As President Obama stepped forward to address the country last week to speak once again to the nation about the senseless loss of lives from gun violence, The New York Times described him as “tired from his multiple mournful treks to his podium speaking of gun deaths.” Obama said; “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It is in our power to do something about it.”
Why does nothing happen? The murder of nine people in one of the South’s most prominent black churches raises two independent but related topics. The first is the obvious racial nature of the crime. The suspected killer, Dylann Roof, based on all his previous behavior, is a racist.
Given the recent tensions over the deaths of several black youths at the hands of white policemen, this heinous act by a severely disturbed individual once again highlights what Obama has called the “unfinished journey” to a post-racial society. Obama’s election, often seen as a symbol of progress, has not entirely erased suspicion and hatred towards blacks among many Americans.
Roof bought a .45 caliber handgun with the money he received from his parents for his 21st birthday. Numerous attempts have been made to limit access to handguns in the United States since the 2012 shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. All have failed. The state of Texas recently voted to allow handguns on the campus of universities within the state. Several states have voted to allow concealed handguns in public places like restaurants and bars.
The mixture of racism and guns is a lethal cocktail. Both have a long history in the United States. Slavery was abolished after the Civil War in 1865. The Supreme Court decision of Brown vs the Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 clearly stated that separate was not equal. The Civil Rights Act of 1965 also limited segregation. But laws cannot erase emotions or prejudices; the series of recent racial violence is indicative of a lingering phenomenon that no legislation or election has overcome. Martin Luther King’s optimistic “we shall overcome some day” has surely not yet arrived.
The right to bear arms in the United States is a Constitutional right dating back to the founding of the country. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has been successful in lobbying for the continued right of citizens to have weapons. Its unofficial slogan - “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” – indicates the mentality that has supported the proliferation of weapons in the hands of ordinary citizens.
Both the right to bear arms and the legacy of racism date to the beginning of the country, over 250 years ago. Has nothing changed? How does a society change its laws if not its morals? A cowboy culture still exists, in the worst sense of the term.
Twice I witnessed violent reactions to me in the United States, and I am not African-American. While traveling in the Northwest, my brother-in-law and I went walking in the mountains. He had a handgun in case we were attacked by wild animals. My hair was considerably longer then it is now. After a long hike we stopped in a bar near a saw mill. As I walked in, one of the customers picked me up and put me down me, belly-up, on a table. Another local then started a chain saw and approached my throat saying I needed a haircut. Luckily my brother-in-law’s gun allowed us to get out safely.
In 1967 I was eating in a restaurant 20 minutes south of Washington D.C. in Virginia. During the course of my conversation someone heard my New York accent. He came up to me and shouted; “Damn Yankee. I give you five minutes to leave this restaurant or I’ll blow your … head off.” Yankee refers to Northerners during the Civil War, which ended over 100 years before. The Confederate battle flag is still displayed on the grounds of the Capitol of South Carolina.
In both cases I was threatened with violence because I was different. The two incidents have stayed with me years later. What to say to African Americans who feel marginalized and threatened? What to say to the parents of innocent children killed in schools and churches?
President Obama looks tired. His hair has gone grey. How much has changed? Why does nothing happen? Guns and racism are not just American problems. Blacks and whites have died from senseless killings with legal weapons outside the United States. Think of Norway. Apartheid in different forms still exists. But if the United States is to continue to consider itself the City on the Hill and exceptional, something must change, and the sooner the better.