The Sunday Times: These shootings reveal an America still shackled to the ghosts of slavery

Photo: John Mark Arnold

Photo: John Mark Arnold

In 2009, a few months after President Barack Obama took office, Jiverly Wong shot dead 13 people at a community centre for immigrants and refugees. Later that year Nidal Hasan killed 13 soldiers in Fort Hood, Texas. In 2011, Jared Loughner shot dead six people outside a supermarket in Tucson, Arizona. The next year James Holmes killed 12 people in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado; followed by Michael Page who killed six in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin; followed by Adam Lanza who killed 26 people — 20 of them children — in a school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. In 2013 Aaron Alexis killed 12 inside the Navy Yard in Washington.

The next year, Fort Hood was attacked again when Ivan Lopez killed three. This year, Craig Hicks killed three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina; and this month Dylann Roof shot dead nine members of a Bible study group at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.

These are just the massacres that gained international attention. In fact, since the Sandy Hook Elementary School atrocity 2½ years ago, there have been 72 mass shootings — involving three or more people being shot — with at least 226 being killed.

It was only right and proper that Obama used his first speech after the Charleston massacre to bring up the subject of gun control: “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 hands on a gun.” But in his second speech, at the funeral of the Rev Clementa Pinckney, who was the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Obama used his eulogy to include the subject of race in America.

Some observers have noticed that Obama did not make any special statements about racism or religious bigotry after the previous massacres, even when Sikhs were targeted by a killer with links to white supremacist groups.

But to anyone who has the slightest grasp of US history, the reason why not just Obama but the entire country has placed the Charleston massacre on a different footing is blindingly obvious. This atrocity belongs to a different narrative. It is not that the murders of the other 217 since Sandy Hook don’t demand our outrage, don’t cry out for justice, or are any less horrific and heartbreaking. It’s that for the other nine — their lives, their reality and indeed their murders are part of a 400-year-old tragedy that poses an existential crisis for America.

Photo: John Mark Arnold

Photo: John Mark Arnold

America is bigger than any single criminal or terrorist act. That we know. But what if its foundations were built on sand? What if behind its Enlightenment ideals and liberal ideas there isn’t a noble lie but an ignoble one, that has been responsible for the death and immiseration of millions. The great American democratic experiment is and always has been undermined by racial inequality. The southern ex-colonies refused to agree to a union without slavery, the northern ex-colonies acquiesced. The founding fathers wrote the constitution fully aware of the massive contradiction at its core.

Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”), whose gifts to America include the first amendment right to freedom of speech, not only owned slaves but measured his personal freedom and comfort by the financial gain they brought him. Jefferson said he abhorred slavery, writing: “Nobody wishes more ardently to see an abolition not only of the trade but of the condition.” However, in 1792, seeing that his “investments” brought him 4% a year, Jefferson urged a disgusted George Washington to follow his example and start a breeding programme. Washington left direction in his will to free his slaves, but Jefferson did not plan to free his. In fact, he ignored a bequest from a friend who left him the enormous sum of $20,000 for the sole purpose of freeing his slaves.

Despite what some left-wing hardliners and certain right-wing lovers of Gone With the Wind argue, the Civil War was a genuine attempt by the north to confront its “original sin”. In speech after speech, President Abraham Lincoln went to great pains to disassociate the moral integrity of the constitution from the immoral politics that accompanied its ratification. He acknowledged that slavery and inequality were “hid away, in the constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death”. The issue remains, however, how far the 620,000 deaths of the Civil War succeeded in expunging that cancer.

After the Civil War there were 100 years of Jim Crow, the collective term for segregation and the system of laws that denied African-Americans their constitutional rights. A consistent theme underpinning the bedrock of American identity was white racial superiority.

One of the most important and influential books of the pre-civil rights era was An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal’s 1944 study of white racism and black oppression. Myrdal, a Swedish Nobel prize-winning economist, wrote that the eternal “dilemma” was the contradiction between the “American creed” of humanistic liberalism and the enforced degradation of African-Americans. But Myrdal was optimistic that structural change was possible, writing: “The Negro problem is not only America’s greatest failure but also America’s incomparably great opportunity for the future.”

More than 70 years later, Myrdal’s belief in that bright future has yet to be vindicated. With 26% of African-Americans living in poverty, and one in three black men entering the prison system at some point in their lives, the structural changes achieved by the civil rights movement are either not working or not fast enough.

The question is why. Is it because, to use an analogy from the law, our entire legal and political system was born of fruit of the poisonous tree? If that’s the case, then no amount of resolution or good intentions can give legitimacy to something that’s irretrievably flawed. As the southern writer William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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