Evading the question of race in the Charleston shooting perpetuates the problem


The Appalachian Online

Kevin Griffin

Unbelievably and yet unsurprisingly, the reaction to the mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston embodies so many of the outrageous evasions that characterize America’s discussions of race.

The morning after the shooting, a Fox News guest and host Steve Doocy attempted to portray the issue as a case of violence against Christians.

South Carolina senator and presidential candidate Lindsey Graham similarly referenced the crime as being against Christians in an interview on The View.

While there are many things about the motives that we do not know, it is absurd with the information we have now to deny the racial motive behind the attack.

Dylann Roof, the suspect in the shooting, chose one of the oldest and most significant black churches in the country as the site of the crime. The church had strong connections to the abolition and civil rights movements.

Roof was quoted in a New York Times article as saying during the shooting: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

A Facebook profile picture uncovered by the New York Times shows him wearing a jacket which bears South Africa’s apartheid-era flag.

To see this as anything other than a hate crime  is to willfully ignore the facts at hand.

Unfortunately, the tendency to downplay or downright avoid the level of racism in our country’s present society is something many white Americans do all the time.

For many white people, there seems to be an idea that a great deal of progress has been made on race relations since the time of the civil rights movement.

However, as black Americans voices have grown louder and the Black Lives Matter movement has gained a greater national profile, it is becoming clear that conceptions of progress are often illusory. It seems that the illusions of progress are something white Americans like to believe to make themselves feel better about the actual racial situation in the country.

Anyone who looks honestly at the history of our country can see numerous cases of racism, from slavery to segregation to widespread lynching. Knowing that history, why is it so hard to believe that racism would still play a significant role in society?

One narrative that has emerged in light of the shooting is that Roof is a psychopath, echoing the familiar labels assigned to white individuals who commit acts of mass violence.

Unlike the claims of Christian persecution, this psychopath claim has some justification. After all, it is hard to describe someone who was apparently able to sit among a group of people for an hour before killing nine of them as anything but a psychopath.

Roof may very well be a psychopath, but simply settling on that explanation obscures a truth much more relevant to the situation.

A February report from the Equal Justice Initiative touched on the history of lynching in the United States.

LIke many previous reports on the subject, it discussed the fact that lynchings often became public gatherings in which entire white communities would come together to view the event as a form of entertainment. Body parts of the murdered individuals were often “collected as souvenirs.”

Were all those people who attended lynchings psychopaths? Maybe, but it is more useful to think of it less as a case of individual pathology than as a deeply ingrained cultural sickness.

Issues like slavery and the Jim Crow era are often characterized in sweeping historical terms that it is easy to lose track of the fact that these time periods were a daily reality of brutality and subjugation. Violent, oppressive racism was a normal state of affairs that generations of white Americans were taught was absolutely natural.

By no means do I think that all white Americans are racist, but I do believe that the culture of racism in our society obscures the way people see the world, even for people who do not hold overtly racist beliefs.

Given that history, is it really so hard to believe that a young, white male growing up in the South picked up some pretty insane and despicable ideas about the world, about people who are “different?”

The speculation that Roof had connections with fringe hate groups  — while certainly a worthy area of investigation  — also masks the issues.

While everyday forms of overt and subtle racism may not lead to violence in and of themselves, they certainly produce a state of mind in which the ravings of hate groups do not seem quite so insane.

Again, in the coming days and weeks we will become more fully informed of what caused this massacre, how well planned it was, and what Roof’s precise motivation was. Throughout that process, we should resist the the temptation to cling to familiar, comforting narratives about how the world works as we may be presented with information that may force us to reconsider those narratives

It is important however, that we remain open to the idea that the level of racism in our society is greater than we think it is. Maybe, black people are not lying when they complain about police mistreatment and other forms of systemic racism. Perhaps in many parts of the country, attitudes toward race have not advanced much  — if at all  — beyond what they were in the 1960s.

The way we address the problem of race is critical because of how intimately associated the situation is with key American promises of freedom, equality and opportunity.

The measure of how our society delivers on these promises hinges on addressing the racial issues honestly and openly.

Griffin, a senior journalism major from Madison, is an opinion writer.