As I sit here on the redeye flight to an airport named for an assassinated president, most of the televisions embedded into the headrests of the passengers who remain awake are tuned to cable news, and most of cable news is tuned to Charleston. The face of the man who brought this latest slaughter among us sneers from among the shadowed ranks the darkened cabin. I want to look away, but there is nowhere to turn where his face will not suddenly leap out at me.
The screens strobe between cut after cut of pundits talking to each other in split-screen. White face after white face, explaining. Black faces, silent. A montage of the victims, also silent. More white faces, explaining. Occasionally, a black pundit is asked a question. White faces receive the response, and continue explaining. Commercial break. White actors pitch drugs for chronic conditions and financial services; it’s hard not to infer the expectation of a white audience. A high-production-value sequence begins. A white face explains in simple words, emphasized with animated typography and diagrams, what a hate crime is. A Sesame Street segment from our nightmare world.
Like a lot of people my age, I don’t get my news from the television. I don’t own one, and I don’t have cable service. What am seeing right now is obscene, and shocks me.
A man walked into one of the most historically important black churches in the United States. He was welcomed in by the people he found there. He talked with them for an hour. Then he slaughtered them, leaving one alive to tell the rest of us what his reason was. Those are some of the facts. Now, the television is crammed with white people explaining it.
There is an obvious conflict of interest. Human beings are seldom able to see themselves as anything but the good guy. When you stand on the diagram of culpability, it is human nature to experience an overpowering impulse to kick sand over any line that links you to evil. It will shape how you see things and how you explain them. This impulse is called shame. Those who fall under its shadow cannot be trusted to behave normally.
By his own words, the murders were carried out on behalf of all white people. If you are not black, please be quiet right now. It is not your turn to explain. It is your turn to listen and, if you can withstand it, to reflect.