Growing up mostly in South Carolina, I was taught that racism is "ignorance," but I didn't really understand that use of the term. Clearly there were racists with fancy degrees, and silver-tongued haters who charmed voters to win high office.
They certainly knew things.
The ignorance that racism usually demands is that you do not come to know members of the race you hate as fully formed people who have lives and worries and good points and foibles like your own.
It is easy to hate black people if you are so inclined and have been taught to. It is harder to hate a black woman you know to be a hard worker named Helen. And it is nearly impossible to hate a woman named Helen when you get to know that she bursts with pride over her son's baseball prowess but worries about his grades, takes pride in her hair but knows her sweet potato pies are generally failures, has terrible back pain but gardens for the joy of it.
You could (and many do) decide Helen is the exception. I grew up with folks in the South and have met plenty more in the North who believe the statement, "I don't have any use for most blacks, but nobody better mess with Helen," shows they are not racist.
In fact, it proves they are.
But what happens when they get three Helens (and Henrys) in their lives, or 10? In their church and neighborhood, at the office, in the school and PTA, in the yard helping to cut a fallen branch, and then, eventually, in their hearts?
The "us" and "them" become "we." The myth of race as a predictor of behavior and virtue collapses. This works equally well whether it's whites coming to see blacks as people, or blacks doing so with whites.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley truly knew Democratic Sen. Clementa Pinckney. She served with him in the state's General Assembly from 2005-11 and continued to work with him as governor thereafter.
The same is true of the other senators and representatives in the state, including the white members, the Republicans . . . and the rednecks. Some had served with Pinckney for 15 years when he was gunned down, one of nine killed in the Charleston church where Pinckney was a pastor. A racist white man stands accused.
Many factors are influencing the changes we're seeing in South Carolina, most notably the attempt to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds. There is national pressure, but South Carolinians are legendarily unresponsive to that. There is Haley's enormous political ambition, and pressure on her from GOP presidential candidates and the party to end the controversy before they're crucified on it.
But these long-standing personal relationships are the most important ingredient.
If eight were lying dead and Pinckney was not one of them, I don't think we'd be seeing such a dramatic change in the politicians previously dead-set against removing the flag. They knew him as a friend and colleague. It matters.
That's what we saw with the speed at which attitudes on homosexuality changed in this country. So many who said, "I hate gay people," eventually heard, "But I'm your son (daughter, cousin, friend) and I'm gay," in response. And, after a time, said, "So, I guess don't hate gay people."
But black people and white people generally aren't awakened to the fact that a beloved friend or relative is a member of another race.
No law can fix this separateness that leads to racism, although laws can bring about more integrated schools and curtail discrimination in housing. Given that, and a million individual decisions to take the other into our lives and hearts, to turn "those people" into Helens, things could change.
As the nation mourns, I don't know of any other answers.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.