© Josh Sager – June 2015
Last week, a right wing terrorist named Dylann Roof entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston South Carolina with a gun, and murdered 9 worshipers in cold blood. He waited for over an hour inside of the church, and even commented on just how nice his impending victims were to him—so much so that he almost decided not to kill them all. During the shooting, he left one woman alive to tell people what happened and to tell the story of the killing spree to the public.
Roof was captured and is now being charged with 9 counts of 1st degree murder and a weapons charge (although, this is likely irrelevant in the face of the potential death sentence he is likely to receive for the murders). He confessed his crime once in custody and it is very likely that he will try to plead guilty in order to avoid a death sentence rather than risk a trial.
This awful crime was motivated by racism and was an attempt to spark a race war in order to re-institute segregation and kick most black people out of the country. While Roof hasn’t had a chance to talk to anybody but his lawyers yet, we know this due to a manifesto that has surfaced since the crime and his long history of online white supremacist activity.
The Charleston shooting is a nexus of extremely important issues that are often very difficult to talk about in this country. Among other things, it demonstrates a double standard on the definition of terrorism, the terrible racial conflicts still going on our nation, and the real-life consequences of hate-based political rhetoric.
Terrorism vs. Hate Crime?
First, I see a lot of debate in the media over whether Dylann Roof committed a hate crime or a terrorist act—this debate is semantic and illustrates a massive double standard.
A hate crime consists of violence aimed at a specific minority group within a population (ex. African Americans, gays, etc.) in an attempt to terrorize or intimidate. Often, it is intended to reinforce the oppression of that group or dissuade them from accessing all of the rights available to them under the law (ex. the KKK). In effect, hate crimes are a sub-set of terrorism that targets a minority group rather than a government, and there is no realistic situation where they don’t fit all of the relevant criteria for terrorism.
Despite this simple fact, the media is forced to parse terminology when a white person commits an act of terrorism because the American perception of a terrorist is almost always a “foreign” entity (ex. Muslims). When a white person commits an act of terrorism, we are far more likely to call it a crime or simply a product of a disturbed individual who is to irrational to represent a coherent ideology.
One concrete example of this can easily be seen in contrasting the Charlie Hebdo coverage with the coverage of this shooting: When two Muslim gunmen stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices and killed 12 individuals in order to retaliate for “dishonoring” their religion, the media immediately ran with the story as an example of terrorism. The idea that we should debate whether the attack was truly terrorism, or just a crime never even entered the public discourse.
This double standard is not just rhetorical and has had very real consequences on our criminal justice system. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security released a report indicating that the largest domestic security threat facing our nation comes from the extreme right. They specifically identified sovereign citizens, extreme-Christians, and militarized militia groups as the largest threats. This report was met with absolute outrage by the right wing and accusations that the DHS was being used to target anti-Obama groups (despite the fact that it was commissioned by the outgoing Bush administration). Unfortunately, the DHS and Obama administration backed down to this outrage and retracted the report.
Earlier this year, a second report was released, reiterating the threats posed by the extreme right, yet this was largely ignored.
The Shadow of the Confederacy
Put simply, the modern right wing has allowed itself to become so extreme that it is now becoming a danger to the nation at large. In order to attract grassroots activists and supporters for pro-rich and corporatist policies, the modern right wing has adopted religious and cultural ideals that attract the intellectual descendants of the old Confederacy. They hate “federal overreach” hold racist (overt or dog whistle) cultural beliefs, think that government should be fused with their religious institutions, and have an inherent nationalism/xenophobia that makes them look down on large portions of the population.
While Dylann Roof is an extreme example of this demographic because of his actions, his core ideology isn’t actually that far outside the Republican mainstream. If you actually deconstruct Roof’s manifesto, you see that his motivations are largely culled from the “mainstream” of the right wing media.
The following quotes are taken from Roof’s manifesto. They are offensive, contain derogatory language, and promote a disgusting ideology. Many people may not support sharing these quotes because doing so gives them oxygen, but I disagree. If we ignore this ideology it is allowed to fester on the outskirts of society and creep back into the mainstream in slightly veiled language. However, if we confront these ideas directly and point out where they are trying to infiltrate society, we can take steps to inoculate the population from this type of propaganda.
1) Roof points out the massive “problem” of black on white crime:
“The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?”
This has been a running trope in the right wing media for years. Fox News has regularly done segments on the fictional “epidemic” of black on white violence, ranging in severity from the fictional “knockout game” and “voter intimidation” by Black Panthers standing in front of a polling place, to instances where black criminals murder white victims.
