A devil went down to Charleston


…And he was looking for some souls to steal: the souls of black folk.

Last Wednesday, a 21-year-old white supremacist — with a bowl cut and eyes as dark and lifeless as death itself — opened fire on a Bible study at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. In the church, the killer was reported to have said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” He reportedly drove over 100 miles from his home in Lexington to Emmanuel Church, which he targeted due to its historical significance. His manifesto, discovered online following the shooting, talks in great detail about black people being “the biggest problem for Americans,” along with other racial and cultural warnings. His roommate told police that the alleged shooter had spoken of a desire to start a new civil war.

This was in no uncertain terms a premeditated, racially motivated act of domestic terrorism. There’s no debating this one. There’s no, “woah, wait, we don’t know all the answers yet.” In spite of South Carolina Governor Haley and GOP candidate Jeb Bush’s hand-wringing and shoulder-shrugging, we do know what motivated him to kill those innocent people: their race. Period.

Charleston, South Carolina via Wikimedia Commons

Charleston, South Carolina via Wikimedia Commons

What’s more, the very nature of how the suspect was arrested shows how racially biased our institutions are, and how much privilege is granted to white people. A white man kills 9 innocent people who are perhaps at their most vulnerable — praying and studying the Bible in a church — and is calmly handcuffed by the police, given a bulletproof vest and calmly walked over to the squad car. Contrast that with black people getting choked to death on the sidewalk for selling loose cigarettes. If this suspect had been any race other than white, he could easily have been dead before he reached the police car. It is the racist cherry on top of this sundae from hell. It’s clear preferential treatment based on implicit — and maybe even conscious — racial in-group preference for someone guilty of far worse than any of the numerous black men that have been slain by police over the past several months.

So before we congratulate ourselves for our solidarity with the victims of the Charleston shooting, we should pause to take note that our prosecution of a murderous white supremacist is itself tied to our system’s own expressions of white supremacy. This is especially important to consider when half of Americans believe that we live in a post-racial America, when the evidence clearly points to the contrary.

There are numerous organizations that are only making matters worse. Of course the media — as per usual — is doing more harm than good. Fox News would like you to believe that race had nothing to do with this shooting. They — as Jon Green noted on Friday — spun the tragedy so that it fit their propaganda about an asinine, non-existent “War on Christianity.” Others are deflecting focus from the suspect’s racism by assuming he was mentally ill. While we do need to reopen the mental health institutions that Ronald Reagan foolishly closed down, given what we know about the nature of this attack it would be willfully ignorant to assume mental illness; the evidence points to an evil form of mental clarity.

While it’s tempting say, “OF COURSE he was mentally ill! Murder is, by definition, an expression of mental instability,” statistically speaking — and perhaps this makes it even more terrifying — the killer was probably sane; deranged, misguided, and fueled by hatred, yes, but sane. Furthermore, even if he did have a mental illness — like many other past high-profile shooters have — to chalk this attack up to that alone would be to avoid uncomfortable questions concerning racism, glorification of violence and the proper diagnosis of mental illness. When a black man shoots someone, the first TV guest appearances are made by defense attorneys. When a white person shoots someone, the first TV guest appearances are made by psychiatrists. Until that changes in one direction or the other, I’m going to be highly skeptical when the mental illness of white shooters is simply assumed.

The NRA is also, naturally, making things worse. NRA board member Charles Pickney blamed the victim — blamed the victim ­— claiming the slain pastor, not the shooter, was responsible for the deaths because he opposed legislation to allow people to carry guns in churches. Because, as we all know, guns don’t kill people; people who get killed by guns do. The ignorant and greed-fueled champions of gun manufacturers couldn’t waste a chance to trumpet their bastardized version of the Second Amendment, which, for the record, was originally intended to allow for citizens to form militias to defend the government.

It speaks volumes that comedians like Jon StewartLarry Wilmore and Bill Maher are giving somber, respectful and critical analyses of the shooting calling it what it is — a racist act of domestic terrorism — while the GOP’s and cable news media’s best cracks at explaining the violence are big, unfunny jokes. Not only do they refuse to say that the attack was motivated by race, but they — along with FBI Director James Comey — refuse to call it an act of terrorism because the perpetrator wasn’t an Arabic speaking Middle-Eastern Muslim. If we, as the FBI does, define terrorism as political violence by a non-state actor, how does a premeditated shooting at a church of historical significance for the purpose of starting a new civil war not fit that description?

At this point, black people aren’t safe anywhere in America. They aren’t safe in their cars, at gas stations, in parks, at swimming pools, in the street and now in church. How many innocent black people have to be killed before we admit that racism and white supremacy still exist? When will we stop blaming the victims and scrambling for reasons to absolve the guilty? How many black people, or children, or movie goers need to be killed by guns before we — Democrats and Republicans; gun rights advocates and gun safety advocates — come together to make the killing stop? How many times do white supremacists need to kill people before we accept that the Confederate flag is not a symbol of “Southern Pride” or “Rebel Spirit” but of racism, oppression, and slavery?

Since no federal gun regulations were enacted following the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012 — and those were mostly white children — what makes us think that politicians would suddenly enact gun control measures in the wake of police brutality and racially motivated domestic terrorism? Fourteen times since he took office, Obama has had to address the nation about yet another mass shooting. That’s fourteen times too many. If we’re serious when we talk about the “sanctity of life,” we must consider it morally reprehensible that our response to shooting after shooting — racist act after racist act — has been crickets.

Nick Lehn
Nick Lehn recently received his Masters in Cognitive & Evolutionary Anthropology from the University of Oxford. His favorite topics include anything pertaining to science and society, global politics, social justice, globalization, and technology. Nick recently moved back to his hometown of Baltimore, MD.

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