Dylann Roof And The Ceiling Of White Supremacy

Photo: Curtis Compton/AP Photo.
The actions of the 21-year-old man who is alleged to have killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, were aided and abetted by actions and attitudes of our racially biased society. The shooter, Dylann Roof, is not an anachronism, anathema to America’s past or present. This country is very much Dylann Roof’s home. Our culture, politics, and economic systems place a ceiling over the lives of African-Americans — who not only often literally can’t breathe, as we’ve seen in the countless shootings and stranglings of unarmed Black men by police officers — but often figuratively can’t stand up. In 2010, the median net worth of Black families in America was just $4,900 — compared to the median wealth of $97,000 for white families. That same year, the median net worth of single Black mothers was $5. Just $5. Study after study shows that résumés with Black-sounding names get called less for interviews than those with white-sounding names and that white high school dropouts have higher incomes than black college graduates — so it would be wrong to pin these discrepancies on individual fault. We are a racially biased society. We have statistic after statistic after statistic to prove it.

This country is very much Dylann Roof’s home.

Roof’s alleged crimes and apparent beliefs exist under the shelter of American racial oppression and white supremacy. But “we are too afraid to talk about obvious racial motivations,” observed Fusion’s Latoya Peterson in the wake of the massacre. Added Charles P. Pierce in Esquire, “If people do not want to speak of it, or think about it, it's because they do not want to follow the story where it inevitably leads” — which is to the acknowledgment of our history of slavery and racial oppression, and how it still shapes America today. Superstructures of Black oppression and white supremacy are as American as apple pie. If you care to look, you can find these roofs and eaves of American racism everywhere. They’re in the discriminatory housing policies and racialized myths about black criminality that fuel white flight from cities to suburban cul-de-sacs. They’re in the conversion of public-education and public-aid programs from invaluable safety nets for whites into wasteful symptoms of weakness for Blacks. They’re in the swift expansion and privatization of the criminal “justice” system, which has taken momentarily freed Black Americans and returned far too many to bondage.

Black oppression and white supremacy are the standard operating procedure of America’s past and present.

These are not accidents. These are not aberrations. The superstructures of Black oppression and white supremacy are the standard operating procedure of America’s past and its present. If someone attacks a synagogue, especially if that someone is Muslim, our neighbors and political leaders don’t hesitate to talk about the scourge of anti-Semitism. When someone, especially a man, rapes or kills a woman, political leaders bring up sexism and misogyny. So why, in a land where slavery was practiced for 400 years, where since our nation’s founding the forced enslavement of Black people has been legally and culturally sanctioned for longer than not, and where not even a half-century ago we still practiced active and explicit racial segregation — why, or rather how, could any halfway observant human being not acknowledge the fact of racial bias? There’s still a goddamn Confederate flag flying at the statehouse in South Carolina. Still. Right now. Literally waving that history in our present-day faces.


There’s still a goddamn confederate flag flying at the statehouse in South Carolina. Literally waving that history in our present-day faces.

Many people are calling Roof a terrorist. I think they’re right. Terrorism is defined as the use of violence or intimidation in pursuit of political aims. Roof reportedly planned his attack, chose his target carefully, made anti-Black comments during his massacre, and left one woman alive to tell other people what he had done and why he had done it. If this isn’t terrorism, I don’t know what is. As The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb notes, the first anti-terror law in the United States was written in response to the Ku Klux Klan. White supremacy is a political aim, and Roof’s purported acts firmly fit within a history of white terror against the Black community in America, especially in the South. As I wrote when a young man went on a killing spree against women in California, we tend to not label these acts as terrorism because we give white men the benefit of individuality. When a Muslim or Black person commits a crime, the entire religion or race is somehow implicated. But white male criminals are just “bad apples” or “mentally troubled lone wolves.” Even before more was known about Roof, this was how some were characterizing him in the media.

When a Muslim commits a crime, the entire religion is somehow implicated. White criminals are just “bad apples.”

Black oppression and white supremacy have done more to construct and shape the past and present of the United States than Islamic fundamentalism ever will. And yet we perpetually look away from racial bias and put the burden of proof on those trying to point it our — or even accuse them of being part of the problem. Meanwhile, the fact that we don’t talk about it, that we bury our heads in the sand, is part of the problem. It is very much the roof of denial that gave cover to Dylann Roof. It’s also a metaphorical coincidence that one of Roof’s friends was named Joseph Meek. According to Meek, Roof had repeatedly and increasingly said racist things and talked about wanting “to hurt a whole bunch of people.” Meek told The New York Times that Roof would say “all this stuff about how the races should be segregated, that whites should be with whites” and was "planning to do something crazy.” But Meek himself didn’t do anything. After he says he initially hid a gun Roof had recently purchased, Meek returned it to him. And Meek didn’t come forward to police or other authorities — until after the slaughter. Mr. Meek was, in other words, true to his name, to say the least. Despite the widespread suspicion and Islamophobia cast upon the American Muslim community, since 2009 tips and informants from within Muslim communities have helped law enforcement prevent one out of every two al-Qaida-related plots in the United States. And yet, when it comes to speaking out against racism, let alone preventing acts of anti-Black violence, unfortunately, Mr. Meek is not alone. We are all Meek. Too many white people explicitly condone racial bias or implicitly do so by looking the other way. That is also part of the history of our nation, a shingle on an ugly roof of racial resentment and hatred under which Dylann Roof festered. Until we dismantle that history — including its lingering, stubborn systems of oppression — we are doomed to repeat it.

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