The Charleston Church Shooting: Another Astonishing Assault on Black Lives

The fatal shooting of nine people at a historic black church is being investigated as a hate crime—and is a reminder of America’s race problem.
The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. (Source: Google Maps)
Jun 18, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Steven Gray's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Time, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal, and Le Monde.

On Thursday morning, many of us woke up to disturbing news from Charleston, South Carolina: Last night, a young white man fatally shot nine people during a prayer service at one of America’s oldest black churches, in the heart of the city. It is unclear, at this point, what exactly prompted the shooting. The authorities have arrested the alleged gunman, identified as Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old resident of South Carolina's capital, Columbia. The Charleston police chief, Greg Mullin, swiftly described the incident as a hate crime and said: “This is a situation that is unacceptable in any society, especially in our society, and our city.” The Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are treating the incident as a hate crime.

The authorities are still cobbling together the timeline of how the incident unfolded. But according to news reports, on Wednesday night, people had gathered for a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which traces its roots to free blacks and slaves in the late 1700s. One witness, the Reverend Norvel Goff, told authorities that at some point during the service, a young, relatively clean-shaven white man walked into the Gothic Revival–style church and sat quietly for about an hour, "not so much as a participant, but as a brief observer.” Suddenly, the man stood up and started shooting. That was apparently around 9 p.m. Authorities who arrived minutes later found eight people dead. A ninth person was rushed to a hospital and soon died. The mayor, Joe Riley, called the incident “a most unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy” and later added, “I personally believe there are too many guns out there, and access to guns, it’s far too easy. Our society has not been able to deal with that yet.”

Much of Charleston remained on lockdown. Down the street from the church, a group of men huddled, praying for peace in the balmy, late spring air.

In many ways, the disturbing episode in Charleston conflicts with the dreamy image of American progress we so often want to project. It is a reminder that fear and hatred of blackness are deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Let us play back a few moments from just the last few months: There’s the case of Freddie Gray, the young black man who mysteriously died at the hands of Baltimore police. There’s Walter Scott, the black man fatally shot by a white South Carolina police officer. We saw video of a white police officer assaulting a black girl, Dajerria Becton, after a pool party in Texas. Earlier this week, we watched video of a white police officer pepper-spraying black women and children at an Ohio pool. These incidents happen so frequently, they often feel like horrifying bits of a reality show. We get outraged, share the video clips on social media, and then move on to our business. Until the next incident.

It’s exhausting just to be black in America. It’s risky—and potentially lethal—to be black and have the audacity to even begin processing what’s happening in front of us. Because in this supposedly post-racial moment, we’re not supposed to have—or need—the language to identify the root cause of so many of our problems. The truth is, black people are not safe. We’re not safe in our pools. We’re not safe in even the best neighborhoods and apartment buildings. We’re not safe in our schools. We certainly are not safe in our offices. And as the incident in Charleston shows, we aren’t safe praying to our God. The Charleston incident fits into the long narrative of terrorist attacks on black churches. There’s an astonishing assault on black people, and we can’t afford not to connect the dots. The question is, What will we do about it?

Charleston residents left flowers to honor nine people fatally shot at a church on Wednesday night. (Photo: Randall Hill/Reuters)