No decent human being would attempt to rationalize the vicious murder of 9 Black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston.
But we are seeing a dangerous narrative put forth by many that underestimates the prevalent racist attitudes that fosters terror attacks against the Black community. Just as news of the tragedy unfolded, South Carolina's governor Nikki Haley released a statement that said "we do know that we'll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another."
Until recently, the national press infrequently reported racially-motivated violence. The advent of social media has made that kind of self censorship impossible. As average people are now able to upload raw footage to the web, news outlets are faced with evidence of countless outbursts of racist violence. Yet, when a hate crime is conveyed to the general public, it is usually framed as some sort of aberration -- a break from an otherwise color-blind and harmonious America. The racist tends to be portrayed as a disturbed individual, a lone gunman, or a "bad guy." Rendering the hate crime solely the product of individual motivations minimizes the role that social forces and institutional practices play in cultivating and ripening the fruits of racism.
According to a witness, just moments before the shooting, Dylann Storm Roof, the 21-year-old white male shooter, remarked, "I have to do it. You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go."
When a gunman walks into a Black church with the intention of killing Black people in 2015, under racist and delusional pretenses, a particular zeitgeist walks in with him.
It is the zeitgeist of a country that passes off racist sophistry as political discourse. It is the hatred fomented -- by pundits and politicians who misrepresent their interests -- in a segment of the white population that feels alienated by the realities of economic inequality.
This racial hatred is a toxic broth steeped in the rhetoric of people like Rush Limbaugh, who claims Obama has "a plan" to take America away from those "who founded it" and give it to ethnic minorities, forgetting of course, that those who "founded" America are long gone. This plan, Limbaugh says, is a kind of racial "payback." It is perpetuated by people like Ted Nugent, who openly questions whether things would be better if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. It is instilled by Glenn Beck, who has remarked that President Obama "has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture."
It is made possible by officials on both sides of the aisle that are unwilling to openly critique the institutional practices that constitute white supremacy in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City, and across every inch of the United States. It is furthered by a media narratives that vilifies protesters seeking redress by portraying them as "thugs" and "animals."
Lastly, this is made possible by those who claim they don't see race. That somehow in a country of extreme racial inequality along the lines of mass incarceration, police violence, access to education and wealth, they are beyond the fray of race and are therefore discharged from identifying racism.
That zeitgeist is racism.
Ultimately, Roof is an extremist; that we cannot deny. His Facebook profile shows a picture of a young man standing in the woods wearing a jacket adorned with the flags of two brutally racist regimes: apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia. That he is a racist seems evident. Unless his family has direct ties to Rhodesia, it is highly unlikely that he came to learn of its racist history without delving into many white supremacist websites. But, like white supremacy, he himself is not an obscure problem. Rather, he represents a deep-rooted American problem. To uproot the tree of racism, we must persistently diagnose, expose, and unravel white supremacy down to its very roots.