We Shall Not Overcome, Unless We Stop Living in Denial

06/22/2015 11:32 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016
Joe Raedle via Getty Images

Mourners gathering for a prayer vigil for the nine martyrs killed at Charleston's Mother Emanuel Church sang "We Shall Overcome." Watching the video, I felt being transported to the Morris Brown AME Church, where this vigil was being held. It was hard to hold back the tears. My heart believes that we shall indeed overcome yet another senseless tragedy. But my head says, we will not. Because too many of my fellow Americans live in denial.

The Wall Street Journal proclaimed that while the shooting at the Mother Emanuel bore striking resemblance to the 1963 bombings at the Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the two are different because, "Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by Dr. King no longer exists." No mention of the institutional racism that the Confederate flag perpetuates as it continues to fly full-mast on the grounds of the Capital building in South Carolina. Republican presidential contender and former Florida governor, Jeb Bush said, "I don't know what was on the mind" of the killer despite the fact that the killer was clear about his animus for black people. Before brutally killing his innocent victims he reportedly accused them of the age-old racist canard, "You rape our women, and you're taking over the country." Fox News has been tying themselves into knots trying to correlate the Charleston killings to an attack on Christianity, brushing aside the ugly racism that undergirds this attack.

Two days before Charleston, The New York Times ran an article by Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and David Schanzer from the Duke University. They conducted a survey of 382 law enforcement agencies. Nearly 3 out of 4 respondents reported "anti-government extremism as one of the top three terrorist threats in their jurisdiction." The article concluded, "radicalization from the Middle East was a concern, but not as dangerous as radicalization among right-wing extremists." And yet virtually no official used the T-word when describing the actions of Dylann Roof. This led Anthea Butler from the University of Pennsylvania to ask in the Washington Post, "Shooters of color are called 'terrorists' and 'thugs.' Why are white shooters called 'mentally ill'?"

Imagine for a moment that the killer was a Muslim. The media and officials would not have hesitated to call the attack Islamic terrorism, even if there was no link to the Islam practiced by the overwhelming majority of peaceful Muslims. And yet in this case, virtually no one has raised the question -- where did Dylann Roof learn his virulent form of racism? No one is rushing to uncover what church he attended nor who he associated with. Racism is not innate. It is learned and inculcated. While questions have abounded about how and why Muslim youth are being radicalized, very little research is available about the roots of right-wing radicalization. Mental illness does not explain the viciousness nor the propensity of mass shooters.

A May New York Times/CBS poll found 61 percent of Americans saying race relations are generally bad now. This is up from 38 percent just two months ago. Police shootings have been a major contributor to this change in attitude. A new study shows that African Americans now rank race relations as the most important issue facing the country, ironically in the era of a black president. Far from being post-racial, the election of an African American to the highest office in the land, has made race relations worse. The role played by media, particularly right-leaning, in questioning the legitimacy of Obama, from doubts about his religion to his place of birth, have undeniably played a role in creating a perception among certain segments that a black "alien" is "taking over" our country and "patriots" need to take America back. A sentiment that is not hard to notice in the "Take America Back" stickers on the back of pickups and in the words from the killer's mouth in Charleston.

It is in every community's interest to improve race relations. It is not only the right thing to do but also essential to fostering a society where shared prosperity is the norm, not the exception. It may also be crucial in giving our country the moral edge in global affairs. Unfortunately, however, Sunday remains the most segregated day in the U.S., while Friday afternoons are the most segregated hour in my Muslim community. In most cities, African American Muslims congregate at inner city mosques, which often predate the establishment of mosques by immigrant Muslims, but are generally shunned by the more prosperous and thus remain in poor financial conditions. During this Friday's service at my immigrant run Islamic Center, not a word was mentioned about Charleston, although many major Muslim civic organizations did express their condolences and solidarity.

A casual canvass of the boards of Islamic centers and Islamic civic institutions will show that representation of African Americans in positions of leadership does not measure up to the fact that 23 percent of American Muslims identify themselves as black. Such lack of representation is pervasive across all American institutions. Not practicing pluralism in our institutional governance and allowing our dinner table conversations to stereotype people of other races and religions, serves as the genesis of our troubles. All of us need to do better. Only then we shall indeed overcome.