Nine people were slain during a prayer meeting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina by 21-year-old gunman Dylann Roof. One of the victims was South Carolina State representative Rev. Clementa Pickney.
As the news of the shooting broke late Wednesday night, local and national news outlets immediately described Roof as "mentally ill," even though the suspect was unknown and not yet in police custody. Though authorities knew he was a young white male, and Charleston police chief said it was a "hate crime", many reporters and politicians quickly cautioned audiences to "wait for all the facts" before assuming that this mass murder was racially motivated. And several news outlets are still apprehensive or refuse to call Roof the "T-Word."
While Presidential candidate Rick Santorum said that this was an "obvious crime of hate", he basically avoided describing it as racially motivated, optioning to view the crime as a "larger assault on our religious liberty" and the killings as "indiscriminate."
Let's assume this crime was not racially motivated and use Governor Santorum's "indiscriminate" logic. Imagine a Black or Muslim gunman killing nine white people, including a state senator, in a historic, predominately white church during a prayer meeting, then having Rick Santorum tell you that the killings were "indiscriminate." Imagine news anchors cautioning the public to wait for all the facts before assuming that it was racially motivated. Now imagine the public's response if President Obama refused to call the killer a terrorist.. The plausibility of any these ideas is laughable.
It is obvious to most that Roof most likely has a mentally illness, but that doesn't mean he can't also be a racist (was later found that Roof's Facebook page found him sporting flags of former white supremacist regimes of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa) and a terrorist. But the news-framing around this tragedy shows how criminals are described depending on their background, even when they commit similar atrocities as others.
When Black people or Muslims commit crimes or terrorism, we tend to describe the criminals in general terms speaking of the "inherent" negative qualities of their racial or religious group: moral bankruptcy, schadenfreude, cultural inferiority, pathology, evil, beastiality, and pack mentality ("thugs" or "terrorists"). This subconsciously conveys that "the crime is linked to 'Blackness' or 'Muslimness'. He is 'one of them'." Describing the problem in this way allows us to justify locking them up or killing them, indiscriminately.
Critics who reject generalities or want to nuance the discussion surrounding the crimes committed are deemed knights of the "politically correct" crusade, or even more mistakenly, as sympathizers for criminals, killers, and terrorists. Asserting that "the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists or the vast majority of Blacks are not criminals" is called being an apologist.
But in the U.S., White crime is almost always individualized.
The petty crimes committed by whites are often described in ways that humanize the criminal. Phrases such as "he's a good kid who made a mistake" are sure to be heard. But for the more extreme crimes like Roof's, the criminal is literally dehumanized (mentally ill, psychopath, inhuman) and individualized (lone wolf) without knowing, lead alone assuming, lead alone questioning his motives or knowing if he had accomplices. This subconsciously conveys to the listener that "being white has nothing to do with this. He is not even a sane human being."
By defining the problem this way, we can justify the lack of solutions. There is virtually no way to solve the problem of mentally ill mass murderers. How can we detect when someone will shoot up a church, a movie theater, an elementary school, a college, etc.? This description also pushes back on any generalizations of white men or white people, and nullifies any talk of culture or pathology, all of which are frequently used to describe the crime of minorities, particularly African Americans. Society at large certainly does not go to strenuous lengths to individualize acts of terror by "othered" groups. But the fact that the majority of the domestic terrorism and cases of mass murder at religious institutions have been committed by white males doesn't matter when the sole simple explanation is that these are insane, indiscriminate, individual killers.
Mass murder should not be condemned differently depending on who holds the weapon. We need to think about how and why the language changes when it is a Black street gang shooting up the block or extremists shooting up a French satirical publication or a white biker-gang gunfight. We need to problematize our understanding of crime and criminals, not just when it's conducive to "Us vs. Them" agendas.
What compels you or I to describe a man who murdered nine people different depending on his race or religion? If a Black gang member in Chicago shoots up his block or an extremist kills people at Charlie Hebdo, would you or I or the media assume, lead alone accept "mental illness" as the sole necessary explanation? Of course not. We would take that as an insult to our intelligence, because people tend to have reasons for committing crimes, even if we aren't privy to them.
Our historically discriminatory understanding of crime is why an idea such as "Black-on-Black" crime sounds redundant, even in a country where people of all races mostly commit crimes against people of their own race. But to say "White-on-White" crime sounds nonsensical, and somewhat oxymoronic to most. Men commit the vast majority of crime on this planet, but "Man-on-Man" crime isn't a concept anywhere. And in a country where most people identify as Christians, "Christian-on-Christian" would never be accepted.
Mental illness did not kill those nine people, white supremacy did. This country is not too far away from a time where Black bodies were freed from chains and lead to nooses. It's easy to condemn mobs in the past for the lynching Black men for made-up rape charges (just like Roof, who said Blacks "rape our women.") It was so evil, who wouldn't describe it as insane?
But we easily forget that the majority in these lynching audiences were spectators. People would cheer, and defile the body. Many would make it family outing; bring their kids, have picnics, and take pictures with a strange fruit in the backdrop. None of this required a crazy person present, just a mob who hated Black people enough to kill them, and an audience that feared Black people enough to rejoice in their deaths.
It's easier to condemn racism as a mental illness, because it frees us from the burden of facing our past and present. But as Black bodies turn into hashtags, this "mental illness" has been transferred through time. Yes, some people are crazy. No race has monopolized that fact. But sometimes people kill each other because they really, really hate each other.
If you read this piece and grossly oversimplify it as stating "if you don't call Roof a terrorist, you're a racist", you don't get it. This is a call for us to interrogate how language can veil the historical and institutionalize guilt of the majority. If we are unable to describe Roof's actions as "terrorism", we are guilty of the same type of "sympathy" or apologetics we criticize other groups for. We are refusing to problematize the majority in ways minorities have and will continue to be problematized. If we continue to describe racism as a mental illness, we are allowing ourselves to think there is no cure for it.
You do not need to be crazy nor white nor actively, consciously hate Blacks to promote anti-Blackness, just like you do not have to be a man or actively, consciously hate women to promote sexism. That is not how it has ever worked. You can facilitate oppression through defensiveness, guilt, fear, apathy, willful ignorance, silencing, and the new, more effective way, assuming it does not exist.
We need to pay attention to the language we use, how it used to frame the news, construct the narrative, and shape our understandings of events.
A good first step to doing this is calling Roof what he is. He is a Terrorist.