Black Heroism and White Sympathy: A Reflection on the Charleston Shooting

As regular readers know, all of June Jana and I were on a speaking tour in the UK. So we missed quite a lot back home.

Not that I make it a habit as a blogger to weigh in on current events. But I did want to make an observation about White America's response to the tragedy of the Charleston shooting in contrast to our response to other instances of White-on-Black violence. From Michael Brown in Ferguson to Eric Garner in Staten Island.

As we all know, the response of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in the wake of the shooting, especially that of the family members of the victims, has been inspiring and heroic. The lines between good and evil were so clearly drawn in Charleston that the national response to the tragedy was practically unanimous in expressing outrage and sympathy. As President Obama noted in his eulogy, the killer had unwittingly united rather than divided the nation.

And yet, if I might step into troubled waters, I want to suggest that there is a problem with the national response to Charleston, how the almost universal sympathy expressed for Charleston demonstrates a racial bias at work.

Specifically, why was the response to Charleston so different from, say, our response to Ferguson? Charleston united Black and White America. Ferguson divided us.


I've already alluded to the answer. In Charleston the lines between good and evil were clearly drawn. The killer, motivated by racial animus, entered a church where he was warmly received by a Bible study group. An hour into the study the killer began to shoot the people who had lovingly welcomed him. It was a clear cut case of Good vs. Evil.

Contrast that with Ferguson. Ferguson presented itself as a moral Rorschach blot to White and Black America. White America saw the events in Ferguson one way and Black America saw it another way. The lines between Good and Bad were murkier and, thus, open to interpretation.

Which brings me back to the racial bias that was at work in our collective response in Charleston. Specifically, to make the point plainly, universal sympathy from White America was only forthcoming when the moral narrative regarding Black virtue and innocence was clear and indisputable.

And that, let me suggest, is a problem.

The heroic, Christian witness of courage and grace displayed by Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is awe-inspiring. They are saints and martyrs for the ages.

But we have to ask, is that the moral bar Black America has to clear in every instance to receive unanimous sympathy from White America?

Because that bar will very rarely be cleared. I can't clear it. Saints like those at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church are very rare. And so is the evil the like of Dylann Roof.

So the moral contrast that was displayed in Charleston is hardly going to be typical. What we have in America day to day are ambiguous mixtures of right and wrong, moral narratives that are open to interpretation.  Who was more to blame, for example, Michael Brown or Darren Wilson? Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman?

These more ambiguous situations are the ones that divide America. And why is that? Because these events are open to interpretation. And because they are open to interpretation--moral Rorschach blots--they are the situations that most reveal our biases and prejudices.

The problem with our response to Charleston is that we can't expect Black America to display that level of virtue in every violent encounter. But for the grace of God it is an almost impossible, heroic standard. What we will have, instead, are events that are morally mixed, with the lines between Good and Bad blurry and ambiguous. Events open to your interpretation and, thus, open to your bias.

The power of the American Civil Rights movement was that it was able, through direct, non-violent action, to create high-contrast moral dramas like what we witnessed in Charleston. On the one side, at a clear and obvious location of discrimination, like a segregated lunch counter, we had peaceable Blacks and on the other side violent Whites. Non-violence at a location of obvious discrimination made the moral narrative crisp and clear. No ambiguity. No room for interpretation. The case for justice was unavoidable and compelling. And because of this Jim Crow segregation laws were swiftly, within a decade, dismantled.

But things have stalled since the 60s. Why has that been? I think it's been because overt and clear cut examples of racial prejudice and discrimination are harder to point to. Segregated lunch counters, bathrooms and bus seating were unambiguous locations of discrimination. You could literally point to a "Whites Only" sign on the wall. And that made the moral narrative clear and compelling.

Things are different now as Martin Luther King Jr. realized post-1965 when he began to focus on the issue of poverty. Why is there poverty? Is it due to personal moral failures like conservatives tend to believe? Or systemic injustices as liberals believe? Poverty is a complex Rorschach blot which is why it's so hard to focus the collective sympathy and will of America to address the problem.

I think the contrast between our responses to Charleston and Ferguson shows that we have a similar problem with race relations. Improvement in race relations in America cannot happen if we regularly demand in every instance that Black America meet the moral standards of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Black heroism can't be the asking price for White sympathy.

What is needed is for White America to exercise sympathy when the situations are morally ambiguous. This does not mean that we jettison our critical faculties. It is, rather, the honest admission that when the situation is most ambiguous my racial biases and prejudices are most at work. Let me state that again clearly: The more ambiguous the situation the more biased and prejudiced I will be.

