An American Elegy

Yes, we’ve been here before. But in the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.”

By now, you have heard about events of June 17, 2015. Nine black people were murdered by a white supremacist at a prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina.

Rage and liberal guilt are familiar but puny responses to these events. The calls to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House (long overdue), pre-emptive declarations of the assailant's insanity and attempts to demonize his racial hatred as an anomaly are all paltry reactions to the ongoing white supremacist violence in the US.

I disagree with the focus on brandishing symbols and invoking insanity on the killer's behalf. It does not serve us to separate him from us. If we are honest, we Americans live intimately with racism.

I reject elevating this particular assailant to a category of mythological monster. He is just a man, an American.

Racism is a central part of the American character.

We manage it agilely, daily. We hide it. We ignore its consequences; we try to deny its magnitude. Meanwhile (and therefore), racism vigorously endures from our civic foundations, manifests in racial violence and creates economic and political disparities in the lives of all Americans.

To those who would accuse me of a lack of specificity, I say racism in this county is institutional, trans-historical and omni-present. It's manifest at the very heart of this nation's ideological formations and is perpetrated in overtly violent and micro-aggressive acts at every level of our society. That's specific enough.

Racism is not a mental illness.

Racism is our national pathology.

This pathology makes possible tanks on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., as well as Rachel Dolezal's desperate racial masquerade. Therefore, the murders at Emanuel AME, contrary to the talking heads, are believable.

Here in New Mexico, the "majority minority" state, some spit the word "Mexican" as an epithet. The interests of second-generation opera-goers and moneyed transplants frequently over-ride those of 16th-generation Hispanics. For the most part, Native peoples are commodified for art galleries and travel consumerism, while African American and other small minority groups are ignored.

I understand the families of the shooting victims have already offfered their public forgiveness. We are blessed by their example. But I caution the rest of us against moving too quickly through acceptance to forgiveness. I ask that you linger awhile on these grim events. Let your heart be affected by the blood and the bone fragments in the pews; a crucifixion at an altar.

Here's the Thing: I ask, though many dare not, that you don't retreat again into apathetic American sorrow. To do so is to accept no end to our condition and the beliefs that have made this assailant, and many more like him, possible. To do that, friends, is to relinquish our humanity.

Don't wait for the next meeting or forum on race. Make this your moment of personal responsibility.

Claims of "I'm not racist" and "I don't see color" are not enough. This is the heart of where we live.

If you love this country, love it enough to take responsibility for how we all wear the shame of racism and share its tragic consequences. You may deny your racial biases, but I assure you they are there. The first step is admitting them to yourself. Take responsibility right where you stand. Educate yourself on this country's past and present systems of oppression, and understand how privilege and structural oppression function.

Challenge yourself, your friends and your family to own and extinguish this part of our uniquely American character. That's my hope for you this Independence Day.

Andrea is an American Studies Scholar and Santa Fean. She suggests for more reading about race and racism in America.

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