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Goosebumps rose on my arms as I walked into Bethel A.M.E. on Sunday night for a prayer vigil in remembrance of the nine black worshippers killed in Charleston, S.C., last week. The sanctuary was packed, people pressed together in the foyer outside and the overflow hall had standing room only. I later learned that 1,000 people attended the service. I was glad to see a good number of white folks and people from a wide variety of faith traditions both in the audience and among the list of speakers. Many of the messages focused on healing from the tragedy through love and reconciliation. Only a few speakers took things to a deeper level to discuss the need to work together for justice and an equitable society, and the necessity that people move beyond prayer and dialogue into action.
There was one speaker in particular who I could not get behind. Gov. Asa Hutchinson approached the lectern to a standing ovation, began with some heartfelt comments about the tragedy and appreciation for those gathered, then spoke about his respect for the way the victims' families were responding. He praised them for not expressing "anger, hatred, or a desire for revenge." He also praised the family of slain Rev. Daniel Simmons for allegedly wanting to keep politics out of the discussion to focus on forgiveness and healing. Through his emphasis, Hutchinson played directly into the narrative of respectability politics, where white people tell people of color how they should respond to a situation and condemn responses from others in the community experiencing anger, rage and other expressions of grief.
Respectability politics plays into the illusion that we can move forward without discomfort, sacrifice or upheaval. It comes directly from white fears of being held accountable. Yes, the response of the victims' families shows strength and a depth of love that is incredible to witness, but Hutchinson used it for his own ends. Don't get too loud, "tolerance and faith can overcome violence," he said.
Hutchinson also spoke about his tenure as a U.S. attorney for Arkansas in the 1980s, during which he prosecuted the notorious white supremacist group the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. He said he thought that taking down the Covenant meant that Arkansas would no longer face these kinds of issues, then acknowledged that there is still a need to root out ongoing "racial bigotry and hatred." His focus on overt, militant white supremacy betrays a lack of understanding of systemic racism, which does not require any outward expression of racial bigotry to enact.
Hutchinson himself has been involved in reinforcing systemic racism in our state and nation. After he headed George W. Bush's Drug Enforcement Administration, an agency that has been a major player in the mass incarceration of people of color, Hutchinson became a top official at the Department of Homeland Security, which has a history of racial profiling and discrimination. In his first six months as governor, he signed bills into law that cut funding for libraries, shrank programs for impoverished elderly residents, and increased barriers to TANF assistance, all of which disproportionately affect communities of color. Hutchinson has not been willing to strongly support policy that would materially improve the lives of people of color.
The Charleston murders were most assuredly political in nature. The killer said so himself. To avoid discussing the political nature of the situation and act as if racism is only the purview of a few bigots directly obscures the systemic racism that creates the conditions for this kind of tragedy.
There can be no peace without justice, Rev. Ryan Davis reminded us at the vigil. And there will be no unity or healing until we transform the structures that benefit the few at the expense of the many. In the lyrics of a gospel song that A.M.E. Bishop Samuel Green so passionately shared, "There's a storm out on the ocean and it's moving this-a way." Those who are serious about justice must prepare. In the A.M.E.'s plans to engage Americans in facing the reality of racism, I hope it will be able to help people move beyond the rhetoric of individual bigotry and hatred to a more nuanced understanding of power and oppression.
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