Six days have lapsed since Dylann Roof committed what I will only refer to as a hate crime and an act of domestic terrorism: the calculated murder of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. While the events were unfolding, I was copyediting a special cluster of academic articles, which studied the ways in which Black scholars, artists, and social media figures have sought to countermand the systemic racism that proliferates across American culture, political institutions, and academe.
If copyediting that cluster felt timely then, the messages in those articles seemed even more pressing during the following days. My thoughts were steeped with facts that I already knew, but that my social media feeds reminded me of in spades: Blacks and whites receive vastly different treatment at the hands of police officers and journalists. Dylann Roof, a white murderer and likely candidate for sociopath of the year, got treated to Burger King only hours after committing a hate crime; conversely, Mike Brown, a Black victim of police brutality, gets drubbed as “no angel” by New York Times journalist John Eligon.
I apologize for my disjointed chronology: I have to jump from today’s news cycle back to Saturday, to arrive at the crux of this post, my belief that there is a greater issue at stake here. Saturday morning, I went to the lobby of my apartment building to get some coffee for my wife and myself. There’s a TV, usually tuned to CNN, near the complimentary coffee station. The story playing on CNN had a caption about moving toward forgiveness (this is from memory, so this isn’t verbatim), and it was putatively about how Charleston can move ahead from the tragedy. The story, so far as I can determine, also spins off from this CNN online story, in which the daughter of shooting victim Ethel Lance forgave Roof.
This sequence of events—mass murder, media hue and cry, an instance of forgiveness that spurs a public appeal for forgiveness—is something I’ll call the “forgiveness cycle.” In my smugger moments, I would attribute this need for forgiveness to that distinctly Protestant “forgive and forget” ethic, and this is precisely the problem. Forgiveness has nothing to do with justice—neither for the victims of the Emanuel A.M.E. shooting, nor for America’s Black population. In “On Forgiveness,” Jacques Derrida illustrates that entangling forgiveness with social justice enmeshes two incompatible belief systems: forgiveness belongs to the realm of religion and faith, while rule of law should create a system in which “for ever, ‘eternally,’ everywhere and always, a crime against humanity will always be subject to judgment, and it will never be effaced from the judicial archive.”
“Forgive and forget,” however, does expunge this event from the public record, and in an egregious way. This mantra transforms an event like the Emanuel A.M.E. murders into a one-off event, an aberration, an individual action that can be forgiven. If you look at news coverage of white mass murderers, you’ll notice that the forgiveness cycle becomes a way for mitigating their guilt and disconnecting it from the racism and prejudices that motivated those crimes. (I’m not the first to come up with this argument, and I hope you’ll read Stacey Patton’s article at The Washington Post, “Black America Should Stop Forgiving White Racists,” which a friend of mine posted on Facebook while I was struggling to put this post together.) The opportunity to receive forgiveness is a white privilege, and it’s a luxury that effaces what we truly need, unequivocal justice. The cycle does this by transforming “a crime against humanity” (Roof’s rampage certainly qualifies as such) into a singular incident disconnected from America’s ongoing problems with race. (If you’re Rick Perry, that’s not “incident,” but “accident.”)
The forgiveness cycle contains the same rusty, logical machinery that propels the misconception that the Confederate flag is a “heritage symbol,” and Ta-Nehisi Coates only needs to scrape some dust off the archive to bunk that “heritage symbol” myth.
So don’t forgive.
In the past twenty-four hours, Governor Nikki Haley (R-SC) has announced that she will pursue the permanent lowering of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse. (Her public statement panders to both sides—insisting on both the inexcusable “heritage” argument and the racism associated with the flag. Coates also points out this incongruity.) Wal-Mart has pulled all Confederate flag merchandise from its stores in light of the Emanuel A.M.E. shooting. However, these are symbolic actions and rhetoric, and they hardly address the root of the problem. President Barack Obama strikes closer to the mark. The president has publicly gone on the record on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, where he lobbed the n-word to demonstrate that “we are not cured of [racism]” and that “[s]ocieties don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.”
“Erasing,” however, isn’t the right idea, either, and I was miffed to see that word appear in Obama’s remarks: the question is about breaking this forgiveness cycle, which perpetuates white privilege. The goal—and I’m lifting, here, from Derrida—is to “induce processes of transformation—political, juridical, but in truth without limit” by choosing to remember, to act, for political and social justice. That is, we should choose not to forgive, and not to forget.
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