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Being non-racist is not good enough

We are engaged in a superficial kind of unity

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In the wake of a mistrial in the case of former North Charleston Police Officer Michael Slager, ex-S.C. State Trooper Sean Groubert must be kicking himself for having pled guilty to assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature earlier this year.

Had Groubert allowed his case to go to trial, there’s a good chance a jury would have viewed his deed — shooting motorist Levar Jones multiple times while Jones was complying with Groubert’s demands — as a reasonable use of force in a stressful situation, not a crime.

He should have taken Slager’s route — hire a high-profile defense attorney, take the stand, and tell a jury how afraid he was when he shot Walter Scott multiple times in the back as Scott ran away, of how much of a threat he considered Scott to be. The jury bought it, or at least enough of them, and that’s why Slager is still walking free on bond while everyone tries to explain away the horror of these developments.

Police officers are rarely charged and almost never convicted, even when their acts can be seen on clear video and they are caught telling lies about what happened. There’s something about us that we require so little of the men and women we pay to protect us, train, and empower them to take our lives if they deem necessary. The more power we give them, the less we seem to believe they should be held accountable for their actions even as we task them with making sure the real criminals face justice.

I can hear the refrain already developing — “We are not a racist people” — to deflect from the ugly reality once again illustrated by the Slager mistrial. South Carolina isn’t the only place where this problem exists. It’s rare that a police officer is charged, let alone convicted, here or anywhere else, we’ll be quickly reminded. Just look at Freddie Gray in Baltimore, who had his spine nearly severed while in police custody. Instead of convictions in that case, we had a series of acquittals — and cheering at the Republican National Convention when it was announced that yet another officer escaped had escaped accountability — before the final charges were dropped against the others.

While all of that is true, the Slager mistrial stands out because of where it took place, and when. Not too long ago, the Charleston area was receiving accolades about how it supposedly unified in the wake of nine black people being gunned down while studying the Bible at Mother Emanuel Church. The state was praised because there were no riots, because there were hugs and kisses on the cheeks and prayers and warm smiles shared among black and white residents. Our governor is about to become the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in large part because she helped lead an effort to bring down the Confederate flag following the Emanuel shooting after it had flown at our Statehouse for more than half a century.

Who can forget the image of so many people gathering together on the big, beautiful Ravenel Bridge to hold hands in solidarity, to send the message that hatred would not win no matter what Dylann Roof allegedly did?

The truth, then and now, is that we were engaged in a superficial kind of unity, one that made us feel good in the moment instead of rolling up our sleeves to deal with darker realities for as long as required to uproot them.

We cried for Mother Emanuel but have no problem with a massive monument honoring one of our nation’s most rabid proponents of slavery in downtown Charleston. Many of those who joined hands across the bridge likely left the Ravenel and found their way to a Donald Trump rally to cheer on a man who rose to national political prominence because of the open bigotry he was using to garner votes. While Nikki Haley, Mark Sanford, Tim Scott, and others finally came together to force down a flag that should have never flown, that happened not only because nine black people were first sacrificed in a church but because some of their loved ones found a way to forgive the unforgivable. And for that — an act our leaders and the rest of us didn’t have the courage to do before Dylann Roof showed up — we patted ourselves on the backs, told ourselves how forward-thinking and non-racist we are.

Never mind that the “Corridor of Shame” still exists, black men are still over-represented in our prison system, that black people are too often denied opportunities, no matter their qualifications, that too many white residents are more concerned about protecting their image against charges of racism than righting wrongs — and that a cop can be caught on video shooting a fleeing man in the back and a jury of our peers can’t even agree that it is a crime.

Issac Bailey is a long-time South Carolina journalist who was the primary columnist for The Sun News. He was a 2014 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and was raised in St. Stephen in Berkeley County.


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