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Crime, race and grace after Charleston

Cases and Controversies

Published: July 10, 2015

A couple of weeks ago President Obama delivered what many have called the best speech of his presidency. His eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinkney, one of nine killed by white supremacist Dylann Roof at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina went beyond remembering the reverend and the other eight victims, calling on the nation to honor their memories by opening their hearts to a better understanding of unbridged racial chasms in our society.

Prior to that eulogy, two debates roiled over Dylann Roof’s actions. One was about the Confederate battle flag which is a debate worth having, but probably not the most important one. The other was whether Roof represents an aberration or a bellwether – whether the white supremacist beliefs that drove his actions are sharply at odds with how white America views race or whether they represent a more extreme version of a racism that persists.

Post-Charleston, many in minority communities and their allies regarded Dylannn Roof, not as a demented outlier, but as a grotesque logical expression of that stubbornly deep-seated racism. The president’s eulogy confronted that issue directly several times over the 40 minutes he held the pulpit.

While the president weighed in on the debate over the flag, and highlighted a number of specific areas of concern for minority communities, he also called for the nation to remain open to a broader understanding of our racial divide.

His theme was grace in which he included the expressed hope that through grace the tragedy of Charleston would open the eyes of more of us to the realities of race in America.

Toward the end, the president admonished, “It would be a betrayal of everything Reverend Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves . . . to go back to business as usual––that's what we so often do to avoid uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society. To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change.”

Initial assessments of the eulogy were rapturous; even his critics conceded that it was good, with a few tepid criticisms around the margins. But eventually someone will get around to noticing that he believes that racism persists and start arguing again.

As one piece of evidence that the president’s assessment is true, consider a passing line from my last column. In a discussion about the implications of research that leaded gasoline drove much of the crime rate spike from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, the column noted polling that a significant majority of Americans – around 64 percent in 2012 – believe that the crime rate is increasing despite the fact that it has been steadily decreasing for a couple of decades.

Crime is an impetus for white people to fear – and often hate – blacks. It’s no stretch to consider the probability that causation also flows the same way––that race-based fears drive misperceptions about crime.

That sort of belief in escalating lawlessness set Dylann Roof on his path to mass murder. According to his online manifesto, he first began investigating white supremacist beliefs after George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin. Reading about the story online “prompted me to type in the words ‘black on White crime’ into Google, and I have never been the same since that day. The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders.”

Dylann Roof may have reached a horrific set of conclusions not shared by 64 percent of Americans, but he started in the same place.

So for people––especially middle class, and most especially white middle class people––who want to see some of that permanent change in our racial divide, understanding and accepting some good news would be a good place to start. Crime is going down. That simple act of believing truth can clear the way for a number of positive changes in how black people are treated.

To borrow the president’s words, an accurate understanding of crime might “soften hearts towards those lost young men, tens and tens of thousands caught up in the criminal justice system.”

A person who believes that crime is decreasing is less likely to obsess over “black on white crime.” Such a person is more likely to support changes in criminal justice that seek alternatives to incarceration. Such a person is far less likely to fear that holding police accountable for racial profiling and excessive force will expose us to more criminality.

This transformative change in thought only requires accepting what the data say is true. It should not take much to do that.

Just a little grace.