|Dylann Roof - Suspect|
Monday, 22 June 2015
U.S Charleston Church Shooting: ''We Avoid the Word Terrorism When The Victims are Black...''
Terrorism, at least in our national imagination, springs from an ideology of insurgence. Terrorism is radical. It seeks to upset and overturn a society, and to shake it to its foundations. But in America, there are few ideologies less insurgent than the doctrine of white supremacy.
Dylann Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder and one charge of weapons possession after the horrific shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday night, and has reportedly said that his shootings were intended to start a race war. Since then, much has been made about the semantics of whether to call the massacre an act of terrorism, a hate crime or a mass shooting – and whether any of these terms are mutually exclusive.
On Thursday night, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart – perhaps the closest thing there is to the voice of liberal white America’s collective conscience – unqualifiedly declared the shooting an act of terrorism and skewered “the disparity of response between when we think people that are foreign are going to kill us and us killing ourselves.” Stewart is right, of course: if Roof had brown skin and a Muslim-sounding name, there would be no national conversation about just what to call the Charleston shootings.
But the rush to pin some people’s unwillingness to call the killings an act of terror on a subconscious bias towards or against the individual who committed the act obscures another important factor in how we choose to interpret, and in turn, identify them.
Roof’s alleged acts were, by all indications, driven by a violent and extremist interpretation of an ideology that is as old as America itself. The murder of nine innocent black people because of their race doesn’t cut against the American grain in the same way that the spectre of Islamist terrorism does – it rides the grain all the way to its logical conclusion.
Roof’s reportedly declared motivation – that black people “rape our women” and are “taking over our country” – are some of the most durable rhetorical pillars of America’s centuries-long entanglement with the doctrine of white supremacy. After emancipation and the end of the American civil war, the competing mythic caricatures of the black male as a violent rapacious “buck” or a docile “sambo” collapsed violently into the former. The lynching era, which claimed thousands of black lives, was predicated predominantly on the notion that white femininity needed to be protected from the threat of hypersexual black males.
And during reconstruction as blacks struggled to gain and use the franchise, whites began to feel keenly the political implications of having outnumbered themselves with human chattel property. Nowhere was this more true than South Carolina, where blacks made up 57% of the population, according to the 1860 US census.
Charleston was one of several southern cities – New Orleans, Norfolk and Atlanta were others – where throughout the 1860s, threatened by the prospect of becoming a minority to an “inferior” black population, whites rioted and invaded black neighborhoods to attack men, women and children. Only in the largest incidents have history books even bothered to record the damage, like the 48 murdered and 166 injured in New Orleans in 1866.
That same year, when a band of whites killed 46 black people in Memphis, the Memphis Avalanche opined that, “the late riots in our city have satisfied one thing: that southern men will not be ruled by the negro … The negroes now know, to their sorrow, that it is best not to arouse the fury of the white man.”
It’s unknown, as yet, whether Dylann Roof planned his attack to coincide with the 193rd anniversary of Denmark Vesey’s failed 1822 slave revolt in Charleston, or with Juneteenth (the celebration, on 19 June, of the emancipation of America’s last enslaved people), or if both are a mere coincidence. Vesey’s role in founding the Emanuel AME church, certainly seems to hint at a connection with the former. What we can tell from the patches on his jacket celebrating apartheid in South Africa and the minority-white ruled, defunct state of Rhodesia, is that Roof clearly felt some connection to a time and place in which white power over black people was near-total and understood as natural. He may have felt that the wholesale slaughter of nine black people was the way to act on that feeling; he allegedly intended to use that slaughter to start a larger war.
That’s terrorism any way you slice it – but in the long view of American history, it’s certainly not insurgent, revolutionary or new. Using the word “terrorism” to describe violence exclusively against America’s non-white people is a historical first, but the terror visited exclusively upon America’s non-white people is not.