In reality, a vast majority (80+%) of crimes are intra-racial and involve people victimizing members of the same race. This is simply caused by the fact that we live in a fairly segregated society, and people tend to do crimes on those living in their vicinity.
2) Roof argues that racism is just African Americans being too sensitive about race:
“Niggers are stupid and violent. At the same time they have the capacity to be very slick. Black people view everything through a racial lense. Thats what racial awareness is, its viewing everything that happens through a racial lense. They are always thinking about the fact that they are black. This is part of the reason they get offended so easily, and think that some thing are intended to be racist towards them, even when a White person wouldnt be thinking about race.”
Whenever accusations of racism are levied against a public figure or institution, the right wing media begins arguing this very point (replacing the profanity with a thin veneer of dog-whistles). They argue that racism is over in the United States and that the black population is just too sensitive and looks too far into issues to find racism. Oftentimes, they call people who bring these issues up “race hustlers” and try to discredit them by arguing that they are just creating racism in order to gain press.
3) Roof minimizes the history of slavery in the USA and the brutality of the institution:
“I have read hundreds of slaves narratives from my state. And almost all of them were positive. One sticks out in my mind where an old ex-slave recounted how the day his mistress died was one of the saddest days of his life. And in many of these narratives the slaves told of how their masters didnt even allowing whipping on his plantation.”
The modern right has done everything in its power to minimize our nation’s history of slavery and the impact of slavery on the black population. In fact, the right wing Texas schoolboard to eliminate slavery from the textbooks altogether, while promoting the history of the Confederacy as an honorable fight against big-government overreach. This has also effected the right wing reaction to depictions of slavery, like when numerous right wing pundits and media outlets (ex. the American Spectator), were outraged at the 12 Years a Slave movie because it didn’t show the kinder side of slavery (no, I am not joking—the article actually includes the following sentence: “If ever in slavery’s 250-year history in North America there were a kind master or a contented slave, as in the nature of things there must have been, here and there, we may be sure that Mr McQueen does not want us to hear about it”).
In a connected point, Roof joins the rest of the right wing in promoting the idea that education is “anti-white” for pointing out the historic crimes committed by whites on other groups:
“In a modern history class it is always emphasized that, when talking about “bad” things Whites have done in history, they were White. But when we lern about the numerous, almost countless wonderful things Whites have done, it is never pointed out that these people were White.”
4) Roof believes in pseudo-scientific justifications for racism and believes that the scientific establishment is just discriminating against scientists who point out the truth:
“Negroes have lower Iqs, lower impulse control, and higher testosterone levels in generals. These three things alone are a recipe for violent behavior. If a scientist publishes a paper on the differences between the races in Western Europe or Americans, he can expect to lose his job.”
The right wing has long-supported ideologically-driven researchers who try to justify racism or xenophobia. In addition to regularly promoting anti-Muslim activists as “experts” on terrorism within the right wing media, the GOP has wrapped its arms around racists like Charles Murray (who wrote the famous “Bell Curve” book that used skewed statistics to argue that IQ is racially stratified, with whites inherently higher than Blacks or Hispanics). Whenever people try to discredit these individuals, the right wing media makes Roof’s exact bias argument.
5) Roof supports segregation and wants to ban race mixing.
“Segregation was not a bad thing. It was a defensive measure. Segregation did not exist to hold back negroes. It existed to protect us from them.”
While many Americans like to think that fights over segregation and interracial relationships are over, the polling refutes this belief. Just to put this into perspective: several years ago, a poll of Mississippi Republicans indicated that 46% of respondents wanted to criminalize interracial marriage (and this is just the group that was willing to say that in public).
Large portions of the right wing media promote a thinly veiled narrative of hatred, racism, and insurrection against the federal government. They demand that “real Americans” organize and work to regain a mythic “America” from a bygone era, while demonizing anybody who doesn’t fit into this perfect society (ex. blacks, immigrants, feminists, gays, etc.). While this narrative is not inherently violent, it does create a very real danger when it mixes with unstable individuals and easy access to guns.
Unstable Americans who are bombarded with an endless stream of such rhetoric see “other” groups of Americans as inferior and a threat, thus take violent action. More rational bigots may decide to do lesser acts of aggression against these “others” (ex. vandalism), people like Roof have the potential to translate bigotry into catastrophe.
If we want to prevent the creation of future violent racists, society must work to debunk the talking points that underpin their violent motives. We must not let the institutions that promote these racist ideas just raise their hands and shrug when presented with the consequences of their rhetoric. These institutions should be ostracized, divested from, and marginalized as propagandists of a toxic worldview that doesn’t have a place in the 21st century.