostility against Christians in this country”. Those on the show even went so far as to claim that the tragedy was being labelled a hate crime simply because the perpetrator was white and the victims were black. Rick Santorum called it “an assault on our religious liberty” and Senator Lindsey Graham remarked that Roof had perhaps been “looking for Christians to kill”.
These insensitive comments are not only offensive, but downright ignorant. Considering the large number of churches in the area, why would Roof decide to target the only historically black church founded by a former slave if he were simply looking for Christians? And why would he accuse the victims of rape and “taking over our country” if he was motivated by anti-Christian hatred?
We need our leaders to recognize what the facts have told us: Dylan Roof is a white supremacist who used a firearm given to him for a birthday present to carry out the evil he detailed in a blood-curdling manifesto again innocent black Americans. He deliberately chose the black church because of its symbolic significance to the black community.
Despite all this, the Confederate flag still continues to fly outside the State Capitol of South Carolina, the site of this domestic terror attack. Proponents of the flag claim that it represents “southern pride” and “honors the men” who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. Jeff O’Cain, a former Sons of Confederate Veterans commander, even went so far as to claim, “that flag never had anything to do with slavery”. This rhetoric is alarming, least of all because that flag stands for the very racial hatred that Roof used to justify a cold-blooded act of murder.
Over the weekend, civil rights activist Bree Newsome climbed the flagpole outside the South Carolina state house and took down the Confederate Flag in a daring act of civil disobedience. Despite law enforcement’s commands to abort her mission, Newsome instead chose to do what should have been done by the state authorities. In her statement, she provides the reasoning behind her act:
“I removed the flag not only in defiance of those who enslaved my ancestors in the southern United States, but also in defiance of the oppression that continues against black people globally in 2015, including the ongoing ethnic cleansing in the Dominican Republic. I did it in solidarity with the South African students who toppled a statue of the white supremacist, colonialist Cecil Rhodes. I did it for all the fierce black women on the front lines of the movement and for all the little black girls who are watching us. I did it because I am free.”
Newsome’s bold protest is a testament to what it means to be black in America today. She committed an act considered unlawful because the law in place had failed to carry out justice for the citizens it was meant to protect. It is extremely telling that taking down the Confederate flag (technically a symbol of Southern treason) ended in the arrest of a civil rights activist and a black American. As such, this bold move was also a symbolic gesture to take down old and highly problematic sentiments about race in America.
Adding to the disturbing narrative of race in America portrayed by mainstream news and culture, despite the fact that six black churches have burned since the massacre (investigations have concluded that three of the fires were caused by arson), this alarming news has received an embarrassingly minuscule lack of coverage. This is even more egregious when compared to the fact that a singular act of arson on a CVS drug store (in which the alleged perpetrator was a black man) has garnered ample media attention.
That Black Churches burned just days after the Charleston massacre is no doubt alarming, but it also triggers serious and much-needed questions about race relations in our country. Church and religion have long served the black community, from the Jim Crow era to today It’s truly one of the pillars, if not the backbone, of the civil rights movement in this country. The destruction of houses of worship thus seeks to topple the very foundation of America. As such, we, as a nation, need to take personal responsibility to end racism.
From Baltimore to Ferguson, we have witnessed some truly notable acts of solidarity within the Asian American community inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement. While this has served as a beacon of hope to progressive young Asian Americans like myself, what continues to bother me is the anti-black racism that persists in our communities. Yes, Asian Americans are also victims of racism, but we cannot fight white supremacy without first acknowledging the struggle of our fellow people of color and recognize the deeply-ingrained prejudices in our own communities. Solidarity is meaningless if we exempt members of our own community from community. In an era where our society is growing increasingly responsive to minority rights and discrimination, deeper introspection is required of our own community.
I refuse to be disappointed in those members of our community who make draconian comments about black Americans. But, I also refuse to accept it as a shameful yet allegedly “natural” aspect of the diaspora that we simply ignore to protect ourselves. As Tibetan Americans, our parents’ generation are immigrants and, as such, have certainly struggled; but, their own struggle does not justify the erasure and oppression of the struggle of others that we simply left unchecked. We cannot hold others responsible for discriminating against us while simultaneously treating the plight of our fellow people of color as as “unrelated” or “irrelevant” to our own cause.
Roof’s manifesto attempted to characterize “Asians” as innately racist, and even, chillingly, applauds them for it. A disturbing reflection of the “model minority” stereotype of Asian Americans, this tragic event requires us all to commit to addressing anti-black sentiments in our own communities. As proud as I am to see many Tibetan who are working to genuinely support our black brothers and sisters, I am devoted to getting every single member of of our diaspora to join the #BlackLivesMatter movement to dismantle white supremacy once and for all. If we are to do so, we must make a collective effort to engage in deep reflection as allies in a global struggle against oppression. As exiles, we are all-too-familiar with discrimination as it continues to threaten the very fabric of our ancestral homeland; and as Tibetans, we must remember that we are working toward equality not just for ourselves, but for all those across the world who demand fundamental human rights.