Over the past few days, the nation has been shocked, bereaved and outraged by the terrorist attack on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during which alleged white supremacist Dylann Storm Roof killed nine African-American congregants.
While prominent politicians were obviously quick to condemn the murder, not all of them have been so quick to acknowledge the role racism played in the massacre. But on Saturday, while speaking to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Hillary Clinton challenged the United States to go beyond condemning individuals like Roof and stand up against racism in all the pernicious ways it goes unchallenged across the country.
"After the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and so much else, how can any of these things be true? But they are. And our problem is not all kooks and Klansmen, it's also the cruel joke that goes unchallenged," Clinton said, according to NBC News. "It's the offhand comment about not wanting 'that kind of person' in the neighborhood."
Clinton criticized the mentality of other national leaders who have sought to downplay the vicious racism that fueled the terrorist attack, announcing that Americans "can't hide from any of these hard truths about race and justice in America."
During the rest of the speech, Clinton thoroughly highlighted the challenges facing people of color across the country, from mortgage discrimination to systematic racism among police forces. Though she endorsed tougher gun laws, the focus was on race.
Why it's important: Clinton wants the American people to understand that it's not enough to pretend that racism doesn't exist in the United States, a notion as ridiculous as some Russian politicians' insistence that there are no gays in Russia. Instead, she made the case that the struggle is far from over by pointing to an immediate event in our recent collective memory as an example of the damage racism still causes.
But she didn't stop there. By tying racism to the everyday conversations and attitudes many Americans have, Clinton attacked the kind of implicit racism that runs rampant in polite society and asked well-meaning individuals to challenge it wherever it props up. She also made it clear that solving racism will require people across America to actually change their attitudes towards race — particularly white people, who despite boldly proclaiming themselves non-racist in increasing numbers, continue to hold screwed up opinions about people of color.
She called out what racism is: Roof didn't emerge from a vacuum. He grew up in a culture that tolerated racism instead of fighting to root it out. Clinton has broken the tepid moratorium on calling out America's stagnation on civil rights, which has troubled the country in many, more mundane ways than singular and disturbing terrorist attacks.
Racism is when black people get herded out of their own communities. Racism is when black men in poor communities experience permanent economic recession. Racism is when powerful politicians say explicitly racist things and then just shrug it off like they never opened their mouths. Racism is when white folks insist that merely saying "I'm not racist" is a "get out of jail free" card. Racism is the separation of the lived experience of people of color from the political discourse that determines how they will be treated by the rest of society.
If Americans don't want to be racist, then they can take Clinton's challenge and step forward to defend the principle that all people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity regardless of the color of their skin. Or they can shrug and hesitate, and say "this was a terrible tragedy, but..." and let whatever privileged position of their own choosing fill in the rest of the blank.