On the #CharlestonShooting and Rhetorical Violence

By now, most have probably heard about the Wednesday shooting at one of the oldest historically black churches in Charleston, South Carolina. This shooting is now a part of our country’s 200-plus year history of violence against black churches which includes bombings, shootings, and burnings. Predictably, this context of historical terrorism towards black churches is absent from the media’s coverage of yesterday’s shooting.

In the current issue of Horizons magazine, I wrote about the way race is talked about in the media in “Suspect or Sister? Weeding Rhetorical Violence Out of Our Vocabulary.” Sadly, the narrative presented in last night and today’s coverage of the Charleston shooting is rife with rhetorical violence; the cultural conversation surrounding the shooting has focused on the story of the”lone gunmen” with mental instability. I call this “rhetorical violence” because of the loaded meaning that certain words, certain labels, and certain narratives hold when we use them in a racially coded way. Language has the power to enact “violence” by perpetuating racial alienation and stripping victims of violence of their dignity and humanity.

The white gunman who killed nine people during a prayer meeting Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church will not be called a domestic terrorist on your nine o’clock news tonight. In fact, when the shooting occurred last night, CNN did not even interrupt its regular broadcasting. Hours later, when most media outlets started to cover the shooting, a detailed description was given of the suspect without even mentioning that he was white. The narrative cropping up around the shooter, who was recently taken into custody, has focused on mental instability and his ability to get a gun. My heart breaks for the black community in Charleston, who will be forced to grieve while the cultural conversation surrounding the shooting will focus on mental health issues rather than the violent, white supremacist, act of terrorism that it is.

The media has historically framed white shootings in the context of mental health, in the same way that black violence is framed in the context of gangs and poverty, violence by Muslims is framed in the context of the supposed inherent violence in the religion of Islam, and violence by the police or US Army is framed in the context of protecting our country. It is a rhetorical system that is racially coded. White suspects and perpetrators of violent crimes are given the “how could this have happened?” treatment, outlining the path from a difficult childhood or untreated mental illness. Contrast this with the coverage of black victims of violent crimes- after reading some of the newspaper articles digging up the criminal records of a victim or their inability to pay child support, readers are left with the subtle impression that perhaps the victim simply had it coming to him/her and that they were responsible for their own death.

In the past year, we have seen time and again victims of crimes are dehumanized, while the suspects, particularly those suspects who are white police officers, are given Facebook support groups and even money collected in their name. Police brutality is far from a new phenomenon, just as violence against black churches isn’t and none of them should be viewed as isolated, unconnected events. What is new is that media coverage of these events has increased.This year more than ever we have heard the names of the dead, often in hashtag form, from Michael Brown to Tamir Rice to Eric Garner, and many, many more.

The national conversation on race relations has been awakened thanks to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The success of the this protest movement that has spanned the country is seen in the recent the Washington Post report that showed black American now see race relations as the nation’s most important problem.

So what do we do? This is the question left for white people like me, who are justice-minded Christians, wondering what our place is when a tragedy like that of yesterday’s hate crime happens. Our historical model of reconciliation with racial ethnic churches and our ideal of the beloved community are feeling a little less than adequate faced with the results of that Gallup poll at the end of 2014. If black Americans are saying that racial alienation and racial tensions are the most important problem in our country, then we must listen to what they are saying. 

In my Horizons article, I cite Jennifer Harvey, clergy and author of the brilliant book Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014). She writes about the history of white Christians failing to listening to the black church, who said back in the 60’s that the model of reconciliation would not be adequate.  Reconciliation is a beautiful idea. But it has remained only an idea. We must go beyond empty rhetoric and ask ourselves how we can participate in meaningful transformation. Our first step might be to listen harder this time around and start acknowledging and addressing racial alienation in our churches and our lives. Jennifer Harvey asks us to start with two different r-words: Repentance and Repair.

It is meaningful to voice the ways we have not only fallen short, but actively participated and benefited from unjust systems. White Christians like me have to end rhetorical violence in our language and call out the places where our media and cultural conversations use rhetoric to degrade and dehumanize. We have to open up spaces to listen and learn from people of color in our communities, believing them when they speak of their experiences of racial alienation, and promoting their voices in order to re-write the script on racial violence.

Ultimately, we must reject narratives that deprive people of their humanity and elevate stories that name others with the compassion and complexity we all possess as God-breathed and made-in-God’s image people.

from “Suspect or Sister? Weeding Rhetorical Violence Out of Our Vocabulary”

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