The horrific murder of nine Black people inside Charleston South Carolina’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is a tragic example of the racist violence at the core of this society.
People across the country gathered to express their grief and anger and the politicians and spokespeople took the opportunity to join the tens of thousands who gathered in Charleston to pay their respects. Some spoke out against racism and called on people to heal these deep wounds or called for the removal of the confederate flag as a state symbol. As if this blatant reminder and celebration of the slavery and oppression of Black people is the cause of, rather than the reflection of the racism of this society. But none pointed a finger at the source – the basic functioning of this society.
Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, was infected by this racism. He sat in the bible study session for one hour before he unleashed his murderous rampage. He even left one woman alive just so she could tell the story. His twisted, racist white supremacist attitudes and view of the world served as his explanation for the problems he saw.
Roof’s racism has deep roots in this society going back to slavery. For slavery to function a division in the population had to be established. Between enslaved and free, between white and Black. Being white meant having the privilege of being free – if you accepted the status quo. That freedom might mean living a life of poverty but not as a slave. Those privileges continue today.
In the U.S. one in four Black people live in poverty and are twice as likely to be unemployed as whites. Sixty percent of the prison population is Black while Blacks make up only 13 percent of the population. The average Black family has a yearly household income $27,000 less than the average white family. And once every 28 hours the police, a vigilante, or security guard murders a Black person. That is the reality of the racism of this society.
This deep divide of poverty, race and class has often made it difficult for working people who have the same interests to stand together. The different treatment, the different places we occupy in society can be difficult to overcome. We can be treated differently on the job. We often live in different neighborhoods. And combined with the ways we are portrayed in the media – the gulf widens.
But the history of this country also shows that when people recognized their common interests a real fight against racism was possible and the divisions began to be overcome. During the period known as Reconstruction, following the Civil War, there were numerous instances where former slaves and poor whites came together to create a new life together. They built schools and some got married. They began to overcome the racial divisions that had been imposed on them. They chose both Black representatives and white representatives for the state and federal governments. This unity was smashed when the Northern troops were withdrawn and the former rulers of the South imposed a reign of terror. They created the Ku Klux Klan to impose segregation – attacking white and Black alike.
In the Civil Rights Movement, many white people joined the struggle of Black people against racism and for equal rights. And throughout our history workers have overcome the racism, which divides us, to organize unions and to stand together during militant struggles. Many important victories were won when white workers and Black workers and workers of many different nationalities recognized that they faced a common enemy.
If we realize what we, as working people, have in common and who is responsible for the conditions of our lives, then we have the possibility to stand together to begin to construct the kind of society we all want to live in. That will take a real struggle, but will that struggle be more difficult than the sum of our individual day-to-day struggles today?