I once lived in an apartment ringed by a moat of shit.
It wasn’t a selling feature of the apartment, indeed when I and my two roommates signed the lease the area around the apartment was bone dry. It was a garden apartment at the basement level of a building that had lots of problems: scalding hot shower water, days on end with no heat, an unending cockroach infestation. I’d already established a regular and fairly antagonistic relationship with my building’s manager due to these continued issues, and when I came home from work to find a steamy, brackish lake spewing from a crack in the walk in front of my door, I was pissed. Funny thing is, I didn’t realize it was sewage at first. For some reason, I decided it was runoff from the laundromat across the street which was a ludicrous thing to believe. I stormed into the house and began commiserating with my roommate: “I can’t believe all of that water out there!” I yelled, “It’s always something with this apartment!”
“Yeah,” replied my roommate, “and now it’s a river of shit.” I looked at him blankly. “That’s not sewer water,” I informed him, “it’s from the laundromat across the street. I think.” Now it was his turn to be confused.
“No, it’s shit. You don’t see the toilet paper in there?” I frowned and went back to the front door to examine the new body of water more closely. And then, I saw them: turds, bobbing around in this effluvia in which I could now clearly see wads of toilet paper. And worse, I began to smell it. Mere seconds ago, I detected no fecal odor but now it was undeniable. My apartment wasn’t surrounded by the murky but otherwise soapy water of a laundromat, but a disgusting, viscous moat of shit.
Once seen, of course, it could not be unseen. There’s more to the story, but what was so interesting to me that I was initially so sure that this wasn’t sewer water billowing in front of my house. I would have sworn to it. In fact, I spontaneously concocted a stupid story about the waste from a laundromat across the street–because, you know, coin-operated laundromats normally have dedicated sewage lines that run for blocks, for some reason–instead of facing the hard fact that I had poops at my doorstep. It’s incredible how your brain can trick you into seeing the things you want to see, instead of seeing things how they are.
We saw this yesterday, when nine people were gunned down at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The murdered, like the vast majority of this church with historic ties to abolitionism, were black, the shooter was white. Right away, a survivor of this ordeal, left alive by the shooter Dylann Roof to tell the tale, explained that Dylann expressed hatred towards black people, who “rape our women, and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.” Before he was apprehended, a picture of the shooter surfaced of him wearing a jacket adorned with flags from Apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, which was Zimbabwe when it was a white-controlled territory. And lest you think I am up for a challenge to determine the origin of various flags throughout history, I am not. These flags were identified for me by several folks on social media who are much more knowledgeable than I.
And still, many newscasters, politicans and citizens were quick to quell any talk of racism. “This person is clearly mentally ill,” said many, implying that this made the killings apolitical. “An attack on religion,” claimed FOX News, who can no longer be faulted for lying under the “fool me twice, shame on me” rule. Few on my media feeds seemed to suggest that when a white person goes into a black church and kills only black people that the attack could be racially motivated. And that’s because they don’t want to see it, because we’d rather believe that this massacre, that cops shooting unarmed black teenagers on a bi-weekly basis, that the attempts to restrict voter rights along lines that would mainly disenfranchise black people are isolated incidents by crazies and malcontents, folks who are an exception to the rule. But the fact is that for American history, racism is the rule. Post Civil War Reconstruction began a hundred and fifty years ago and Civil Rights marches began fifty-five years ago, and we’ve still got so many black Americans laboring under a system of institutional racism that keeps white neighborhoods white, keeps menial jobs black, and maintains a general status quo that essentially allows police to shoot black people in the back and get away with it.
The reason that white America doesn’t want to assume racism as a motivation is that it forces us to look inward, at our own motivations. How we have benefited, willfully or not, from the system that has been in place in some form or another for four-hundred years. It’s a difficult pill to swallow, especially since owning up to the fact doesn’t absolve your guilt. At some point, however, we have to take notice of our own hypocrisy and see things for what they are. You thought you were surrounded by the protective aura of being an enlightened free-thinker, someone who espouses equality and freedom but actually can’t see the forest for the trees. But it turns out that your protection was a moat of shit.