It's one thing to get mad at a racist cop in Ferguson or Baltimore. But a white man, in a church, where he was trusted to sit with a small group of worshippers who were opening their hearts to God? It pushes us close to the edge.
Just how close? I conducted my own opinion survey by listening to some of my black friends talk.
An usher at a local church told me that upon seeing an unknown white man in the service, he will now inquire, "Is everything all right?" He went on to say, "White people don't just appear in an all black church!". He got universal agreement from the older men in the mix. "I don't trust 'em."
Somebody else said, "I work with 'em, but it wouldn't have happened like that in the '60s." "I don't care how nice they are. They're still white."
My 17-year-old son was taken aback. He came home and told his mother, "Some men were talking crazy." To him, it's not right to make judgments based on race. He accepts integration on good faith; his mind set is one that is open to all people, accepting all kinds of differences.
Growing up under Jim Crow, I wasn't surprised at any of these reactions. Even though I didn't agree with my friends' conclusions, was I prepared to call their comments "crazy"? Given the path upon which this country seems to have taken, they're not at all crazy.
It's not crazy to wonder whether a black man who had shot nine white people would have been afforded the same kind of treatment received by their killer, Dylann Roof. Would he have been arrested without a gunshot fired? Would he even still be alive? Would a black man be given a bulletproof vest for his safe passage from place to place and given the chance to listen in court to expressions of concern about the impact of this incident on his (the murderer's) family from the arraigning judge? It was as if the judge thought, The young man comes from such a nice family. I wonder what happened to make that boy go crazy like that?
Sympathy, concern, due process and denial. This is where we see the cover provided for racism in America through the use of the institutional protective shield, the over-concern for due process and even earlier denial by conservative media pundits and politicians that the murders were motivated by race. In situations like these, it's always an individual act, somebody's loose screw, and never an examination of the institutions that created him and so many other racist policies and practices.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said of Dylann Roof:
On his website, Roof left a 2,000-word manifesto in which he identifies himself as a white nationalist and says he was "truly awakened" to his beliefs after reading the online propaganda of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a notorious, racist hate group....
Recently, we released an investigative report about Stormfront, the largest white supremacist website in the world with 300,000 registered users, two-thirds of whom are Americans.
Incidents like the killing at Emanuel AME Church just release all the bigotry and hate stored up by these people over the years. Learned responses to anything "black." Stored, protected and promoted by some (not all) members of the media, politicians and law enforcement.
So, what does it mean for black folks, the ones in my unofficial survey, and others? Some family members of the deceased and other members of Emanuel AME have forgiven, and their acts of forgiveness trumpeted across the world by the American media. Pastors in Newark called a press conference and some talked about increasing security. Many in the black community smolder with anger and a desire for revenge. They may never find relief. They cannot prevail in a race war, and notions of revenge and hatred will only wreak havoc upon their hearts and minds and spirit.
But Rev. M. William Howard, pastor of my home church, Bethany Baptist in Newark NJ, preached about resolution through strength. He surprised many of us on Father's Day with a masterful sermon, based upon Old Testament action, and not upon New Testament forgiveness. "We need Strength, based upon the ability to survive and overcome."
We all know the story of David and Goliath. Little David, against the most well-armed and boastful giant of the day, armed only with five smooth stones and a slingshot, toppled the giant with one well-placed blow by his stone to the giant's massive head. He routed the enemy, and put to rest the naysayers who said it couldn't be done.
Without talking about forgiveness, the message was clear: forgiveness is an individual act, but collectively, we need to learn how to be strong like David.
But how do we, as a people, get strength like that? In closing, Rev. Howard proclaimed, "We have to get our dignity back!".
To me, the prescription is prophetic. Dignity comes from positive self-identity. This means we must acknowledge that we are "black and proud." We have to stop relying upon the false premises and promises of "post-racial America." We must once again clearly articulate our interests as a people and hold our leaders accountable for promoting these interests. We must reclaim those aspects of our culture which have historically made us strong, like our music and our stories of resistance; and renounce those aspects that divert us from the truth and divide us.
As we do these things, we can gladly welcome the support of white people and all others who are willing to accept us for who we are. And like David, become exponentially strong enough to take on Goliath.
Junius Williams is the author of the book, Unfinished Agenda, Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power (www.randomhouse.com) and the Director of the Abbott Leadership Institute, Rutgers University Newark