Ferguson. Baltimore. Staten Island. North Charleston. Cleveland.
Over the past year in each of these American cities, an unarmed black male has died at the hands of a police officer, unleashing a torrent of anguish and soul-searching about race in America. Despite video evidence in several of the killings, each has spurred more discord than unity.
Grand juries have tended to give the benefit of the doubt to police officers. National polls revealed deep divisions in how whites and blacks viewed the facts in each case. Whites were more likely to believe officers’ accounts justifying the use of force. Blacks tended to see deeper forces at work: longstanding police bias against black men and a presumption that they are criminals.
Then, on Wednesday night, a young white man walked into a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., and joined a group of worshipers as they bowed their heads over their Bibles. He shot and killed nine of them. In his Facebook profile picture, the suspect, Dylann Roof, wore the flags of racist regimes in South Africa and the former Rhodesia.
The massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston was something else entirely from the police killings. But it, too, has become a racial flash point and swept aside whatever ambiguity seemed to muddle those earlier cases, baldly posing questions about race in America: Was the gunman a crazed loner motivated by nothing more than his own madness? Or was he an extreme product of the same legacy of racism that many black Americans believe sent Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and Tamir Rice to their graves?
The debate has already begun.
“I just think he was one of these whacked-out kids,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a white Republican from South Carolina who is running for president, said in a telephone interview with CNN, echoing a sentiment that had begun to blossom. “I don’t think it’s anything broader than that. It’s about a young man who is obviously twisted.“
Mr. Graham later amended his remarks, calling Mr. Roof “a racial jihadist” and saying that the only reason the victims had died was their race.
Bryan Stevenson, a black lawyer who has specialized in death-penalty cases and chronicled the legal system’s unfairness to African-Americans, sees deep and systemic connections between Mr. Roof’s actions and the police killings of black males, as well as the rough actions of a police officer breaking up a pool party in McKinney, Tex.
“This latest violent act is an extreme and terrifying example, but not disconnected from the way black men and boys are treated by police, by schools, by the state,” Mr. Stevenson said in an interview. “The landscape is littered with monuments that talk proudly about the Confederacy and leave no record about the lynchings of the era.”
America is living through a moment of racial paradox. Never in its history have black people been more fully represented in the public sphere. The United States has a black president and a glamorous first lady who is a descendant of slaves. African-Americans lead the country’s pop culture in many ways, from sports to music to television, where show-runners like Shonda Rhimes and Lee Daniels have created new black icons, including the political fixer Olivia Pope on “Scandal” and the music mogul Cookie Lyon on “Empire.”
It has become commonplace to refer to the generation of young people known as millennials as “post-racial.” Black culture has become so mainstream that a woman born to white parents who had claimed to be black almost broke the Internet last week by saying that she was “transracial.”
Yet in many ways, the situation of black America is dire.
“All of these examples in some ways are really misleading in what they represent,” Mr. Stevenson said. “We have an African-American president who cannot talk about race, who is exposed to hostility anytime he talks about race. These little manifestations of black artistry and athleticism and excellence have always existed. But they don’t change the day-to-day experience of black Americans living in most parts of this country.”
A poll from YouGov shows shifting opinons after several months of media attention dedicated to unarmed black people killed by the police, and whether the concerns of black protesters indicate a broader trend of police brutality particularly against black Americans. And another poll by Pew seems to support this.