Is Charleston a Turning Point For America on Race?

06/30/2015 12:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

The Charleston memorial services for the nine blacks massacred at Emmanuel AME church were more than memorial services; they may mark a turning point for America on race. The massive national and international attention, combined with the raw tears and emotions at all the services, again drove home the shock of a heinous racial act of violence. The racial blinders tied tightly on top elected officials and business leaders will be loosened for the moment.

Even before the memorials, the horror of Charleston forced major retailers and the GOP to shunt the Confederate flag, compelled President Obama to sternly denounce racial hate (complete with his blurt out of the N-word) and saw thousands of people of all races march in Charleston against hate. Then there were two things that were telling about race that flew under the radar.

The first was when a volunteer firefighter for the Mabank, Texas Fire Department posted a Facebook message to a South Carolina newspaper that seemed to applaud the Charleston massacre. It evoked a storm of protest on social media. He was summarily fired and banned from the fire station's premises. He quickly claimed his Facebook message was taken out of context.

The second was a theater attendant at one of the Regal Cinema theaters. She posted a racially inflammatory tweet. It evoked the same storm of protest on social media. She was summarily fired. What was especially noteworthy was the swift scramble by the fire department officials and chain theater corporate heads to profusely apologize and make clear that racist sentiments in any way will not be tolerated and quickly dealt with.

This was a perfect storm of the racial hope that civil rights leaders have screamed for years to happen in openly confronting bigotry beyond just the passage of laws and statues. That is that bigots be publicly smacked with the proverbial Scarlet Letter of public rage, that corporations and public agencies quickly punish the offender and then publicly reiterate that racial or any other open expression of bigotry will be swiftly and harshly punished.

These acts, are of course, hardly a substitute for a full-blown, full-throated, all-out assault on the institutional racism that breeds and nurtures the well-known gaping racial disparities in education, health care, the criminal justice system and police practices. But that same encoded racism that for decades bred and nurtured the litany of racial slurs, epithets and digs that once routinely got wide public expression; that roared ahead anonymously on websites, chat rooms and comments on social media, received a powerful wallop after the shock of Charleston.

The public outing and disgrace of those who openly express racial bigotry has also caused at least the stir of a mild soul search in the GOP. For decades, GOP leaders took a hard-nosed "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" stance toward its open and closeted bigots. It has gotten the well-deserved brand of a party that has shamelessly pandered to, if not outright encouraged, outrageous, over-the-top racial inflammatory antics by unreconstructed white racists. The scramble by nearly every GOP bigwig, North and South, to denounce the Confederate Flag didn't suddenly mark a sudden epiphany for the GOP on race; It took a second national election trounce by Obama and the even more sobering fact that America's racial, gender and sexual preference demographics has radically changed. That demographic -- namely blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Gays, women, gays and youth -- are for the most part, Democrats. Without some appeal to them, the GOP has zero hope in the future of grabbing the White House and even maintaining its grip on Congress and some statehouses.

The GOP's shift on the Confederate flag, the much-ballyhooed pitch by the Republican National Committee to launch a real minority outreach campaign with talk about the racial ills of drug charges and mass incarceration, is simply its cold slap in the face of political reality.

The racial change hasn't been lost on Democrats, either. Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton, in her talk before the National Conference of Mayors in June, sounded like the second coming of Lyndon Johnson when she ticked off the litany of racial woes that plague African Americans. She put the blame for their plight squarely where it belongs -- on institutional racism, white privilege and the absolute refusal of many whites to face up to it and do something about it. That has even forced her challenger Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to shake off criticism that he has been mum on race and remind the critics of his civil rights activism.

Expect more of that from Democrats, and more talk from some in the GOP of racial matters as presidential campaign 2016 heats up. The Charleston memorial services may have marked the turning point for that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is host of the weekly Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour heard weekly on the nationally network broadcast Hutchinson Newsmaker Network.

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