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"These White Folks, They Think the World Belongs to Them": Charleston, Race, and Forgiveness

06/26/2015 12:26 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2016

In the wake of Dylann Roof's racial terrorism in Charleston last week, many Americans were profoundly touched by the forgiveness extended to Roof by the victims' families at his bond hearing. I was too.

Anthony Thompson, the grandson of victim Myra Thompson, told Roof, "I forgive you, my family forgives you." Others made sure he knew of their pain and suffering, but extended the same forgiveness.

Today, two African-American writers, Kiese Laymon and Stacey Patton, tried to understand these events within the larger context of the nation's bloody racial history. Laymon's reflections are intensely personal, while Patton's are largely political.

Both of these extraordinary pieces, each in their own way, questions whether white America is worthy of forgiveness -- and whether the granting of forgiveness by black Americans, repeatedly, contributes more to black shame and white blindness than it does to justice. "These white folks, they think the world belongs to them," Kiese Laymon's grandmother lamented in the wake of the Charleston murders. And, he implies later in the piece, white folks think they live outside of history, which means beyond accountability or responsibility.

The articles should be read together -- and, white people, you really should read them. Particularly if you identify as a Christian.

As for what I think of all of this, its hard to say. I am white, I'm not a Christian, and I have no faith to test in this circumstance, save perhaps the one I barely hold in the basic goodness of human beings. I do think that perhaps whites should stop asking for forgiveness, stop expecting it, and stop taking some sort of redemptive pleasure when it is genuinely offered by black people.

Patton, in her piece, acknowledges that black acts of forgiveness have always been a form of protest as well as self-preservation -- a soul-shout against being a victim, a way to expunge anger, and to tell the oppressor that they are still standing. But she also notes that the constant white demand for black forgiveness is yet another burden black Americans have always had to carry, one imposed as much by the persistence of white supremacy as by the tenets of Christian faith. White atonement in our unequal society seems to need black forgiveness first, and Patton wonders whether that is just or sustainable.

Laymon wonders what it would look like for truth to really be set free: "What I do know is that love reckons with the past and evil reminds us to look to the future. Evil loves tomorrow because peddling in possibility is what abusers do. At my worst, I know that I've wanted the people that I've hurt to look forward, imagining all that I can be and forgetting the contours of who I have been to them." Laymon worries that if blacks are too quick to forgive, they will perpetuate this white blindness, and thus their own suffering: "We will heavy-handedly help in our own deception and moral obliteration. We will forget how much easier it is to talk about gun control, mental illness and riots than it is to talk about the moral and material consequences of manufactured white American innocence."

To even be worthy of forgiveness -- if that is something important -- it is clear that white America MUST look backward, into history, and then walk forward again, understanding how much of who we are (and aren't) today is constituted by that past. To do otherwise, to ask, in effect, 'why do they keep bringing up the past?, is, as Laymon notes, to act like an abuser. As Claudia Rankine put it recently, "history's authority over us is not broken by maintaining a silence about its continued effects." White atonement must have its own movement, its own logic. And then, if black forgiveness comes to us -- like the grace it resembles -- so be it. With Lincoln, we might fondly hope and pray that this "mighty scourge" of slavery and its poisonous legacy will "speedily pass away." But nothing disappears when we close our eyes. Other than our ability to see.

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Historian Nell Painter, in a thoughtful New York Times piece this past weekend, noted that the meaning of 'whiteness' in the present tends to be binary: racist, or empty. Today, at least, most white Americans embrace racial emptiness, in the form of 'color-blindness." The problem with this, of course, is that by doing so, they essentially refuse to "shoulder the burden of race in America." Claiming 'racelessness' is a uniquely white privilege, as is white frustration with the unwillingness (and inability) of blacks to recognize that claim, and to claim it themselves.

"Eliminating the binary definition of whiteness -- between nothingness and awfulness -- is essential for a new racial vision that ethical people can share across the color line," Painter argues. Instead, perhaps, white Americans in the 21st century can choose to walk the path that so many white crusaders for racial justice have trod over the centuries, and see their 'whiteness' as inseparable from the abolition of white privilege and racial inequality. Embed social justice in its very meaning. In the words of playwright Lorraine Hansberry, "The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical."