Dylann Storm Roof, the Confederate Flag and Contemporary Racism

06/24/2015 11:36 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

Imagine the scenario. You invite a person, in fact a stranger, into your home at their request. On the surface he seems to be normal, sincere and interested in getting to know you better and being a part of your life and community. Everything seems to be going smoothly. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the individual you have befriended suddenly pulls out a gun and decides to murder you and your fellow family, friends and associates. Horrific and almost unimaginable, right? This was the horrifying scenario that took place on at the historic Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17.

This is the house of worship where alleged mass murderer Dylann Storm Roof betrayed the kindness and generosity of the members who granted him permission to worship in fellowship and communion with them. After sitting quietly in a church pew for over an hour, Roof suddenly jumps up, makes the misguided and deluded charge that Black men are raping White women and that Black people are taking over America and must be stopped from doing so.

He then proceeds to gun down various church members, eventually taking the lives of nine men and women. Three of his victims were over 70 years old, including an 87-year-old great-grandmother. The church pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney was also a victim of this madness. Roof decided to spare the life of one church attendee, informing her that he wanted her to tell the world what had transpired. Murdering people in church: incomprehensible.

Needless to say, Roof's actions leave the congregation members and the nation perplexed, stunned and outraged by such a sadistic act of homeland terrorism. Roof is a 21-year-old White male with White supremacists affinities and ties. He has had a history of deviant behavior and drug use. The sad and sobering truth is that this is hardly the first time that a Black church has been the target of homegrown terrorism by White supremacists.

Attacks on Black churches have been a common occurrence in America since the nation's inception. The ongoing and relentless bombing and burning of churches during the era of the modern civil rights movement of the 1950 and '60s, as well as the intense period of church burnings that occurred in the South and in pockets of the Midwest during the mid-1990s, were indicative of a long and tormented history of violence directed toward Black houses of worship and Black Christianity in general.

Black ministers such as the late Revs. Fred Shuttlesworth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were under relentless attack from the Ku Klux Klan, other virulent and vicious racists and, in some cases, Southern law enforcement. In the case of Dr. King, he managed to earn the deep enmity of then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. The hostility directed toward these men also placed their welfare and that of those close to them in jeopardy. The behavior of Dylann Storm Roof, who had conveyed his intention to start a race war, was an act of racial terrorism. Pure and simple.

There have been some media outlets that have been reluctant to ascribe this label to Roof and, rather, have decided to focus on the fact that he was vulnerable to mental illness. This is a disturbing example of intellectual dishonesty. There are many people who suffer for mental illness, yet do not go on mass murder sprees and deviously plot to kill other human beings.

This was a premeditated attack. He purposely targeted a church with Black parishioners to inflict his acts of racialized violence upon its members. Dylann Storm Roof is a bigot and his actions were driven by hardcore bigotry. His deeds and actions have made this evident. There is no other way to describe it.

After details of the tragic event became known, a number of White nationalist/supremacist and race-oriented websites saw a number of its subscribers express considerable concern that Roof's actions would make it considerably more difficult for such groups to successfully effectively recruit new members and that current membership may, in fact, decline. Only time will tell in regards to this matter. However, given the long history of racial paranoia among many fringe segments of American society, such a prospect is highly unlikely.

Racial hostility notwithstanding, Roof's atrocious act of violent racism was likely the catalyst for prompting South Carolina governor Nikki Haley in conjunction with several other prominent South Carolina politicians including Jim Clyburn, Tim Scott, Lindsey Graham,Mark Sanford and others to hold a press conference on June 22nd denouncing the act of having the confederate flag flying above the statehouse in Columbia and advocating its removal from the capital grounds.. Needless to say,such a move will not win Haley, Scott, Graham, Sanford or many other southern politicians throughout the region the support of many White southerners, Rather, taking such a position will likely cause them to earn the widespread wrath of many voters, particularly those voters who harbor racially bigoted views. Nonetheless, governor Hale and her fellow politicians have taken the political high road and did morally correct position. Such a principled stance is to be commended.

While the nation has made considerable strides, the fact is that racism is still a potent adversarial force in the lives of far too many Black Americans. This is evident in chronically unemployment rates in many Black (and Brown) communities. Obscenely high incarceration among Black men. Rampant police brutality that has affected and demoralized too many Black communities. Black college graduates more than twice as likely than their White counterparts to be unemployed or underemployed. Unprecedented levels of gentrification that have and continue to displace disproportionate numbers of Black working class and lower income people and so on. There is still work to be done.

It will take a long time, if ever, for the residents of Charleston, South Carolina, the family of the victims and perhaps even members of Roof's family to fully heal from such a senseless tragedy. The fact that many of his victims were able to confront this vicious racist monster, look him in the eye and sincerely tell him that they were able to grant him their forgiveness is both remarkable and astounding. They are true, genuine and dedicated Christians. The same is true of the many citizens across racial groups demonstrating their support and solidarity taking a stand against such vehement and violent racial hatred.

In the meantime, what we as a nation can do is make a genuine effort to come to grips with the rabid racial, political, social and economic fragmentation plaguing our nation and make a valiant effort to rectify and heal such an unhealthy level of potentially destructive economic, racial, religious, political and cultural stratification.

Elwood Watson, Ph.D., is a professor of history, African-American studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University.