A week ago, Judas entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina. He communed with Christ’s disciples. He irrelevantly dwelt among them for about an hour plotting to betray Jesus. His hardened heart compelled him to squelch the Spirit and surrender himself to the work of Satan, defiling the sanctuary and massacring nine of his neighbors. His blasphemy traumatized the nation and changed the course of history forever. Just seven days later, have we already moved on from this tragedy? Is it now just old news, merely background noise? Or are we in the midst of lament, deeply grieving and seeking the face of God? Are we resisting the urge to “check out” by allowing this tragedy to get lost within the latest news cycle?
Dylann Roof is a product of his environment. He’s not an aberration, but rather an illumination. I don’t subscribe to the logic that he’s a siloed, deranged psychopath. Instead, I see him as a conduit into the mind of an entire segment of our society. Therefore, I believe that the more we learn about him, the more we crystalize the deepest fears and trepidations of this sector of society.
Roof’s murderous rationale harkens back to a Reconstruction Era logic of White control and supremacy. During Reconstruction, many Whites frequently took the law into their hands in an effort to produce what they–in isolation and without accountability–believed to be order. During this era, many Whites saw themselves as the bastions of order, even when it meant going outside of the law to establish it. Whites, who saw themselves as judge and jury, enacted vigilante justice throughout the land; these communities were marked and governed by mob rule.
Consequently, African Americans were frequently the victims of terrorist activities like lynching. In fact, African Americans were most often lynched for being accused and suspected of the very things that Roof articulated as the reasons he “had to” murder these innocent bystanders. Before pulling the trigger, Roof explained that he must kill African Americans because they rape White women and have become uppity. Roof felt Blacks had forgotten their “subordinate” place within the racial hierarchy and were trying to take over the country. His massacre is the act of a contemporary vigilante trying to restore “order” in the mold of his Reconstruction forefathers.
Roof believed that our nations’ racial purity was/is being adulterated and that this fosters “chaos.” Therefore, “order” needed to be restored, by any means necessary! The prospect of living in a nation without “order” was so unconceivable that it compelled Roof into action. Roof understood his racial identity through a nationalistic lens and therefore, like a fervent patriot, he went to war in order to serve and protect his citizenship, defending it from foreign invaders. To Roof, warfare was the only option, the obligatory means needed to ward off the enemy’s attacks and impurities…i.e. blackness. Therefore, Roof entered into battle as a deployed solider, committed to protecting the White body politic and its sanctity. He, like any true terrorist, understood his mission as spiritual. His mission was so sacred that it warranted the offering of his life as a living sacrifice. Roof’s idolatry, his worship of Whiteness, required a blood sacrifice. However, the blood that was poured out in the sanctuary that evening was not salvific nor was it reconciling; instead of being for the sins of the world, it was for Whiteness’ “greater good.”
Roof concluded that his life’s mission was to rigidly reinforce what he perceived to be “permeable” racial boundaries by reminding Black people of their inferior status. In his mind, his very dignity, identity, and self-worth were intrinsically dependent upon the success of this mission. Roof and other White supremacists’ position in the world was and is completely predicated upon the oppression, dehumanization, and exploitation of others. Without racism, they don’t know who they are, how to relate to the world, or interact in it. Therefore, through Roof’s actions, we see a yearning for what was: a deep, corrosive, nostalgia. In many ways, this war, this massacre, was not even about Roof. It was about a striving to police racial boundaries, to seek and protect the peace and prosperity of whiteness.
Whiteness is a construction and philosophy that names boundaries and polices purity. History elucidates that whiteness has been fashioned, as well as set above and against, all other racial categories. Within this racialized schema, Whiteness has evolved into an exclusive fraternity, one that has been judicially regulated, legislatively reinforced, and institutionally endowed with power. Whiteness bestows privileges upon its pre-ordained clientele. While not all of these privileges are realized, or even equally distributed throughout its membership, these privileges are uniquely accessible to its members.
This racial massacre—which took place in the oldest AME Church in the South—was a terrorist act. While some contest this, Roof’s ideology, premeditation, and manifesto confirm this. Anyone who explores the testimony of Roof’s friends, his background, and calculations in the midst of the carnage– leaving one witness to tell what happened—will conclude that this was a racially-motivated terrorist act. Roof’s terrorism didn’t just aim to negate the truth that #BlackLivesMatter, it also intentionally desecrated a sacred sanctuary and was an assault against God. Therefore, we must not domesticate what transpired by calling it a hate crime, because it was more. Referring to this mass murder as anything less than an act of terrorism will not suffice!
Moreover, this racist act of violence must be historically situated; it was not an isolated event, nor was it an anomaly. This was merely the latest chapter in what seems like a never-ending canon of violent, white supremacist, terrorist activities. The historic trauma endured within Black Churches renders me speechless. While almost everyone knows about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15th 1963, most citizens mistakenly believe that overt racism and white supremacy ended with the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement. Much of our nation’s citizenry believes that we’re a post-racial nation and that these manifestations of racial hatred are simply relics of yesteryear. However, the facts betray this belief. Between the years of 1992-1996, more Black Churches burned than during the entire Civil Rights Movement.[i] From January of 1995 through July of 1996, more than seventy Black and multiracial churches were burned.[ii] Post-racial propaganda serves to validate, strengthen, and normalize whiteness, it’s a façade constructed to further white supremacy’s agenda.
After this tragedy I’m reminded of the words of Tef Poe,[iii] “This ain’t your grandparents’ civil rights movement.” Last Wednesday night’s terrorism reminded me of how much our time can feel like theirs. And while this “ain’t our grandparents’ Civil Rights Movement,” White supremacist terrorism in a Black Church galvanized the movement then. Will this terrorist act have the same effect on us today?
[i] Rev. Dr. Mac Charles Jones, Testimony before the Congressional Black Caucus (June 20, 1996).
[ii] Michele M. Simmsparris, What Does it Mean to See a Black Church Burning? Understanding the Significance of Constitutionalizing Hate Speech, 1 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 127-151, pg 18, (Spring 1998) https://www.law.upenn.edu/journals/conlaw/articles/volume1/issue1/SimmsParris1U.Pa.J.Const.L.127(1998).pdf
[iii] Ferguson activist