By now, you’ve heard about the massacre at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina where nine people were murdered, including Clementa Pinckney, the pastor and a state senator. The alleged shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, wore the patches of white-supremacist regimes, told police that he wanted to start a race war, wrote a virulently racist manifesto, and reportedly said to one of the survivors, “You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country… you have to go.” So of course, conservative politicians and media outlets have hastened to declare that his motives are mysterious and unknowable:
“What causes young men such as Dylann Roof to erupt in homicidal rage, whatever their motivation, is a problem that defies explanation beyond the reality that evil still stalks humanity.” (Wall Street Journal editorial, via)
Jeb Bush commented, “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart” of the shooter, while South Carolina governor Nikki Haley added, “we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another” (both quotes via). Rick Perry went so far as to call the massacre “an accident“, though he’s since backpedaled.
Just as with misogynist killing sprees, there’s a tremendous reluctance in our society to see or admit the obvious, even when the evidence is shouting in our faces. This isn’t out of ignorance. It stems from motivated denial, because if America were to admit that racism hasn’t gone away, that might make us feel an obligation to do something about it. This is especially true for politicians who make tacit bargains to defend the interests of racist voters as long as their racism isn’t too obvious.
Even more offensive than the politicians who pretend to be bewildered are the culture-war pundits who proclaim that the Charleston shooting was another example of how faith is under attack in America. Rick Santorum, for instance, said it was an “assault on our religious liberty”. Lindsey Graham speculated that the killer was “looking for Christians to kill them“, while Fox News described it with the headline “Attack on Faith.This loathsome rhetoric, which all but rips the shrouds from the shoulders of the true victims, is a flagrant refusal to face up to how Christian belief has nurtured and encouraged racism throughout our country’s history. Our past is replete with instances of white Christians subjugating, assaulting and murdering black Christians, all while citing theological justifications for doing so. This should be no more surprising than Catholic inquisitors torturing Protestants, Islamist thugs killing other Muslims, or ultra-Orthodox Hasidim berating and abusing liberal Jewish women – it’s just one more instance of internecine warfare over what kind of political order God supposedly wants.
If we define terrorism as criminal violence in service of political goals, then the Charleston shooting was unquestionably a terrorist attack, and one that fits squarely into a long history of domestic terrorism in the name of God and the cause of white supremacy. After all, America’s first terrorist organization was the Ku Klux Klan, which dominated the South during the Reconstruction era, committing cross-burnings, lynchings and other acts of violence and intimidation to prevent black people from gaining political power. It was the KKK that murdered civil rights workers and bombed a black church in Birmingham in the 1960s, killing four little girls. Even as recently as the 1990s, an epidemic of arson attacks targeted black churches in South Carolina.
These two strands of thought – politicians who defend racist voters, and racism justified in the name of religion – come together in the Confederate battle flag, symbol of slavery and treason, that still flies over the South Carolina statehouse. As I’ve previously written, the Confederate states seceded to protect slavery, and appealed to religious belief to prove the rightness of their cause. The flag can’t be separated from that ugly history. Partisans claim it’s merely about “heritage”, but the heritage it stands for doesn’t deserve to be commemorated. Taking it down once and for all would be small recompense for all the blood that’s been spilled – but it might be the first step toward proving we’re finally ready to consign the stain of racism to the past where it belongs.