What Charleston Taught Me About Systemic Racism

By , November 25, 2020
Assistant Professor Idrissou Mora-Kpai reflects on the filming of his documentary America Street.

Since June, there have been worldwide antiracist demonstrations provoked by the murder of George Floyd. Rarely has the killing of an African American caused so much global uproar, triggering debates about structural racism not only in the United States but also worldwide.

In this moment where the images of extreme racist violence are pushed into the public eye, many individuals and institutions have pledged, often with big gestures, to the cause of Black Lives Matter. They want to be on the right side of history. Quick measures are being proposed everywhere. While this is all important and praiseworthy, it is critical to remember that structural racism is a sedimentation of long and evolving histories of white supremacy. Understanding and dismantling that requires a long-term approach lasting beyond the hype of the moment.

I began to think more about the question of short-term interest and long-term investment during the filming of my documentary America Street in 2015. Set in Charleston, the film examined the struggles of a historically Black community against ongoing social segregation in this charming tourist city. During production of the film, two significant events occurred. ThatApril, Walter Scott, an unarmed African American man, was killed by a police officer. His killing was filmed. Just two months later, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, killed nine Black people in a church.

“Making my film allowed me, an African immigrant who recently moved from Europe, to understand U.S. structural racism in its deepest intimacy.”

Idrissou Mora-Kpai, assistant professor

In both cases, I witnessed a media frenzy that lasted approximately two weeks. After that, the journalists and cameras departed, but the people who remained continued to struggle with structural racism on a daily basis. That’s a theme repeated all too often.

In Charleston, I visited the segregated public schools, which were completely underfunded, predominantly Black, and were a sure path to failure, the famous school-to-prison pipeline. In 1989, after Hurricane Hugo, the local administration maliciously decided not to rebuild the Black schools. This was an explicit attempt at fulfilling the goal of making Charleston a tourist destination. During this same time period, well-funded public charter schools, 99% populated by white children, were encouraged.

These are not just a mere coincidence but the result of very specific local policies that encourage these phenomena.There are many other examples that demonstrate long-lasting structural racism: the teaching of national history, the construction of prisons, accessibility to food, the justice system. I was confronted with all of these while filming the documentary.

The characters in my film struggled with this structural racism, trying to escape as much as they could, individually and collectively, the detrimental impact of these policies. Making my film allowed me, an African immigrant who recently moved from Europe, to understand U.S.structural racism in its deepest intimacy.

“Those of us who don’t directly suffer from structural racism might be oblivious to these structures because they seem so normal. But one has to realize that the apparent harmless normalcy for some, means the continuous suffering for others.”

Idrissou Mora-Kpai

By following these characters, I witnessed for the first time first-hand how insidious these policies are on the most private lives of Black people. It allowed me to understand very concretely the subjective realities of very objective structures.

Documentary film is a wonderful tool to lay bare the connections between structural racism and the lived reality into its seemingly most insignificant moments of life. But, by its very nature, it requires time. It is so urgent to take this time, in order to dismantle fully these long-established and ossified structures.

Those of us who don’t directly suffer from structural racism might be oblivious to these structures because they seem so normal. But one has to realize that the apparent harmless normalcy for some, means the continuous suffering for others. Beyond the very praiseworthy declarations of support and BLM hashtags, we all need to commit to do this long-term work, even when it is difficult and uncomfortable.

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