The tragedy in Charleston feels terribly familiar in two distinct ways. It feels like Newtown, or Aurora, with many innocent dead from irrational gun violence. But it also feels — for the specific context of the setting and the identities of the victims — like this moment is bound to recent violence of a different kind, to the deaths of lone black men like Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner.
That makes this tragedy particularly hard to process. Should we focus on lessons about the weapon, or about the motives of the man who used it? Should we be talking about gun violence or racial injustice? Can we make space for both — neither of which we ever talk about very well — in the same difficult discussion?
Jelani Cobb, writing at the New Yorker, eloquently pointed out this morning the sudden confluence of these ugly threads:
We have, quite likely, found at 110 Calhoun Street in Charleston, South Carolina, the place where Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown cross with Baltimore, Ferguson, and Sanford. We periodically mourn the deaths of a group of Americans who die at the hands of another armed American. We periodically witness racial injustices that inspire anger in the streets. And sometimes we witness both. This is, quite simply, how we now live.
Mass shootings, curiously, often don't budge Americans on the issue of guns. We don't pass tighter gun laws, we don't even shift our thinking much about such weapons. But what if the mass shooting is also a hate crime coming at the very moment when black communities are crying out about the persistence of racial injustice? Would that change anything about how we see ourselves, if not our guns?