The church massacre at Charleston struck when we were looking elsewhere. Our gaze was turned to the deaths of Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Michael Brown and the many black men killed by state law enforcement. Focused on the head, we forgot that the fish continues to rot.

In its coverage, Charleston has been digested as an issue separate from police brutality. The shooter’s admiration for the Ku Klux Klan links him to a rather antiquated strain of white supremacy, separate from the modern issues in law enforcement.

This is a false distinction and a fatal distraction.

We need not look further than the debate over the Confederate flag. In the wake of Charleston, this has been the uniting issue; yet the most direct link is that the shooter was photographed holding the flag. The recent push to ban the banner seems to misunderstand cause and effect: the flag doesn’t create racists, racists tend to wave the flag.

An alternative reason to focus on the flag is to combat a sort of ‘soft racism,’ the thought being that the flag’s racist origins degrade African Americans. While certainly true, the link to Charleston is tenuous. The show of inhumanity was far from ‘soft racism,’ and the shooter’s proclaimed motives extend beyond the Confederate legacy.

Pinning the Confederate flag as an emblem of the racist violence witnessed in Charleston fails to acknowledge that the problem is systemic, not vestigial. Of course, we can’t ignore a history of racism grounded in centuries of slavery. But alongside persistent attitudes, we also have ongoing structures that fuel racism independant of history.

When the public eye was on police, the structural issues were front and centre. Police strangled Eric Garner to death during an arrest for selling loose cigarettes. The charge itself pointed to a system preoccupied with criminalizing poverty rather than protecting the citizenry.

The bias in the legal system continues to make black men criminals and frames the entire black community as synonymous with criminality. This has little to do with a legacy of racism and is fueled by a legal system that paints a Picassoesque picture of the black community as a threat. This puts African Americans at a vulnerable intersection of racism and public fear of criminals.  

As the bodies dropped, the shooter was not shouting Ku Klux Klan slogans, he was condemning African Americans as criminals who “rape our women.” This should not be ignored.

The Charleston shooting and the killing of Eric Garner are not separate issues. Garner’s death came from a system that defends the sale of tobacco by white capitalists but criminalizes the sale of loose cigarettes by black ones. This systemic bias creates a link between black and criminal. Unless the shooter is lying about his motives, it is this illusory link, not the Confederate flag, that left nine African Americans dead.

We can, and should, denounce the Confederate flag and condemn the shooter to a lifetime in jail. But mending race relations after Charleston will require us to understand the legal system as the problem, not the solution.

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