Should we forgive the Charleston killer?

After years of racial discourse, forgiveness has produced white denial and black anger.

By Xolela Mangcu – The Root | 6/22/2015, 1:15 a.m.
After years of racial discourse, forgiveness has produced white denial and black anger.

It was as if I was feeling the Charleston massacre in my bones. I was in the United States as a guest of the Brown University International Advanced Research Institute (BIARI). I was scheduled to go back on Sunday June 21st but I insisted on going back as soon as I finished my talk on June 16th. This was by no means a reflection on my hosts or the exciting program they put together. Throughout the deliberations I expressed a sense of vulnerability as a black man in the United States in a way I did not feel in South Africa. This is not to say there is no racism in South Africa. Quite the contrary.

I recently made the headlines when I was chased out of the posh Haas Coffee Collective restaurant in Cape Town because I insisted on having an omelette the way I preferred. The white owner of the store came up to me and said: “I believe you don’t like the way we make our omelettes”. Before I could utter a word in response he said: “Get out of my restaurant, people like you don’t belong in my restaurant”.

When I inquired what he meant by that he said “criminals like you don’t belong in my restaurant, I am calling the police.” I challenged him to do exactly just that, which he never did. Instead I went over to the nearest police station to lay a charge of crimen injuria against him. I also called the local newspaper, The Cape Times, to report the incident. I also laid a complaint with the mayor of Cape Town.

I told my hosts at Brown that while I could do something about racism in South Africa, I felt helpless in the United States. Maybe the sense of agency in South Africa has to do with being a well-known newspaper columnist and academic. But that did not protect the distinguished Harvard academic,Henry Louis Gates Jr, from a racist cop in Cambridge. Perhaps I feel a greater sense of political empowerment because black people run the government in South Africa. But I would have expected a similar sense of empowerment among African Americans in the United States given the presence of a black president. But this does not seem to have been Barack Obama’s impact on African American political culture.

African Americans are justifiably proud of having the first black president in the White House. However, pride is not the same thing as power. The president’s cautiousness may have rubbed off on the rest of the African American community. It may well be this cautiousness that emboldens racists in America.

And so I jetted out of the United States several days before my original departure date. No sooner had I arrived in Cape Town than white supremacy reared its ugly head in Charleston, leaving in its wake nine lifeless bodies. While I respect the decision of some of the bereaved families to forgive this monster, I also know that the discourse of ‘forgiveness’ has done very little to improve race relations in South Africa over the past twenty years. Instead it has yielded a tendency to instinctively present the very perpetrators of evil in a sympathetic light.