On Easter 1998, a 16-year-old white, Jewish “Ashley Hall girl” — my younger self — sat in the pews of Emanuel AME with my cohort from Operation Understanding.
Six African American and six white high school students sat side by side, in a church central to community organizing and activism since the era of slavery, learning about our differences and, more importantly, celebrating our connections.
Our races and exact religious beliefs were different, but we sat together with the intention of building common ground and building a generation of leaders who would help to eradicate discrimination in all of its disgusting forms.
But our difference had no bearing in that moment. Unified, awed voices singing a hymn filled the historic church’s high ceilings with a blend of sounds so harmonious that things like skin color briefly melted away. Love hung heavy in the church, like the humidity in Charleston’s air — the same air that runs through my blood even now that I live in Washington, D.C.
I sat with boys and girls who are now men and women (many of whom became public voices of inspiration to help promote equality and end discrimination): Clay Middleton, who has used his voice in the political world to serve South Carolina well; Amy Wyland, who advocates for equal rights; and Tonisha Bell-Alston — of blessed memory — who worked tirelessly to raise health awareness in the African American community through Closing the Gap in Health Care, just to name a few.
Today, a different sound resonates in Emanuel AME — the sound of deeply pained tears mourning the loss of great and innocent community members: Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Sharona Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson and Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr.
These irreparable losses were born out of the vicious hate of one man — a man whose beliefs mirror the hate of so many others and whose crime has many institutionalized cousins that we have seen clearly through the deaths of Michael Brown, Walter Scott and Freddie Gray.
Charleston runs thick in my veins. I bleed knowing that this hate still weaves its way through my city, my state, my country, my world.
How easy it is to be distracted by the beautiful architecture of our city. To be enchanted by the buildings we restore and preserve. To be awed by our progress and growth. To be charmed by the nice manners of our people. To enjoy the creative talents of our warm Charlestonians.
But hidden behind our picturesque front doors, we all have work to do to end the institutionalized acceptance of hate and to show that the love of all people is the progress that matters most.
We must make Charleston transcend the hate, bias and senseless violence pervasive in our society, first by taking a closer look at ourselves.
Start by asking yourself, “What are my internal biases and how can I confront them?” We all have internal biases. Do not ignore your own.
Explore and work to change any part of you that might harbor hate.
Encourage your friends and family to do so as well.
Visit the Implicit Project website https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html, where you can take tests to measure attitudes and beliefs you may be unwilling or unable to recognize.
None of us is immune to implicit bias.
My racial IAT (Implicit Associations Test) revealed that I have a slight bias toward light-skinned people.
I will use that result to question my reactions in everyday situations in order to change that piece of myself.
Then ask, “How can I be vocal with my support of my Charleston brothers and sisters?”
Then, do it.
You don’t need permission. You don’t need any reason other than it’s the right thing to do.
In 1962, in Emanuel AME, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of making the “American dream a reality” — a dream of freedom and the opportunity for upward mobility for all people. We must not let the pursuit of that dream slip away.
As my father, Jerry Zucker, so often told me, we must not stand idly by. We must take a stand. I charge each of you to take that stand by not tolerating hate in the closest quarters of one’s self or in one’s family, friends, colleagues, or community institutions.
I send my deepest condolences to the families of the victims of this despicable crime.
We must make out dear Charleston as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside, so I hope you will join me in vowing not be a bystander to hate, not yours and not mine.
Andrea Zucker is outreach ambassador for Nexus Youth Summit.