Terrorism in Charleston: It's About Racism, Stupid!

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The following written on a cardboard box, "terrorism / noun / 1. the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes".

Credit: CreativeCommons / Jagz Mario.

While all available evidence points to Dylann Storm Roof’s racist motives in his admitted mass murder of 9 worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday evening, June 17, in Charleston, South Carolina, still, a number of conservative Republican politicians frame the tragedy as either something we can never truly understand, or primarily as an attack on Christians, Christianity, and religious liberty.
According to South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley: “While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”
Well, Governor Haley, I believe that in most instances of terrorism directed against houses of worship in the United States, the attackers’ motives were crystal clear: white supremacism!
A bomb ripped apart the 16th Street Baptist Church, a historically African American church, in 1963 just before Sunday morning services killing 4 young black girls and injuring many others. The Church also served as a meeting place for area civil rights leaders in a city with “one of the strongest and most violent chapters of the Ku Klux Klan.” An avowed neo-Nazi murdered three people in a pair of shootings at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and at Village Shalom, a Jewish retirement center. A 40-year-old white supremacist killed six people and wounded four others at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012.
A number of Republican political leaders went further than Governor Haley in speculating on the motives of the 21-year-old Charleston terrorist. For example, former Pennsylvania Senator and recurring Republican Party presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum, connected the tragedy to an ongoing attack in this country on religious liberty: “You talk about the importance of prayer in this time, and we’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before. It’s a time for deeper reflection beyond this horrible situation.”
Current South Carolina Senator and presidential candidate, Lindsey Graham, distrusts those who claim that the shooter’s actions should be defined as a “hate crime.” Graham speculated that other motives beside “race” must be considered: “There are real people who are organized out there to kill people in religion and based on race, this guy’s just whacked out. But it’s 2015. There are people out there looking for Christians to kill them.”
Fox News TV host Steve Doocy expressed surprise and shock that some describe the church murders as a “hate crime.” Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, appearing on Doocy’s show, seemed perplexed over the shooter’s motivations: “We have no idea what’s in his mind. Maybe he hates Christian churches. Maybe he hates black churches, or he’s gonna go find another one. Who knows?”
Well, if these politicians stopped long enough to extract their heads from the sandy depths from where they stuck them, asked themselves some important questions, and looked at the statements and facts as we know them, they would understand the pattern of racism that emerges regarding the shooter’s motives and purposes.
What are the possible reasons why this young man drove approximately 2 hours from his home in Columbia, South Carolina to this particular house of worship, carrying with him the pistol he purchased himself?
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has a historic and proud tradition as the oldest AME church in the south, referred to as “Mother Emanuel.” Founded in 1816, some individual or group burned the Church down in 1822 as a suspected meeting place for individuals planning a revolt against slavery. People continued to worship in other locations until they rebuilt their church. In 1834, the white legislature outlawed all black churches, and congregants worshiped in secret until 1865 when they officially reorganized their Church under the name “Emanuel.”
John Mullins, a high school friend, said that the admitted shooter “had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say, strong conservative beliefs. He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that.” A friend from Middle School, Joseph Meek, Jr., said that the shooter told him a few weeks ago that “…blacks were taking over the world. Someone needed to do something about it for the white race.” And Dalton Tyler, who knew the shooter for about a year, stated: “He said he was planning for about six months to do something crazy. He was big into segregation and other stuff. He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself.”
On his Facebook page, the young gunman is seen wearing a military-style jacket with insignia patches of flags of apartheid South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia (today known as Zimbabwe). In another picture, he is seen waving a Confederate flag, and in another, he is standing holding a burning American flag. In addition, he posed for pictures wearing a T-shirt with the number 88 printed on the front, he had 88 Facebook friends, and he scribbled that number in the South Carolina sand. “H” is the 8th letter in the alphabet, and in white supremacist circles, “88” is code for “Heil Hitler.”
According to one of the murderer’s family members: “He apparently told people that he was involved in groups, racist groups.” The shooter reportedly told one of the survivors of his massacre in order for her to report the incident first hand, in glaringly stereotypical racist terms, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.” He told one of the police officers following his capture in Shelby, North Carolina that he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him,” but that he still “had to go through with his mission.”
Later, police officials found his racist manifesto on his internet page, including this section:
“N**gers are stupid and violent. At the same time they have the capacity to be very slick. Black people view everything through a racial lense [sic]….I wish with a passion that n**gers were treated terribly throughout history by Whites, that every White person had an ancestor who owned slaves, that segregation was an evil, an oppressive institution, and so on.”
All indications present in stark and glaring terms that his “mission” was not to kill Christians, per se. Rather, he was bent on killing black people, period! To spin this tragedy as anti-Christian, or even as just the actions of one “mentally ill” young man, and not to see it as anything but a demented hate-filled domestic terrorist who grew up in a racism-saturated community, state (which still to this day flies the flag of the Confederacy on its capital grounds), and country who believed he was fighting a battle to maintain white supremacy by killing unarmed black people would be to inflict even greater pain and insult upon the memory of the good and caring souls who were taken from us too soon, upon their families, and upon all people of color of this nation.
Most white supremacist organizations, including Neo-Nazis and the KKK, claim to base their philosophy and tactics on Christian theology in “defending” the so-called white “race.” These groups do not commit their hate crimes to defeat Christianity, but rather they represent extremist outliers of Christianity who misrepresent Christian teachings. The leader of the Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan rejects the label “hate group” to represent his organization because, “[W]e’re a Christian organization.” And for many of these groups Adolph Hitler is a “spiritual” leader because in his 1925 bookMein Kampf(My Struggle), in addition to “racial” justifications, he advanced Christian religious arguments for his eventual genocidal slaughter of the Jewish people: “Today,” Hitler write, “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
So I ask these Republican politicians, as well as those who had first-hand knowledge of the mind of this mass murderer: pick up your heads, brush off the sand, take a deep breath, and enter the conversation that must take place if our nation is ever to begin to heal from the deep and tragic wounds of white supremacy on which our country was conceived, our “original sin” if you wish to frame it in Biblical terms.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author with Diane Raymond of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).