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By Martese Johnson
July 30, 2015
Caption : Today, many consider hate crimes against the black church a historic concept, but recent events prove otherwise     

The church has played several key roles in the development and sustenance of the African American community since black people first began establishing their own religious institutions in the late 18th century. Many black churches served as the first schools for African Americans. They served as structures of refuge from racial violence and discrimination. And as many of us know, they cultivated and empowered black leaders, helping some (such as Martin Luther King, Jr.) ascend to the ranks of revered world leaders. For these reasons and many others, African Americans discovered unparalleled value in their institutions of faith. Faith in the Christian church served as an unbreakable adhesive, connecting individuals from all corners of the black community and perpetuating a new level of connectedness, spirituality, and resilience.

The presence of these invaluable virtues peaked in the African American community during the Civil Rights Movement, with each serving as key factors in the community’s success and progression. The forming of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957 by about 60 black ministers from all over the country stood as a testament to the effectiveness of using the church as a vehicle for civil rights organizing. Going forward, churches became the primary meeting places for many black civil rights organizations, creating formal alliances with the SCLC. They contributed to marches and protests, assisted in disseminating movement details to supporters, and naturally became homes away from home for activists all over.

America’s white majority realized the political strength and potential of the Black church early on, responding with fear and apprehension. This fear, combined with irrational hatred, ultimately led to widespread violence against black churches and their congregations. That violence has persisted for centuries. One popular form of violence against the religious assembly of African Americans was the burning and bombing of physical churches in these communities. This violence garnered a new level of American sympathy in 1963 when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan, resulting in 22 injuries and the death of four young African American girls. Attacks like the 16th Street Bombing served as symbolic threats denouncing black unity and prosperity in an effort to reassert white dominance in America. Despite anti-expansion practices by white Americans, the black church’s presence continued to grow.

Today, many consider hate crimes against the black church a historic concept, but recent events prove otherwise. On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof (a 21-year-old white male) shot and killed nine African Americans at the Emanuel AME Church located in Charleston, South Carolina. Before shooting, Dylann exclaimed “I’m here to kill black people.” When asked to stop shooting, he said he could not because black people are “raping our women and taking over.” The words that came from Roof’s mouth that day demonstrated the very same fear that a majority of white Americans felt watching the development of Black churches in the late 1700s.

As one of the oldest Black churches remaining in the South, it was no coincidence that Roof chose the Emanuel AME Church to be the site of his premeditated racial massacre. The University of Pennsylvania’s Michelle M. Simmsparris  explains that “as microcosms of the larger society, black churches provided an environment free of oppression and racism for African-Americans.” Roof chose Emanuel AME in an effort to directly combat Simmsparris’ notion of sanctuary in the black church (a notion that is generally believed by African Americans). His crime violated the sole place that African Americans have continually found refuge in history, conveying to the black community that nowhere in America is safe for them.

Less than a week after the shooting in Emanuel AME, a string of historically Black churches began burning to the ground throughout the South. Eight have burned thus far: three have been ruled arson, and the others are still under investigation. The list of burned churches included the popular Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina that was torched previously by the Ku Klux Klan in 1995. This spew of burnings was a surprise to many, but simply a reflection of Black history to others.

Some public figures and popular “blacktivists” believe that these burnings are malicious acts being committed in support of Dylann Roof’s actions or in protest of recent legislative steps toward the removal the Confederate flag from display in the United States. Others are combating those assertions vehemently, arguing that these burnings are isolated instances and lack racial motivation. While this conversation has persisted for quite some time now, I don’t find particular interest in joining the widespread debate. Instead, I hope to address another problematic societal trait that has attributed to recent national tragedies and those in the past: apathy.

Throughout history, African Americans have experienced racial discrimination in a myriad of forms. Those racial incidents persisted partially because too many non-black members of our nation were apathetic toward the well-being of black people in the United States. This apathy derived from a general denial of the inherent equality, and sometimes humanity, of African Americans by white citizens at that time. During and after the civil rights movement, that apathy began to gradually diminish. Today, a slightly different form of apathy is arising, simultaneously perpetuating the resurgence of racial violence in our nation. This apathy is driven by the post-racial rhetoric that has enveloped the new generation of Millennials in America.

Millennials have officially become the most populous generation in the United States, and are quickly transitioning into roles of leadership throughout the country. Unfortunately, a large portion of this group believe that racism no longer exists because of societal anomalies such as the election of an African American president. They have become brainwashed  by the lie that is 21st century “melting pot” idealism, projecting their idea of a post-racial society with phrases like “slavery ended over 150 years ago” and “I don’t see color.”

The Pew Research Center’s Study on Millennials informs us that 93 percent of Millennials “agreed that it was OK for blacks and whites to date,” asserting that overall acceptance of race has increased nationally. Pew then goes on to clarify that “acceptance does not in all cases translate to outright approval.” Politico Magazine is able to continue with this clarification, repeating that “millennials are shown to be no more progressive than older generations.” They tell us that among Millennials, “42 percent of whites answer that ‘a lot’ must be done to achieve racial equality, compared to 41 percent of white Gen Xers and 44 percent of white boomers. These percentages are both in line with past white generations who Millennial white people believe to be less racially tolerant, and significantly lower than the percentages of black people surveyed with similar questions.

Pew and Politico’s combined studies support the notion that Millennials’ belief in a post-racial society has supported their sustained apathy toward racial issues. This apathy exists partially because historical strides toward equality have led young Americans to believe that minorities in this nation have reached their goal; that we are finally equal in every way. As a result, the smaller population of Millennials that think otherwise face the challenge of contesting racial discrimination with little assistance from the majority. I fear that this situation will only worsen in the near future if such aforementioned denial around race persists.

Widespread societal apathy has slightly readjusted, now imposing itself on the very concepts of racial inequality and discrimination. The effects of this unfortunate transition have been seen in both the Dylann Roof massacre and the investigation of black church burnings. Despite Roof’s direct statements conveying his intentions to “kill black people,” members of the media and American citizens opted to disregard the role that race played in the shooting. Some outlets, like Fox News, even worked to construe the story into what they called a “War on Christianity” instead of accepting the obvious racial implications of the case.

While the recent church burnings have not officially been deemed racially driven hate crimes, history tells us that it is possible. In fact, as recently as 20 years ago, President Bill Clinton found himself publicly discussing racially driven hate crimes of the same form when a string of about 30 historically black churches were burned in a period of 18 months. Those who argue that there is no definitive proof available displaying a larger scheme to destroy Black churches are correct; but there is also no definitive proof showing otherwise. The sole possibility of history repeating itself should be enough to encourage constructive conversation around the appropriation and abuse of racial spaces, the history of crimes against religious institutions, and strategies for large scale culture change if eventually deemed necessary. If we fail to have these conversations due to our current state of racial apathy and denial, we are simply hurting ourselves in the long run.

Society’s reluctance to discuss race and its possible role in incidents around the nation has become a toxic pattern. In the past when we chose to underplay national tragedies, they only grew more common and disastrous. If our nation continues to operate under the myth that we live in a post-racial society, I foresee history repeating itself in some of the worst ways. Race matters, and it always will matter. Let’s come together in the pursuit of racial equality and appreciation, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. Yes slavery ended over 150 years ago, but we all still in fact “see color” and must learn to find our nation’s diversity beneficial rather than divisive. Ignoring America’s race problem does not make it disappear, and I hope that we will not have to experience another tragedy as horrific as the 16th Street bombing before realizing that.

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