Race Violence, Gun Violence: Reflections on Obama’s Charleston Comments

One of the many rich and predictable (and predicted) ironies of the “post-racial” and neoliberal Barack Obama White House has been that the “first Black President” that many U.S. liberals and progressives proudly voted for in the name of racial progress has been remarkably reluctant to speak in honest and forthright ways on and against the depth, degree, and central relevance of anti-Black racism in American life. Obama’s special remarks to the press on the terrible fatal shooting of nine Black Americans at the storied Black Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina are a depressing case in point. Obama led in his remarks with the race-neutral gun-control issue. That’s where the main focus of his anger was by far.

“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times. Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times…We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hand on a gun…Now is the time for mourning and for healing. But let’s be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency….And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it’d be wrong for us not to acknowledge it, and at some point, it’s going to important for the American to come to grips with it and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”

The problem here is that the Charleston tragedy is first and foremost a racial – a racist – incident. It was an act of explicit racial hatred and terror carried out by a very specifically racist psychotic who wore patches of the flags of apartheid South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia and who absurdly told the shooting’s sole survivor that Black people were “raping our women” and “taking over the country.” Yes, the gun madness in this country is insane. More than 30,000 people are killed with firearms each year in the U.S. It’s disgusting and the proto-fascistic right wing National Rifle Association bears no small part of the blame. But the nine gun-violence deaths in Charleston were above all else about racial hatred and terror. The demented white-supremacist Dylann Roof’s hideous crime is much more like the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four Black schoolgirls in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 than it is like the Sandy Hook school-shootings or the Aurora, Colorado Batman movie shootings – or any other of those other numerous cases where young psychotic white men have gone on shooting rampages that mainly killed fellow Caucasians.

Does anyone doubt that Roof would have resorted to a bomb or to arson or to some other method of mass homicide to act on his venomous racial hatreds if he were denied access to firearms? And what exactly did Obama mean when he said that “Communities like this have had to endure tragedies like this too many times”? Did he really mean to fold Black Charleston in with white suburban Newtown, Connecticut and Aurora, Colorado as yet another terrible mass gun-violence tragedy? Has there been a previous one-time gun massacre of a large number of Black people (I do not mean the ongoing string of racist police shootings spread across each year) by a white racist during Obama’s time in the White House? (I am unaware of any such previous incidents)

Obama in his comments did make an historical reference to the 1963 Birmingham bombing and showed some elementary understanding of the Charleston killings’ racial character.

“The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history. This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked, and we know the hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals…The good news is I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today, from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship, indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome….That certainly was Dr. King’s hope just over 50 years ago after four little girls were killed in a bombing at a black church in Birmingham, Alabama.”

But this was incredibly pale tea, far too lacking in strength to remotely wake this country up from its deep sleep of racial denial. “A dark part of our history”? How about “a living and ongoing nightmare in our present”? Why not call this an act of domestic racial terrorism, rooted in a national culture white supremacism that encourages demented young white men to absurdly think that Blacks are “taking over America” and subordinating whites to “Black rule” in a time when Black median household wealth is less than a twentieth of white median household wealth, when more than a third of Black children live below the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level, when the Black unemployment and poverty rates continue to double those of whites, when a third of young Black men are under the supervision of the criminal justice system, and when Blacks make up more than 40 percent of the nation’s globally unmatched 2.4 million prisoners?

Weak – and secondary.  Obama’s brief and cursory comments on race came after his longer and clearly angry and primary comments on the color-blind and more white-friendly issue of gun control. And that should not be surprising to anyone who has followed “post-racial” Obama’s white-pleasing oratory over the years.
Let’s be clear. At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the depth, degree, and relevance of anti-Black white societal, institutional, and cultural racism in American life. Electing a “post-racial” Black U.S. President obviously isn’t going to fix the problem. Quite the opposite would seem to be the case, in fact.

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)


  1. Fred Bourgault-Christie June 24, 2015 10:07 pm 

    Paul: I cited your piece in my reaction. In my view, we on the Left often play into a cycle of compassion fatigue, responding to these inherently-outlier events and thereby reinforcing the idea that the big barrier left to, say, racial justice are just a few bad apples. Dylann Storm Roof is only the tip of the iceberg, but in our efforts to veer away from that tip, people become exhausted. I think it’s vital that we emphasize that there are things that people can do that go beyond holding a candlelight vigil.

    I’d love comments: https://zcomm.org/zblogs/compassion-fatigue-and-charleston/

  2. avatar
    Paul Street June 20, 2015 3:46 pm 

    The insipid and deep fake-progressive conservatism of Obama never ceases to nauseate.

  3. avatar
    Michael June 20, 2015 11:37 am 

    This is a question so immense and powerful that I should write a response quietly, methodically, and slowly, but I won’t. So here goes, but I will be brief.

    Race. The central issue of the United States, past and present. We cannot get around it or avoid it, though we try. Our wars generally are against people of color. Our disdain of non-white people is at once obvious and subtle because it creeps into our lives everywhere and in every thing.

    I have decided not to go on. Too much to say and feel right now.

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