Last week on this day, we watched the stories and details about the shooting at Emanuel AME Church emerge from Charleston, South Carolina and many found themselves grappling with understanding this disturbing and terrorizing level of hate.
And yet, as I traveled through several airports recently, I was saddened to not hear people talking more about Charleston, hate, bigotry, or hope for change.
Hate crimes are crimes motivated by bias and prejudice
Hate crimes by their nature impact more than those immediately involved. The FBI website notes that "hate crimes add an element of bias to traditional crimes -- and the mixture is toxic to our communities."
The "toxic mixture" does not just disappear. What we have learned in our work in hate crime education is that we have to acknowledge the "public injury" that impacts people at physical and psychological levels.
A key focus in the education and understanding of hate crimes is the powerful impact these crimes have on the lives of people who are similar to the targeted community. There is understandable fear and concern about safety, and often a fear about potentially being targeted in the future.
In the case of the brutal killing of nine people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Church, it seems apparent that race was the central motivator of this hate crime.
The blogs and posts about this frightening act of violence are plentiful. The posts touch on the important topics of mental illness, gun control, and religious freedom, symbols of hate, the media coverage of the event, and more.
We need to be talking about all of these issues.
It is also important that we talk about this hate crime and the slayings in Charleston and accept and address the role that race/racism has played.
We cannot ignore or mute the importance of race and the history of race and racism in our country because we find it to be an uncomfortable topic, "divisive," or do not feel we have the correct "language."
As someone who has been working in the area of diversity and inclusion and civil rights globally for more than more than two decades, I can attest to the presence of prejudice, intolerance, bigotry and unconscious and blatantly conscious bias. It is here, it is all around us, and we need to name it.
The topic of race in communities, on campuses, and in organizations is often stifled or is disconnected from a global understanding of race and racism.
It can be difficult to talk about race/racism. But it is not impossible.
The incident at Emanuel AME church last week reminds us that talking about race/racism is essential.
Steve Wessler is a lawyer and hate crimes expert who has collaborated with communities around the world. He has worked to investigate and bring to court the perpetrators of hate crimes, and he was the Executive Director of the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence in Portland, Maine. He reminds us about the expansive impact of this hate crime:
The hate crime in Charleston is disturbing and tragic at many levels. But sadly, the impact of hate crimes extends much further: the trauma that everyone present in the Church that evening will experience, and the anxiety and fear that this awful event will create for black people not only in Charleston but across the country.
I worry most about black young people and also other children of color and white children who try to understand these awful murders of hate.
The time after hate crimes have been committed is not a time to be silent. In fact, as we have worked in situations where hate crimes have occurred (and none have been at this serious level) we focused on making sure people feel heard, and safe. This was as important as the work that looked at the details of the incidents.
Part of the healing surrounding the events in Charleston can be strengthened by a commitment to compassion, concern and education.
Compassion - for the families of those killed, for the Emanuel AME church community in Charleston, and for all of those impacted by the shootings;
Concern -for our society, and for young people growing up in a world that is not always safe, and that can be even less safe for young people of color. How are we addressing this in our schools, churches, synagogues, mosques and other shared communities?
Education - Unfortunately, history HAS repeated itself numerous times. Our rich cultural, social, and political history has racially motivated violence woven throughout it. There is a history of young people committing hate crimes. We need education for ourselves, and especially for young people; Education about diversity and inclusion and social and emotional learning is essential for healthy personal and professional relationships. An honest review of history should not be seen as "extra" to our formal education system. How can we learn and acknowledge what has happened in our tumultuous racial and cultural past, as part of an effort to understand how we can do better? How can we ensure that young people are learning how to counter stereotypes and bigoted ideology?
Our continued and consistent actions can help us as collective human community to remember and address the atrocities that happened in Charleston.
Norvel Goff presided over the services at Emanuel AME church yesterday, and along with his words of encouragement and healing, he also noted that he and others would
"pursue justice and we're going to be vigilant and we are going to hold our elected officials accountable to do the right thing."
We need to do the same.
What can we do today, this, and moving forward?
• Express our support, compassion, and outrage to/for the people and communities in Charleston, South Carolina
• Acknowledge the presence and importance of race/racism; understand the scourge of racism and racially motivated bias in the history of the U.S.
• Focus on the targeted group(s), not just the perpetrator of the violence. Cynthia Hurd, Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons Sr, Myra Thompson were people with full lives, families, and futures ahead of them.
• Long term, we need to continue to examine and challenge policies, practices, and people in all aspects of our society that limit the full engagement and inclusion of different groups. Racist and xenophobic rhetoric, stereotyping in the media, and divisive politics, contribute to exclusion, and to pernicious strengthening of systems of power, privilege, and hate.
At 10 a.m. this past Sunday (the Day of Mourning), bells all over the city of Charleston rang out in memory and mourning of the nine people murdered last week. The bells may not be ringing today, but we have an opportunity to continue the commemorative spirit of unity by our actions, and not letting Charleston fall away as a topic of importance in the media or in our lives.
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