Listen to the story.
Gary Younge: If you are a black person going to church this sunday and a white person walks into the room, you are going to feel different.
Aaron Schachter: That’s Gary Younge, a columnist for The Guardian. He’s been writing about what he calls America’s “twin pathologies” of racism and guns. That won’t change, he says, until the US breaks out of its stale conversation about gun control.
Younge: Someone with racist intent who walked into a overwhelming black place of worship in Britain would be unlikely to do as much damage because they would be far less likely to have a gun. But guns are not the only issue. The way I think of it is that you have all of this tinder--no mental healthcare, segregation, inequality, racial strife--and then onto this tinder you throw the spark of a lethal weapon.
Schachter: Gary, Americans began this week with a very different discussion of race than today: Rachel Dolezal, former head of the Spokane NAACP, and her efforts to identify as black. We are now ending the week with this 21-year-old who apparently claims African-Americans are taking over the US. Do you see a throughline to this narrative from monday to friday?
Younge: What Rachel Dolezal really proved through her self-identification is that race is an absurdity, that we’re all part of the human race and there are greater differences within races than between them, that race itself is biological nonsense. So as soon as we try to pin it down and say, “Well, who really is black and what does that really mean?” what we learn through that is that race itself is nonsense, and what we see by the end of the week with what looks like a racially motivated mass killing is that while race may be nonsense, racism is very real. And the fact that it should happen in South Carolina, both not far from where Walter Scott was shot 8 times as he ran away from a policeman, though he was unarmed, an African-American; South Carolina, the first state to secede from the union, sparking the civil war; South Carolina, where the Confederate flag still flies atop the governor’s mansion; that in a range of ways, racism is very real.
Schachter: Gary, our listeners probably know that you’re British, you write for The Guardian, you live in Chicago although you parents were from Barbados. So, you are in an interesting position to see how America views race and how it’s viewed in the rest of the world. Do you feel like the discussion here about race is somehow different than it is in the UK or anywhere else?
Younge: Yeah. America does not have a monopoly on racism. Just look at France, where the Front National, the extreme right wing party, is a viable contender for the presidency. And you can go across Europe and see the far right doing very, very well. But in America, compared to other Western countries, what’s distinctive is that American racism is more lethal because no other country has the number of guns that America has, which means when a racist conflict emerges, the potential for murder or death is so much higher.
Schachter: You know, there’s a lot of heated discussion right now on what to call this horrible event. You know, and in some ways you could argue it’s semantics and in some ways it’s not. Is it terrorism? Is it a hate crime? Is it both? Where do you weigh in on that?
Younge: I remember I interviewed Maya Angelou in 2002. She was talking about 9/11 and she said, “African Americans have been living in a state of terror for several centuries.” And I certainly think it’s true that this is a terrorizing event. I’m not convinced that changing the definition is going to change America’s understanding of its foreign policy or of its domestic policy. And so I wonder--and it seriously is an open question to me--what changes if we understand this crime differently?
Schachter: Gary, is there anything you want to add?
Younge: There is this gigantic elephant in the room, which is gun control, and people don’t talk about it because they know nothing is going to happen about it. And this incident alone, if you look at what happened in Tasmania in the past or with Dunblane in Britain in the early “˜90s, this incident alone would be enough for most Western countries to say, “We have to get a grip on this issue.”
Schachter: Gary Younge is a columnist for The Guardian.