The American way of racism that made a killer

June 24, 2015

Right-wing politicians and commentators instinctively tried to deny that racism was behind the Charleston massacre. Nicole Colson and Alan Maass look at the hard truth.

BY NOW, everyone knows about Dylann Roof, the young white supremacist who murdered nine African Americans inside Charleston's Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church after first sitting with them for Bible study for over an hour.

The online manifesto apparently authored by Roof--discovered at a website called "The Last Rhodesian," a reference to the country name that modern-day Zimbabwe bore under white colonial rule--is a toxic stew of racism and bizarre fantasy about the supposed threat that Blacks pose to whites in the U.S. Along with the ravings are numerous photos of Roof holding the Confederate flag and other racist insignias, posing in front of Confederate historical sites, and engaged in macho posturing with a gun.

Roof saw himself as a soldier, striking a blow for his race against "inferior" Blacks. "You rape our women and are taking over our country," he reportedly told his victims as he began his killing spree, recycling the racist charge used for centuries to justify lynchings and other forms of racist violence.

Dylann Roof poses with a Confederate flag and handgun
Dylann Roof poses with a Confederate flag and handgun

While the mainstream media were quick to label Roof a disaffected and mentally ill exception--never mind that the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victims of violent crimes than to commit them--the question we should be asking is: What drove Roof to embrace such vile hate and to commit such a despicable act?

The following point can't be said often enough or too loudly: Racism is not a mental illness, but a social one--and it infects the U.S. at its very core.

We can't just mourn the victims of the Charleston massacre--we need to recommit ourselves to the struggle against racism, and challenge all the sources of bigotry that fed Roof's hate.

ROOF'S MANIFESTO is quite candid about how he developed his racist worldview. The key moment of his "radicalization" began with the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Black teenager murdered by self-styled vigilante George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, in 2012.

Roof decided that Martin deserved to die.

Martin's murder and the subsequent acquittal of Zimmerman launched the first protests and actions of what has become the Black Lives Matter movement. But Trayvon's murder also galvanized a response in the opposite direction--from the right-wing (and not-so-right-wing) media that smeared Martin as a "thug," blaming him for his own murder; from racists who raised thousands of dollars for Zimmerman's legal defense; and more.

The Black Lives Matter movement has succeeded in drawing attention to the epidemic of police abuse and racist violence. Yet in the wake of Dylann Roof's heinous assault, a large section of the media and U.S. political figures displayed an almost pathological desire to downplay the role of racism in this crime.

The immediate reaction of the motley pack of Republican presidential hopefuls is instructive. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry declared the shooting to be an "accident," possibly caused by "medication" that Roof could have been taking. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham insisted that it was "Christians," not African Americans, who were under attack.

"There are people out there, looking for Christians, to kill them," Graham said on The View. "[I]t's not a window into the soul of South Carolina. It's not who we are, it's not who our country is, it's about this guy."

Never mind that the same Confederate flag that Dylann Roof posed with still flies on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse. Or the celebrations of the Confederacy that still take place each year--or the monuments to the slave-owners of the old South that litter the state.

LINDSEY GRAHAM couldn't be more wrong. South Carolina doesn't have organized groups of people looking to "kill Christians." It does have plenty of them looking to physically harm and otherwise abuse and brutalize African Americans.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the state is home to 19 known hate groups, including two factions of the Ku Klux Klan and several neo-Confederate and white nationalist groups.

A slightly--very slightly--more respectable hate group is the Council of Concerned Citizens (CofCC), which Roof explicitly cited for helping to shape his twisted views. According to Roof, an Internet search led him to the CofCC website, which listed "pages upon pages of brutal black [sic] on White [sic] murders...I have never been the same since that day."

The CofCC evolved from the pro-segregation white Citizens Councils in the pre-civil rights South. The latter-day organization makes no secret of its opposition to "race mixing," its belief that racism is divinely ordained and its fondness for the era of slavery. Kyle Rogers, a CofCC board member who heads the group's South Carolina chapter, stated in 2012 that "slaves who were taken to the United States hit the slave lottery."

