Editors note: In the wake of the June 17 Charleston massacre, the Institute sat down with Rev. Dr. William Barber to open a discussion on race and poverty and to jog the thinking of economists and everyone else concerned with the roots of these problems.
Barber is a pastor, president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, and the architect of the Moral Monday movement. He is not an economist, but he is vividly aware of how conventional economic thinking may play a role in producing the events that have traumatized American society over the last few months. The Institute does not have a unique, single point of view, but we believe a dialog with people like Barber is an important part of the Institute’s mission.
“In the richest nation on earth —the richest nation ever,” says Barber, “there are more poor people than at any other moment in our country’s history. Child poverty numbers are far higher than any other advanced western democracy and America faces the greatest gaps between rich and poor since researchers began collecting data five decades ago. Mobility has stalled, so the poor tend to stay poor and the rich tend to stay rich. As MIT Sloan School of Management Otto Scharmer has said, ‘There is a blind spot in American economic theory today. It is called ‘consciousness.’ Our refusal to have an economic theory that looks and sees that we are all integrated and we all really need each other.’”
Barber notes that American poverty is nowhere more pronounced than in the South, and that Rev. Pinckney, the slain pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal, was involved with his church in two critical fights that relate to economics —the fight to raise the minimum wage to a living wage in a country where inequality continues to skyrocket and the fight for Medicaid expansion to help poor working people have coverage. Economic policy and racism, Barber observes, are intimately linked. “The fact that South Carolina is blocking this,” he says, “is devastating in a state so poor and so in need.” He sees the criticism of these proposals as “rooted in a myth of destructive racial entitlement and white victimhood sown by the architects of the white southern strategy.” As Barber put it, “the work of Rev. Pinckney and his congregation is necessary for the future of our country’s economic strength.”
In Luke 23:34, Jesus says, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
A deeper meaning of forgiveness in the Christian nonviolent tradition reveals a critique that knows: The Charleston perpetrator has been caught, but the killer is still at large.
There is a scripture that says we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against powers and rulers of the darkness. Within the nonviolent faith tradition it has always been clear that hate cannot drive out hate and evil cannot drive out evil. And so the Christians who were able to forgive the murder 48 hours after losing their loved ones are consistent with their faith in Jesus, who said, as he was being murdered by the state, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
But this forgiveness should not be misinterpreted as a dismissing of the greater evil.
Their forgiveness is also an act of resistance to the attempts to lay the blame for this horror at the feet of one man. If America is serious about this moment, we cannot just cry ceremonial tears while at the same time refusing to support the martyred Reverend and his parishioners’ stalwart fight against the racism that gave birth to the crime.
The perpetrator has been caught, but the killers are still at large: the deep wells of American racism and white supremacy that Dylann Roof drank from.
These families of the murdered are challenging the schizophrenia of American morality that allows political leaders to condemn the crime but embrace the policies that are its genesis. Many of the South Carolina politicians and others in the nation are examples of a common theme — decrying the killings but steadfastly refusing to support efforts to quell their divisive race-implying rhetoric and cease their push for policies that promote race based voter suppression, adversity toward fixing the Voting Rights Act, cutting public education in ways that foster resegregation, denying workers living wages, refusing Medicaid expansion, the proliferation of guns and supporting the Confederate flag flying at the state capitol — a symbol of slavery, racism and terrorism against African Americans.
They are even using racial code words to criticize the President, all in the name of taking their country back and preventing its destruction. And they refuse to own that there is a history of racialized political rhetoric and policies spawning the pathology of terriostic murder and violent resistance.
When they were murdered, Reverend Pinckney and his parishioners were advocating for a better life for people of all races. They were standing with fast food workers demanding a living wage. They were calling for the Confederate flag to come down. They were fighting against voter suppression and for funding public education, expanding Medicaid to allow the poor and near poor — of all races — to have health care. They were mobilizing for police accountability and marching for justice in the police killing of Walter Scott, an unarmed African American man shot in the back by a police officer.
These brave family members are telling America that you cannot focus only on this one man and absolve America of its historic sickness. In a profound way, they are saying that giving the killer the death penalty is not going to fix what ails us. Arresting one disturbed young man, and dumping on him the sins of slavery, Jim Crow, and the new racialized extremism that has captured almost every southern legislature and county courthouse, will not bring “closure” or “healing” to a society that is still sick with the sin of racism and inequality. A society where too many perpetuate in word and deed the slow violence of undermining the promise of equal protection under the law that preachers from Denmark Vesey to Martin King to Rev. Pinckney fought for.
They are asking us to forgive the sinner but hate the sin. They are issuing a clarion call borne of their pain and loss to create a society that truly embraces justice and equality, that ends the policies of racism and poverty that only guarantee there will be more Dylann Roofs and more acts of terror. Because only then will we apprehend the real killers.
I believe, in light of this, that real healing would be writing an omnibus bill in the name of the nine Emanuel martyrs. This bill would implement Medicaid expansion, raise public education funding, pass a living wage requirement, pass new gun control laws, and remove the Confederate flag from the state house. And this omnibus bill would be supported and passed by Republicans and Democrats.
Further, the very seat Rev. Pinckney held is in jeopardy as long as Section 5 of the Voting Right Act has been gutted. The current bill in the U.S. House, even if passed, would leave out Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee from coverage. If we want closure, let us name a Voting Rights Act restoration bill after the Emanuel Nine.
We have no choice. We must see transformative action not temporary ceremonial displays. Until we deal with the issues of race, poverty and violence that threaten to tear our nation asunder, it is not just America’s soul that is at stake, but America itself.