06/24/2015 04:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Praying While Black

MLADEN ANTONOV via Getty Images

I was awakened the morning of June 18 by a text which read, "Now we aren't even safe in our churches anymore." As I was reading that text, another one came in that said, "Praying while black."

The massacre of nine black men and women at Emmanuel AME church is about more than the deranged mind and hateful racism of one 21 year old man. It is about the narrative of white privilege and supremacy that is endemic to the American identity. From its earliest beginnings American identity was crafted in opposition to that which was non-white. When the Pilgrims and Puritans fled from England claiming to be a "chosen people," they carried with them the seeds of a deadly racialized culture -- for, the key to chosen-ness was being Anglo-Saxon, and hence, white. As Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning novelist Toni Morrison has pointed out, "Deep within the word 'America' is its association with race."

There is no getting around it, the myth of Anglo-Saxon/white superiority has shaped and continues to shape America's sense of self. Though sometimes unspoken, it is a pervasive narrative that determines who is and who is not entitled to the rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." It is a narrative that determines which bodies have the right to enjoy "free space." The black body was introduced into this country as property, and thus, as a body not meant to be free. The free space was deemed a white space. Throughout history anytime black bodies have intruded in a profound way into the free white space, this narrative has emerged in sometimes violent ways -- from the Black Codes and the rise of the Klu Klux Klan that followed emancipation, to the "white backlash" and War on Drugs that followed the civil rights movement. There is perhaps no greater encroachment upon the free white space than a black president. It is no surprise then that racialized violence against black bodies has seemingly intensified in this country in a way in which we have not experienced over the last 50 years, to the point of attacking black people at worship.

Historically, the black church has been a free space for black bodies. It has been not only the "religious and social center" for black Americans, but it has been an oasis where black people could escape the daily racist insults upon their bodies and psyches. And so, an attack within the black church sends a message to the black community that there is nowhere that you can be free from the hate of white racism. How do we get beyond the violently racialized society that endangers black life and that is America?

Fifty years ago, in response to President Kennedy's assassination, Martin Luther King Jr, wrote, "Our nation should do a great deal of soul searching . . . while the question 'Who killed President Kennedy?' is important, the question 'What killed him?' is more important." King's words are instructive. For, if there is to be an end to the epidemic of "racialized" violence in this country, at the same time that we seek resignations, indictments, and guilty verdicts, we must also demand that this nation, especially white America, engage in hard soul-searching regarding the question of race. It must confront the ideology that sustains systemic, structural and cultural forms of white privilege in this country and fosters notions of black inferiority and criminality.

We do not live in a post-racial society. This too is a myth that serves to sustain the status quo of white privilege. Moreover, we will never live in a "post-racial" society until this country makes it a national priority to confront the racialized myths upon which this country was built and which continue to negatively shape the day to day realities of black life in America. Our educational institutions and religious communities must lead the way in changing the course of history when it comes to race in this country.

Borrowing from the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, America is a nation defined by "two warring thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideas." This country must decide if it is going to be a nation torn asunder by race or a nation unified by a commitment to freedom and justice for all? It must determine if it is to be a nation separate and unequal by lines of color or a nation dedicated to the declaration that all persons, regardless of race, gender identity, sexual identity or any other human attribute, are created equal? Until this country deals with its racialized identity, then the legacy of attacks in black churches, from the 1963 Birmingham church bombing to the 1980s black church burnings until yesterday's massacre will go on.