After Dylann Roof's rampage, the group announced in a statement that while it condemned his killings, they shouldn't "detract from the legitimacy of some of the positions [Roof] has expressed." The group's leader Earl Holt III added: "The CofCC is hardly responsible for the actions of this deranged individual merely because he gleaned accurate information from our website."

So the group's unrepentant bigotry is not exactly a secret. But that hasn't stopped the Republican Party establishment from buddying up to the CofCC.

It came to light this week that Earl Holt III has given more than $65,000 in donations to Republicans over the years--including recent donations to presidential hopefuls Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Rick Santorum, and past donations to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and one-time presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

The CofCC's political connections go back a ways, reported the New York Times:

Among those who have addressed its meetings were Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, at one time the Senate majority leader; Haley Barbour, a former national Republican chairman who was campaigning for governor in Mississippi at the time; and Mike Huckabee, the presidential candidate who was then Arkansas' lieutenant governor. More recently, Gov. Nikki R. Haley of South Carolina dropped a council official in her state, Roan Garcia-Quintana, from her re-election campaign's advisory committee in 2013 after his ties to the group became public.

Haley may be tending to her image, but for his part, Barbour is on record saying, in an interview with the Weekly Standard in 2010: "Up north, they think [the CofCC] was like the KKK. Where I come from, it was an organization of town leaders."

THE REPUBLICAN Party may pander to open bigots like the CofCC, but that's not the only source of the virulent racism that shaped Dylann Roof.

For almost half a century--since the years following the major triumphs of the civil rights movement against legal segregation in the mid-1960s--racism in U.S. politics has come most often in a different form: not open statements of white supremacy, but coded language designed to win over white voters. Blatant expressions of anti-Black racism became taboo in mainstream politics and beyond, but the coming era was dominated by racially charged rhetoric about "welfare cheats," "urban crime" and the "scourge of drugs."

Writing for Socialist Worker, author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explained how Richard Nixon and his 1968 presidential campaign served as a model for the Republican Party:

Attacking the Black movement as "criminal" became the centerpiece of this strategy. Black political struggles, from civil rights to urban rebellions, were accused of creating a growing sense of chaos, disorder and crime in American cities. This was conveyed through perpetual references to "urban crime" or "urban disorder." There were more banal appeals around "urban problems," but the inference was clear--Blacks were the cause.

Nixon's cynical use of race was only the beginning. A succession of American politicians--from both major parties--regularly invoked racist stereotypes that conflated social problems found in all inner cities with Black life. These, in turn, became the touchstone for all that was and remains wrong with American society, according to the politicians: drugs, crime, welfare, teen pregnancy, homeless and poverty.

Ronald Reagan mastered this strategy to carry out his "supply-side economics" agenda of government spending cuts and tax breaks for the rich--what today goes under the rubric of "neoliberalism." Reagan regularly invoked fictions about "welfare queens" living the good life on too-generous government benefits as an excuse for trimming back "big government." The imaginary "welfare queens" were assumed to be Black, even though--then as now--the majority of welfare recipients were white.

Republicans may have pioneered the strategy, but they had plenty of help from the so-called opposition. Even as its African American figures grew in number and stature, the Democratic Party joined in with its own version of coded racism.

In his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton went out of his way to prove he wasn't beholden to "special interests"--read, liberal constituencies like African Americans or unions. He left the campaign trail to preside over the execution of a mentally disabled Black man, Ricky Ray Rector, and he manufactured a complaint about hip hop artist Sister Souljah to brandish at an event sponsored by Rev. Jesse Jackson.

In office, Clinton betrayed his liberal supporters with a long trail of broken promises. His accomplishments, on the other hand, included collaborating with the Republican Congress to abolish the federal welfare system, going far beyond anything Reagan could accomplish. Clinton's two federal anti-crime laws were the most important factors in detonating the era of mass incarceration described by author Michelle Alexander as the "New Jim Crow."

Racism was critical to the conservative shift in U.S. politics and to the neoliberal offensive to transfer wealth from working people to corporations and the rich. But it was expressed in code words and stereotypes that allowed the political and media establishment to pander to bigotry, but maintain the fiction that we now live in a "post-racial" era.

But racism in camouflage was no less deadly and destructive. It gave George Zimmerman the excuse to confront and murder Trayvon Martin. It produced the hyper-militarized police forces that abuse, brutalize and murder like an occupying army in Black communities. And it also helped shape a monster in Charleston, South Carolina, who lashed out at Black churchgoers for using their alleged advantages to "take over our country."