What is needed, then, is what liberation theologians call a "preferential option." This isn't liberal guilt but a disciplining of our affections in order to counter deeply rooted biases and prejudices. When the situation is most ambiguous we should be our most vigilant and most willing to grant the benefit of the doubt.

Black America shouldn't have to wait for a Charleston to receive White compassion and sympathy.

Sympathy in the face of moral ambiguity is what has been lacking in White America. We can muster sympathy in response to Charleston. That is a relatively easy effort given the grace and heroism of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

But sympathy for Charleston won't crack the impasse we are facing in America where the injustices at work amongst us are more subtle, complex and ambiguous.

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6 thoughts on “Black Heroism and White Sympathy: A Reflection on the Charleston Shooting”

  1. First-class analysis. And moral Rorschach blots -- what a good and helpful expression.

    Avant la lettre of the liberation theologians, Bonhoeffer wrote: "We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled -- in short, from the perspective of those who suffer."

    Note the emphasis on perspective, i.e., on the way we look at the world, at events -- like the act of terrorism in Charleston. (Terrorism? Yes, as seen in a terminological Rorschach blot.) This is how the "preferential option" factors out in the systemically racist US: as the epistemological privileging of the African American.

  2. "What is needed, then, is what liberation theologians call a "preferential option." This isn't liberal guilt but a disciplining of our affections in order to counter deeply rooted biases and prejudices. When the situation is most ambiguous we should be our most vigilant and most willing to grant the benefit of the doubt."

    This was so helpful in crysalizing thoughts I've recently had about racism and sexism. Thank you!!!!

  3. Strange, is it not, how prejudice expects more from those it looks down on than it does from itself? Hannah Arendt, in writing of the Anti-Semetism of early Twentieth Century Europe, said many would only socially accept the Jews who were more educated than themselves. I also witnessed something similar played out in the south, where non-educated whites reserved a certain degree of respect only for blacks who were professionals, such as physicians, teachers and ministers.

    Your paragraph that mentions the "preferential option" is spot on. We do not wake up in the morning FEELING READY to look beyond prejudices; it demands, as you clearly point out, a disciplined vigilance. And this requires much conversation with ourselves, as well as, sometimes, a certain amount of finger wagging and shaming of ourselves.

  4. How delightful that a simple point--that morally ambiguous events draw out our interpretive biases--can produce such an important and helpful commentary. Yes, yes, yes; I as a white "interpreter" I must prefer the "other" point of view to such events to guard against racism (classism, sexism, etc.). Thank you.

  5. Are you certain that white America waited to see that church's response before it formulated its opinion on the murderer and its outrage about his actions?

  6. I reject your premise that we demand African American victims be saints before we show sympathy for them and that we're more inclined to be prejudiced in the face of uncertainty and/or different "interpretations." 1. I, as a white person, have come to deeply distrust the news media in cases where the black is supposedly the victim of a white or several whites. They ALWAYS sensationalize the case, exaggerating and even lying to support their agenda which is that there are many cases of white on black violence. Examples? Decades ago, Tawana Brawley (sp?) claimed she was raped and smeared with human feces by a gang of whites in Central Park. It all proved to be a lie. Same-o with the all-white Duke Lacross team who reportedly raped a black stripper at a party. THAT all proved to be lies. Same thing with Travon Martin. Have you ever heard the term "white hispanic" before or since? The New York Times used that term to make sure we all understood this was a WHITE-on-black crime. That one turned out to be Travon beating the snot out of George Zimmerman and trying to get his gun when it went off and killed him. NBC news edited the 911 call to imply that Zimmerman was racially motivated. Ferguson: No, there were no "hands up, don't shoot", no shooting in the back by the cop. Brown pushed a convenience store clerk aside as he stole a box of cigars, refused to get out of the middle of the road when ordered by the cop AND went to the car, blocking the policeman in the car while he punched him in the face and tried to get his gun. In that struggle, he was shot in the hand and started to walk off. When the cop ordered him to stop, he charged him. The cop followed correct police procedure, demanding that he stop and, when he didn't, shot him in the lower body twice. When he still didn't stop his charge, the cop shot him twice in the upper body. Still didn't stop, he took the fatal shot(s). Rioters were bussed in from hundreds of miles away and paid to burn Ferguson. The media covered the riots sympathetically, as if they were local people frustrated with their oppression by whites.

    So, yes, I'm skeptical when I hear about white on black shootings because I KNOW that the news media will distort the facts to make the white the perp. I don't feel sympathy for those violent, lying black people or their relatives who joined in on inciting the riots.

    THAT's why there was a nation-wide, multi-racial outpouring of sympathy and grief for the families of the Charleston victims. They didn't have to be saints to get that outpouring. They just had to be not the perps.

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