“The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guy is the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him.” That’s Jon Stewart on Wednesday’s horrific shooting inside Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal in Charleston, S.C. As we struggle to understand this incident, we gathered a few thoughtful analyses of what this story tells us about the deeper foundations of racial hatred in America.
Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie writes about how the “specter of black rape” has long been used to excuse white violence against black people. A witness reported that Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old shooter, told his victims that he was going to kill them because, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” Bouie brings up the work of journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who in the 1890s reported on how Southern newspapers were using this fear to justify lynching laws:
As Wells-Barnett would show, however, there was no substance to the charge. “The world knows that the crime of rape was unknown during four years of civil war, when the white women of the South were at the mercy of the race which is all at once charged with being a bestial one,” she writes. In reality, these accusations of rape were often covers for consensual—and taboo—relationships between black men and white women. “Whites could not countenance the idea of a white woman desiring sex with a Negro, thus any physical relationship between a white woman and a black man had, by definition, to be an unwanted assault,” writes historian Philip Dray, describing Wells-Barnett’s argument in his book At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America.
Much of the conversation about the motives for Roof’s rampage has brought up speculations on Roof’s state of mind and mental illness. However, at Huffington Post Black Voices, Julia Craven explains what’s wrong with using mental illness as an excuse for white mass acts of violence.
When white people go on shooting sprees, their actions are frequently attributed to mental illness and, thus, they’re not considered fully accountable for the harm they’ve inflicted. This narrative — which is not afforded to people of color — feeds into the assumption that incidents like what happened at Emanuel AME Church are isolated tragedies executed by lone gunmen. Essentially, it excuses the system that allows racialized terrorism to keep happening.
Racism is not a mental illness. Unlike actual mental illnesses, it is taught and instilled. Mental illness was not the state policy of South Carolina, or any state for that matter, for hundreds of years — racism was. Assuming actions grounded in racial biases are irrational not only neutralizes their impact, it also paints the perpetrator as a victim.
At The Root, Kirsten West Savali slams media attempts to humanize Roof and portray him as simply misguided; an argument news outlets have made that attempts to negate that the attack was not simply gun violence, but the reality of racism in America.
True to form, a mainstream media complex crafted to perpetuate white supremacy has quoted family members describing Roof as “quiet and soft spoken” and his sadistic smile has been described by media as “baby-faced.”
Over at Quartz, Morgan Jerkins explains why we can “no longer coddle white people” from the fact that Roof’s attack was racially motivated.
Let us be clear: This was a hate crime, exacted upon a community that has been fighting for the will to live freely in this country for over 400 years. This was domestic terrorism, designed to inflict fear and suffering and pain. Any conversation about race in America need to be centered around this fundamental truth, not on imposters and their pseudo-philosophical views on identity.
This story is still developing.