REGULAR READERS of will know the statistics proving that life in Black America is anything but an "advantage." African American unemployment runs constantly--relentlessly--at twice the rate for whites. After the Great Recession struck, Black poverty rose to one in four people living below the government's official poverty line. The effects of police violence and the injustice system are even more lopsidedly endured by African Americans.

Yet this lived daily experience is in striking contrast to the hesitancy of politicians and the media to see Dylann Roof's racist hate as emblematic of a deeper problem in the U.S.

On the contrary, the Wall Street Journal managed to claim, in its editorial on the Charleston massacre, that today's America is post-racial. Referring to the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four Black girls, the Journal proclaimed:

Amid the horror of Charleston, it is also important to note that the U.S., notably the South, has moved forward to replace the system that enabled racist killings like those in the Birmingham church.

Back then and before, the institutions of government--police, courts, organized segregation--often worked to protect perpetrators of racially motivated violence, rather than their victims.

The universal condemnation of the murders at the Emanuel AME Church and Dylann Roof's quick capture by the combined efforts of local, state and federal police is a world away from what President Obama recalled as "a dark part of our history." Today the system and philosophy of institutionalized racism identified by [Dr. Martin Luther King] no longer exists.

The editorial concludes on the comforting note that Americans can take "solace that in committing such an act today, [Dylann Roof] stands alone."

It's no surprise that the country's most famous mouthpiece for Corporate America would want to write off the relevance of the grievances of the civil rights era. In fact, King's eulogy after the Birmingham bombing was a stirring call to conscience for those who would continue to ignore the daily indignities, abuses and violence of a racist system. The four girls, King stated:

have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. They have something to say to a federal government that has compromised with the undemocratic practices of Southern Dixiecrats and the blatant hypocrisy of right-wing northern Republicans. They have something to say to every Negro who has passively accepted the evil system of segregation and who has stood on the sidelines in a mighty struggle for justice.

They say to each of us, Black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.

Likewise, the nine people killed by Dylann Roof--Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Cynthia Hurd, Myra Thompson, Daniel Simmons Sr. and DePayne Middleton Doctor--are proof that we must still "substitute courage for caution." And there is nothing more threatening to some than that their murders might be a call to action against "the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced" Dylan Roof.

REV. CLEMENTA PINCKNEY, better known in Charleston as "Clem," was at the Mother Emanuel Church on the evening of June 17 to lead a Bible study and prayer session. He was a senior pastor at the church, just like many generations before him on his mother's side of the family.

Clem Pinckney was also an activist for racial justice--like his ancestors. Like his great-grandfather Rev. Lorenzo Stevenson, who filed a lawsuit against the South Carolina Democratic Party to end non-integrated party primaries. Like his uncle, Rev. Levern Stevenson who organized during the civil rights era to win desegregation of school buses.

Pinckney was elected by Charleston voters to serve as a member of the state House of Representatives from 1997 to 2000, and then the state Senate from 2001 on. Weeks before he was murdered by Dylann Roof, state Sen. Pinckney delivered a speech in the statehouse calling for legislative action after the murder of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer.

Invoking the Biblical story of the doubting Thomas, Pinckney talked about those who refused to believe that a police officer would shoot an unarmed man in the back for the "crime" of running away:

Ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, when we first heard on the television that a police officer had gunned down an unarmed African American in North Charleston by the name of Walter Scott, there were some who said, "Wow. The national story has come home to South Carolina." But there were many who said, "There is no way that a police officer would ever shoot somebody in the back six, seven, eight, times."

But like Thomas, when we were able to see the video, and we were able to see the gunshots, and when we saw him fall to the ground, and when we saw the police officer come and handcuff him on the ground, without even trying to resuscitate him, without even seeing if he was really alive, without calling an ambulance, without calling for help, and to see him die face down in the ground as if he were gunned down like game, I believe we all were like Thomas, and said, "I believe."

After the mass murder in Charleston, it's up to us to say that we, too, believe--that we are sickened by the racism at the heart of U.S. system, and that we will oppose it in every way that we can.

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