Dylann Roof and Conversations about Race

This reflection was originally posted on June 21, 2015. 

Just a month ago, I was in South Carolina for a day; it was my first time in the South, outside of airport visits, as an adult. People were generally very pleasant; I felt very welcomed. However, although people were, without exception, very nice, there were a few moments that I remember noting: the lady at the coffeeshop first asking if I needed help reading a menu, the guy at the rental counter asking more than once if I wanted to add supplemental insurance, you get the idea. I personally found these more humorous than anything; even as a sworn Northerner, this happens to me all the time in New York, and used to happen with incredible regularity when I lived in Cleveland as well (which, by some metrics, is considered an incredibly racist metro relative to the rest of the country). Furthermore, these sorts of microaggressions in my case rarely ever manifest themselves as anything else. As much as people think I can’t drive or can’t speak English or am good at math, these are not stereotypes that generally reflect negatively on my overall quality of life, let alone make me fear for my safety.

This whole General Big Discussion About Charleston has been difficult for me. Even in only a handful of months working as a public defender, I have seen clients in many different mental health situations. This can range from people who have occasional paranoid delusions to people who are unable to carry the thread of a conversation for more than about ten or twelve seconds. They are only our clients because they were deemed mentally fit to stand trial or pled guilty before that determination could even be made. We still live in a world where mental illness is seldom raised, let alone diagnosed, in people who truly need this kind of assistance and support instead of eight, eighteen, or even twenty-eight or more years in an environment that is even more likely to be frightening, debilitating, and traumatizing to them. (Not to mention that the type of programming that these people might need is, even in a prison setting, very difficult to access regularly and can be taken away at a moment’s notice. A client at Clinton recently mentioned that there has been very little movement allowed out of anybody’s cells since the prison break two weeks ago, a hard enough situation for anybody, as Justice Kennedy so eloquently pointed out this week.) Hopefully, it is uncontroversial to you as it is to me that mental health is a severely neglected issue in the realm of criminal justice…

except in the cases of white defendants, particularly when their actions reek of premeditation. People have a difficult time believing that somebody who doesn’t fit their picture of a Threatening Person would, in their right mind, have the capability to willingly take away the lives of other people, people who have families, people who, along with their families, go to work, go to school, come home, and are simply trying to get through life. (Personally, I find it very easy to believe, as 31 states sanction this conduct of their own accord.)

But where I get off the train of Mainstream Prevailing Sentiment here is when we turn to what happens to the Dylann Roofs, the Dzhokar Tsarnaevs, the Ariel Castros, the Michael Slagers of the world. I want justice. But I do not think that the criminal system currently provides justice.

Oh, we as a country definitely believe that it does, perhaps partially as an aspirational tactic; perhaps partially because we have been conditioned to block out the needs of a community for the rights of the victim; perhaps partially because we rely on religious texts that implicitly endorse this principle (even though, for example, Matthew 5:38–39 explicitly repudiates this line of thinking); and perhaps partially because it is exhausting to have to constantly think about the Bad Things in the world and sometimes you simply need to sleep at night, and the easiest people to stop worrying about are the people who have proverbially “had their chance.” At this point, the idea of justice is inextricably linked in this country to the idea of “punishment”—but not all justice is punishment, and not all punishment is justice.

To paraphrase a man much wiser and much more experienced in these issues than me, justice is the opposite of poverty. Not necessarily in the sense that justice is somehow redistributively communist, of course. But rather that justice is manifested in equality and fairness, in holding not only people but institutions accountable for their actions and the consequences thereof, both intended and inadvertent.

Adjusting Dylann Roof’s punishment upward or downward is one thing. Certainly, if we wanted to be fair in proportion to the punishments we hand down for other crimes (7 years for stealing $100 of merchandise, 6 years for taking a wallet from behind a desk, 10 years for hiring somebody to go threaten somebody to have a debt repaid, 6 to 12 years for taking two purses), we could easily be talking about a long time in prison. But how does potential mental illness figure in? What about the obvious racial motivation? What if, all of a sudden, Roof appears in front of a judge and professes a complete 180 on his racial views?

These are all hard questions, and are all likely questions that will not figure much into what Roof’s sentence ultimately is. In fact, given the circumstances surrounding this crime and the fact that nobody is willing, at least, to deny that this happened and was somehow motivated by hate, it is likely that the only question here will be life or death. And while the fact that those are the only two real choices at stake here show the brokenness of the criminal system and the complete lack of belief in rehabilitation as a legitimate option, it also speaks, on a practical level, to what justice can flow from this situation.

We must make this type of situation as unrepeatable as possible. We must be serious about valuing Black lives. We must not only have the standard cursory conversation about each type of reform that this implicates. We must confront our biases and the biases of the people around us. Most of all, we must keep asking why; not only of others’ biases and assertions, but of our own.

Honest dialogue is difficult. Our society is built on trying to escape as much responsibility as possible, whether financial, moral, or what have you, by “guile” or “wit.” Self-interest is considered gospel (metaphor intentional). Especially in an era where snap judgments are expected to be both made and kept, regardless of whatever nuanced evidence might be out there, people exalt the easy answer and then stop looking. We must reject these easy answers that only somewhat fit and absolve our society of its guilt. We must confront these hard issues and have a discussion about each of them, a productive discussion where everybody is willing to listen. And yes, if we can text and walk while having a conversation with the person we’re with, we have the capacity to tackle more than one issue at a time. We must simply be done accepting the boiling down of these stories to “mental health” or “religious freedom.”

The only way to reach people is one person at a time. Almost everybody with a platform large enough and the will to speak on these issues will have disqualified themselves in the eyes of enough people that they cannot be the messengers.

Somebody once half-joked to me that the prospect of same-sex marriage became popular so quickly because it was “much easier to unsuspectingly be friends with a gay person than a black person.” Individual discussion with trusted people matters, and it may be the only way to truly engage those who need engaging on these issues. Having grown up in one of the most segregated metros in the country without a single word said about how a >96% white student body in school was in any way out of place or problematic, it is impossible to ignore the unacceptable state of not only racial equality, and not just racial dialogue, but the plan lack of ability in this country for the average person to be racially conversant.

June 19, the day after the shooting, was Juneteenth, the day that the decree that slaves should be freed finally made its way to Texas. As a result of an observance a couple years ago, I learned that the Emancipation Proclamation, the 1863 decree known by every sixth-grade student (at least in the North), did not apply to Confederate areas held by Union troops, which included Maryland, Delaware, Tennessee, West Virginia, and various other areas. While Lincoln urged these states to gradually phase out slavery on their own, none of them made any moves to do so. This year was the 150th anniversary of this event, and it appears to me that even though the vast majority of states do officially mark the day, very few people are aware of its existence, let alone its practical import and certainly any other related information regarding this country’s racial history.

Yesterday, June 20, was Tamir Rice’s 13th birthday. The news treated this story with a fifteen-second blurb that was about four sentences long, mentioning only “his tragic death” and the fact that it was held at Cudell Recreation Center, the location where he died. No mention was made of the police.

We need to have a serious and deep conversation about race. We as a society, but you and me as well. As neither white nor black, I have been, as stated above, on the receiving end of racial bias, but I have also been also in groups where I was considered part of The Entitled Group by virtue of model-minority assumptions or my general consumption of white culture. These niches are the ones that are least explored but perhaps the easiest way to shed light on exactly how our country’s history and culture shapes us.

To once again paraphrase a wise person, the opposite of prejudice is knowledge. Let us continue to spread and share knowledge in the hopes that prejudice will continue to fade.

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