Even in America, a country by now inured to mass killings, the shooting rampage in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in which nine people died, has come as a particular shock.
The suspect, a 21-year-old white man, apparently targeted a Bible study class in what is to every appearance a classic example of a hate crime. He seems to have spent up to an hour in the church before carrying out the killing, boasting that he wanted to shoot black people. According to one account, he told a potential victim that he would let her live so that she could describe what had happened. Until he is fully interrogated, much will remain unclear about these horrific events. But one thing is certain. They will do nothing to improve the deteriorating state of race relations in the US.
The measurement of such phenomena is perforce subjective, but in the wake of a series of police killings of unarmed black suspects and the unrest that ensued – from Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, to Baltimore just a few weeks ago – there is no doubt the mood has changed. A CBS/New York Times poll last month, in the aftermath of the Baltimore riots, found that 61 per cent of Americans believe race relations are generally bad – a view shared by blacks and whites alike. That figure is up sharply from 44 per cent after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and is the most pessimistic since Barack Obama took office in 2009.
Not the least depressing aspect is that this deterioration comes after America appeared to have exorcised some of its ancient racial demons by electing its first black president. How different the future seemed six years ago. During his 2008 campaign, Mr Obama spoke with unprecedented frankness about race. But no new dawn broke. As he showed by his reluctance to visit Ferguson and Baltimore, the President gives the impression that his direct intervention might only make matters worse.
Other factors, of course, are at work. The obscene proliferation of guns only magnifies tragedies like that at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, established by free blacks and slaves in Charleston at the start of the 19th century. There is even talk of arming pastors, a step that would be almost comical, were it not so desperate. Then there are the elements in the ever-more-conservative Republican party that regard poor blacks as spongers.
The truth is very different. Much progress has been made since the 1960s. But the deck of life chances is still stacked against black Americans. They earn less than whites, their opportunities for advancement are far fewer. Unemployment among blacks is double that of whites. African-Americans constitute a disproportionate share of the prison population. Segregation is outlawed, but unofficially persists in the residential patterns of many US cities such as Baltimore.
Most depressing is how history repeats itself. The remedies are as obvious as ever, among them greater economic opportunity and changes (which are starting to happen) in criminal laws that over-penalise blacks. But for all the advances, the problem will not go away. In 1968, after race riots swept many cities, a presidential commission concluded the US was moving towards two societies, separate and unequal. That judgement of almost half a century ago contains more than a grain of truth today.Reuse content