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The refrain of denial – the urge to define white people’s terrorist acts as anything but – is an effort to protect the idea that you can be a racist and not kill people
hen tragedies happen, it’s natural for people to come together in the spirit of protecting each other. So after the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, people responded in an effort to make sense of seemingly nonsensical violence – to provide comfort in the midst of confusion.
But for some people, their attempt to make sense of violence was more about rejecting the blatantly obvious – that the shooter was a racist intent on perpetrating an act of terrorism – than it was to comfort a community in pain.
Despite the fact that Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said early on that “this is a hate crime” and that a witness reported that suspect Dylann Roof said to the black people he killed, “you rape our women and are taking over our country”, conservative columnist AJ Delgado maintained that the “odds would favor [the crime] NOT being racial”, Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Grahamcalled him a “whacked-out kid” and suggested he was “looking for Christians to kill them, and USA Today referred to him as a “lone wolf”. The Daily Beast described the killer – a man who reportedly sat with a bible study group for an hour before he started to kill people – as “quiet and soft spoken”, averring that he had black friends on Facebook, even as his nine victims remained unnamed and uncelebrated.
The excuses to call a white, male mass-killer anything but “a terrorist” are familiar – they’re part of a refrain repeated over and over again when a horrific crime intended to terrify a group of people is committed by a white man. It’s a refrain of denial. (The same denial happened when Elliot Rodger penned a misogynist manifesto before his killing spree: He’s not sexist, he’s just crazy!)
But the question, especially for white people who engage in the excuse-making, is: why are you so intent on defining situations like those in Charleston as not-terrorism? Why are you so invested in the idea that the crime was not one of hatred?
A white man apparently planned and allegedly carried out a terrorist act against a historic black church and its members. He used racist language while doing so, and has been pictured wearing a jacket covered in racist, white supremacist patches. We all know what these things mean; we know what the motivation for this massacre was. So how could anyone with sense see all of these things and still maintain that race wasn’t necessarily a factor, and terror wasn’t the intent?
It’s difficult to imagine anything else but that you are protecting the idea that you can be racist and not kill people. While it may be true that not all virulent racists are mass murderers, defending the public image of racists in the wake of a massacre devalues the lives taken.
And when you bend over backwards to make sure that white men who commit racist violence can maintain their humanity at the expense of the full measure of justice for their victims, we send a clear message about who is worth protecting and who isn’t.
Even though right wing domestic terror is as big a threat to the nation as terror from abroad, we’ll likely continue to widely hear Roof described as “crazy” or a “lone wolf”. What we won’t hear as broadly is how violence against people of color – especially, as my colleague Rebecca Carroll so brilliantly wrote, violence in the protection of white womanhood – is part of the United States’ historical legacy, that it is systematic, that it is organized, and that is has yet to end. Violence against people of color is only as “crazy” as America is and has been.