Whiteness in America is a deadly force, one so deadly that police and state violence continues claiming black lives at an alarming rate. But while the #BlackLivesMatter movement has raised awareness about police brutality, cops aren’t the only issue. Vigilantes invested in white privilege and supremacy remain an ominous force, not just as bands of barbarians confined to American suburbs, rural areas, and the South, as most people would like to think. No, it’s everywhere, in both overt and insidious forms.
While it’s tempting to dismiss the need for any critical examination of shootings like the one in Charleston, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (D-S.C.) and others have suggested, these events aren’t mere exceptions. We have to face an ugly truth: These acts of terror against black lives are part of a broader system of white supremacy.
One need not wear a white hood or burn crosses in yards to invest in white supremacy. All one needs to do is act on the belief that they are inherently better than people of color (including black people) and exclusively entitled to the spoils of American life. When individuals who even passively agree with such an ideology are armed with deadly weapons, black people have ultimately paid the price for generations—through enslavement, lynchings by hanging, and especially now, lynchings by the barrel of a gun. Whether it’s Ferguson, Oakland, New York City, or Sanford, Florida—on a sidewalk, in a home or, now, in a church—black lives still aren’t safe in a country founded with the dehumanization of black people as the law of the land.
Wednesday night’s act of terror in Charleston, South Carolina claimed nine more black lives, names that will become the latest hashtags on a growing list of black people victimized by police and vigilantes. Dylann Roof, the now-arrested suspected shooter, entered a church that’s been a symbol of hope and resilience in the black community for decades, on a mission to extinguish black lives. And early signs suggest that Roof is invested in white supremacy.
We have to face an ugly truth: These acts of terror against black lives are part of a broader system of white supremacy.
As Reuters reports, Roof’s pictures from his Facebook account demonstrate his strange fascination. In one image, the report notes, he wore jackets with apartheid-era flags of South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), when both countries were ruled by a white minority. One of Roof’s Facebook friends also published a photo, as Reuters notes, which shows Roof sitting on the roof of a car with a license plate that says “Confederate States of America,” a reference to the pro-slavery forces from the Civil War.
Above the statehouse in South Carolina, the Confederate Flag still flies, and now sits at half-mast. It’s no secret that black people have long taken exception to Confederate imagery as a relic of slavery, an expression of white supremacy, and a symbol of anti-blackness. Typically, the lowering of the flag signals a mourning period, a sign of respect and acknowledgment for the dead. That the Confederate Flag is even flying in the first place, especially after the Charleston killings Wednesday night, is flagrantly disrespectful to black people, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes at the Atlantic. It’s a flag that represents Roof and white supremacists like him.
South Carolina has flown the Confederate Flag for years, despite the knowledge that racist hate groups remain active in the state. As NBC News reports, South Carolina is home to at least 19 known white supremacist organizations, based on research conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Clearly, powerful white folks who dominate South Carolina’s government don’t care about how members of the black community feel about grand displays of white supremacy, even as they mourn the loss of more black lives—lives taken away in an instant by a young, racist white man. Leaders who insist on flying the Confederate Flag share something in common with Roof: They aren’t afraid of making it clear that they cling to ideas and symbols that enshrine racism.
While in the midst of his killing spree Wednesday night, Roof’s remarks to congregants underscored his anti-black beliefs. According to one survivor’s account, as the Grio notes, one Emanuel AME Church member appealed to Roof’s humanity, attempting to talk him out of shooting more people. Instead, Roof responded: “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Black lives still aren’t safe in a country founded with the dehumanization of black people as the law of the land.
If Roof’s own words aren’t enough of an indication that white supremacy and anti-blackness were strong, underlying ideologies and motives for a terrorist act, then what is? Still, a Fox News panel Wednesday morning balked at the notion that Roof’s actions were a “hate crime,” dismissing those claims as part of a so-called war on Christians. “Extraordinarily, they called it a ‘hate crime,’ and some look at it as, ‘Well, because it was a white guy and a black church,’” Fox’s Steve Doocy said. His guest, E.W. Jackson, agreed: “Most people jump to conclusions about race. I long for the day when we stop doing that in our country.”
Meanwhile, on social media, some tried to deny any racial implications by calling into question Roof’s racial identity. A number of posts questioned whether or not Roof (who is white) was mixed-race or even “transracial,” a term expressed by disgraced former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal this week, after the Dolezal was exposed for passing herself off as a black woman. Even though all signs point to Roof’s malicious intent, one fueled by white supremacy, there’s a tendency to avoid any conversation about how race played a role in the shooting.
It’s time to stop giving whiteness and white supremacy a free pass for racialized violence that keeps victimizing black people. Even if it makes people uncomfortable, racism in America needs more discussion beyond extreme cases like Rachel Dolezal and Dylann Roof. It’s time to give whiteness the scrutiny and space for examination it deserves. It’s time we call a spade a spade.
Derrick Clifton is the Deputy Opinion Editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture and social justice. Clifton is a graduate of Northwestern University.
Photo via Serfs Up! Roger Sayles/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)