By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher
When I think of that racist white man who murdered nine black people at a Charleston, South Carolina church last week, all I can see is the face of my cousin Bob across from me in the visiting room at San Francisco City Prison back in 1974. He’d just been arraigned for murder and he was my cousin, after all, and so I found myself looking at him through the glass and talking over the phone. “What happened?” I asked him. “Is it true?” He replied that he didn’t want to talk about it and changed the subject.
What happened was that my cousin was a regular at a bar on Ocean Ave. Bob was an electrician and most days he stopped by to have a few beers with the guys after work. It was a friendly place and he was on a first name basis with the waitresses. So it seems that some kind of argument broke out between a waitress and one of the patrons, a black woman named Vera. It got pretty heated and angry words were exchanged. Bob went out to his truck, pulled out his deer-rifle, and when she came out the door, he murdered her.
My cousin didn’t want to talk about it, but some of his family, my relatives certainly did. To listen to them it seemed that somehow it was Vera’s fault that she was murdered. She was loud; she was argumentative; she was rude. She’d insulted the waitress that she was arguing with. They didn’t say it in so many words, but as far as they were concerned, she had it coming.
But they knew, just as I did, that Vera was a target that evening because of her race. Her fatal ‘error’ was that she was a black woman who got in an argument with a white waitress at a bar in a white working class neighborhood. My cousin Bob decided to set things right by shooting her. Maybe he would have acted the same way if she’d been white, but I doubt it. As a black woman, her life mattered less to him than the hurt feelings of the white waitress who was an acquaintance of his.
Growing up, I know that my cousin Bob heard prejudiced and racist comments about black people in his family, because I heard them making those same comments myself. I’m fortunate that my parents went out of their way to counteract what I was hearing—what we overheard on holidays and family get-togethers—but if they hadn’t, I could have just as easily seen the world the way Bob did.
Race certainly played a role in what happened next. Bob’s mother hired a top-notch defense lawyer who got the charge reduced to manslaughter. He was convicted of that crime, but only served four years in prison before being released on parole. Imagine for a moment what the charge would have been if my cousin Bob had been a black man and his victim had been a white woman. Imagine how long he would have been in prison. Certainly not four years.
When I think about what happened in Charleston, as a white person I want to distance myself from what that young man did to those nine black men and women at that bible study. But I can’t. It’s not enough to see his action as an aberration or as the singular act of a deranged individual, any more than my cousin Bob’s decision to murder Vera was because he’d been drinking. That young man in Charleston murdered them because they were black.
His crime was just one more awful incident in a long, ugly history of violence against black people by white people, beginning with slavery and continuing to the present day. Not only in overt acts such as what my cousin Bob did, but in the institutionalized prejudice and discrimination that advantages white Americans over black Americans and other people of color.
That day at City Prison talking to Bob, as much as I abhorred and repudiated his criminal violence and the racist ideas that rationalized murder, at least in his own mind and some of the relatives, I knew that he wasn’t a monster. He was my cousin, and I’d grown up with and loved his father — my Uncle Bob. Talking to Bob on the phone there in the visiting room, I wondered if things might have turned out differently for Vera and for her grieving family if I had spoken up at those family gatherings and contradicted the all-too-casual racist and prejudiced comments being made around the dining room table.
I wish I had.
Yes, we’ve made progress; no one denies that. But racism continues to be the original sin of our society. As a white person, I struggle to face and acknowledge my own part in the institutional and social structures of sin that inflict so much harm and suffering on black Americans and other people of color. As a Christian and as a disciple of Jesus, I believe in the possibility of redemption in every dimension of our lives, including race.
Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 ext. 23.