With the June 17 massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the burning of Black churches following the terrorist attack, there is an effort in the media to characterize the actions of white terrorists as hate crimes and acts of terror.
Writing in The Washington Post, Janell Ross argued that Blacks view Charleston shooter Dylann Roof as a terrorist, while whites do not.
Providing a badly needed context for Black perspectives on white violence, Ross discussed the longstanding role of white terrorism in Black life, the founding of the AME Church as a challenge to racism and slavery in the late 18th century, and the role of Emanuel AME in Denmark Vesey’s slave rebellion. Further, the writer mentioned the role of white supremacists in helping to shape America’s understanding of terrorism, back to the enactment of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act. Ross also referenced a study on the current threat posed by white supremacists as opposed to Islamic terror groups in the U.S., and a poll on the racial divide over whether Americans believe the Charleston shootings are a hate crime or terrorism.
A recent study from the New America Foundation found that white supremacists and domestic extremist groups are a far greater threat to national security than Islamic terrorist groups such as ISIS. Since 9/11, white domestic terrorists have killed 48 people within U.S. borders, while 26 were killed by radical Islamic terrorists. Yet, according to the study, the criminal justice system punished Islamic militants more severely and more frequently.
In addition, according to a CNN/ORC poll, 57 percent of Americans believe the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern pride, including 66 percent of whites, but only 17 percent of Blacks. In that study, 33 percent of respondents said the flag is a symbol of racism, including 72 percent of Blacks, and a mere 25 percent of whites. Further, while 87 percent of Americans thought the Charleston shootings are a hate crime, 41 percent — including 55 percent of Blacks and 37 percent of whites — said the shootings were an act of terrorism.
Assessing colleague Philip Bump’s June 19 commentary that we should not call Roof a terrorist, Ross offered that labeling the suspect as such “gives too much weight to the brutal actions of a hate-filled, dysfunctional and downtrodden young man. I’m willing to concede that we probably don’t think enough about the inner lives and struggles of men — certainly not those who are sliding down the social ladder.” Suggesting it is no easy feat, Ross offered possible explanations as to why white America may not take the extra step to call Roof’s actions a hate crime and terrorism. For example, some Americans may fear Charleston will become like 9/11, a fundamental part of the nation’s identity. Perhaps others are concerned there will be a new call for gun control, or simply “have a harder time believing the deaths of Black Americans in these tragedies are as senseless,” she suggested.
Meanwhile, The Huffington Post reported that U.S. Department of Justice officials have found no link connecting the various Black church burnings across the Southeast, believing roughly half of them are arson, with reportedly no evidence surfacing of hate crimes. This comes as the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division said investigators found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the fire at Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville — an apparent attempt to avoid flaring up of racial tensions.
The rush to downplay the Black church burnings and dismiss Roof as a troubled and “downtrodden” young man, but no terrorist, reflects this country’s discounting of Black lives, and its refusal to acknowledge white terrorist activity. The history of Black people in the U.S. has been one of navigating the threat of imminent death from white terrorism. White America does not believe in the existence of white terrorism because it does not believe in the existence of racism against people of color, and in any case has deluded itself into believing Black people are the true racists.
Moreover, white criminality and violence are normalized in the land of the free, and terrorism is a color-coded and racially loaded term. The predominant view in white America is that white people are not terrorists. At most, Dylann Roof is drug-crazed, misguided, perhaps even mentally ill. But terrorism is reserved for Black and Brown people. Whites are not terrorists, the argument goes, while people of color are terrorists, thugs and gangbangers, and therefore the real threat.
In addition, denying there is a rise in white, homegrown domestic terrorist activity reflects the power of the movement conservatism and the radical right in the public discourse. In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report warning of the threat of white extremist groups. However, following pushback from Republican lawmakers and officials, the report was downplayed and the office monitoring these white hate groups was defunded.
Further, the nation’s liberal firearms laws are bought by the National Rifle Association, which is dominated by paranoid and racist right-wing extremists. With the proliferation of guns through Open Carry, Concealed Carry, Stop and Frisk and other policies, and the accompanying philosophy that Black people are a threat that must be stopped, the U.S. is enabling its Dylann Roofs to commit acts of terrorism, while claiming plausible deniability.
White America believes that if it closes its eyes, the domestic terrorists will disappear and will be rendered a figment of their imagination. And yet, Black America knows that the terrorists are here and always were, and if we ignore them, chickens once again will come home to roost.