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White Skin Whitewashes America's Understanding Of Hate And White Supremacy

John Vitzileos |
June 21, 2015 | 10:50 p.m. PDT



Stop calling it a shooting and start calling it a massacre. Stop calling him mentally ill and start calling him a terrorist. Stop making this a question of gun control and start saying it's about racism. This wasn’t a hate crime, this was a terrorist attack on Black America.

“I am here to kill black people,” shouted Dylann Roof before he murdered 9 people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday night. “You rape our women, you are taking over our country, and now you have to go.” 9 people were killed; 3 men and 6 women.

Roof, 21, made no attempt to conceal his intentions or the racist attitudes that motivated the attack. He was seen wearing apartheid-era South African flags on his sweaters and Rhodesian badges, flew Confederate flags, and expressed his belief in the “inferiority of black people” and the “cowardice of white flight.” His goal, to send a message terrorizing black communities, was most evidently demonstrated by what he said to a female survivor, whom he apparently spared: “I’m not going to kill you, I’m going to spare you, so you can tell them what happened.”

From Roof's terrifying manifesto (@AllenWest/Twitter)
From Roof's terrifying manifesto (@AllenWest/Twitter)

According to his online manifesto, lastrhodesian.com, Roof’s racist rage began during the Trayvon Martin case. He was incensed that people thought George Zimmerman was guilty. That then led him to “to type in the words ‘black on white crime’ into Google,” and he has “never been the same since that day.”

Other disturbing images on the website include Roof at historic sites of slavery, like Sullivan’s Island or the Boone Hall Plantation. He glorified the Confederate flag and displayed pro-Nazi codes, such as writing “1488” in the sand. 14 stands for the 14 words, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children" coined by David Lane, a white supremacist and member of a white nationalist terrorist organization. ‘H’ is the 8th letter of the alphabet, thus ‘88’ stood for ‘HH’ or “Heil Hitler.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence of Dylann Roof’s race hatred, people are still hesitant to call out his actions as such. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is just one of many people to avoid labeling Roof’s actions as racism when he said, “We have no idea what's in his mind. Maybe he hates churches, maybe he hated black churches...who knows.”

Interestingly, Christon Scriven, a black friend of Roof, made statements in an interview with BBC that also denied any racist motive behind the massacre. Scriven said that he doesn't "feel any different today than before he did this. Who is to say that Dylann was in his right mind...everybody is making him out to be racist, but here I am as a black man telling you that I look at him no different today.”

Roof with Rhodesian and South African Flags (@AsaWinstanley/Twitter)
Roof with Rhodesian and South African Flags (@AsaWinstanley/Twitter)

Others are quick to excuse Roof’s actions or offer alternate explanations other than the simplest and most obvious one: racism. Some are calling this a war on Christianity and religious liberty. Fox News, in an interview with Bishop E.W. Jackson, attributes the Charleston deaths to “rising hostility towards Christians because of their biblical beliefs.” Other conservative groups view this as an “assault on religious liberty.”

But in fact, Roof attacked the church not because he was opposed to religion, but because the Emanuel A.M.E. Church is one of the largest black congregations of the South and a “symbol of black power and influence.” In the manifesto found on Roof’s website, he said, “I chose Charleston because it is the most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads here, no real KKK active...someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world.”

According to friend Joey Meeks, Roof meticulously planned this attack for months. “Dylann boasted about doing something crazy. His goal was to start a race war.”

READ MORE: Will The Charleston Church Shooter Face The Death Penalty?

President Obama participated in such diversion tactics as well by using the aftermath of the attack as an opportunity to promote the gun control agenda. “Innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun,” he said in his address on Thursday,understating the role racism played in these murders. The accessibility of a gun clearly made this attack easier to orchestrate, but it is not the crux of the issue. Whether it be a gun, a knife, or other weapons, if someone has the drive to murder, he will murder. Instead of focusing on preventing access to weapons that kill, we should start teaching people not to kill.

Often times the phrase “mental illness” gets thrown around as an explanation or defense of the killer in such tragedies. The same thing happened with Dylann Roof. As demonstrated by Roof’s friend Christon Scriven and Mayor Giuliani’s statements, people like to ignore the racist alarm bells and pretend Roof didn’t believe in neo-Nazi propaganda, and instead rush to saying things like “maybe he wasn’t in the right state of mind.” But as Julia Craven from the Huffington Post points out, “racism is not a mental illness.” 

Roof in police custody (@ChicagoTribune/Twitter)
Roof in police custody (@ChicagoTribune/Twitter)
It is not to say that Roof's mental state played absolutely no role in his actions on Wednesday, but it is quite damaging to center conversations surrounding this massacre as a “mental health issue." Roof’s racism did not just spring up out of nowhere; those seeds had to have been planted long before. Columnist Arthur Chu remarks that phrases like "mental illness" are “a way to avoid saying other terms like ‘toxic masculinity,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘misogyny’ or ‘racism.’” More importantly, the rush to talk about mental health effectively buries a discussion of a much deeper and structural issue: white supremacy and anti-blackness.

Interestingly enough, most people who rush to the “mental health” explanation aren’t neurodivergent folks, medical professionals, or really anybody working in the mental health sphere. Most of these academics and professionals conclude the opposite: according to the school of Social Work at the University of Washington, most neurodivergent people are not violent and in fact, are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetuate it.

Mental illness is also a label only used for white perpetrators of mass atrocities. The privilege of whiteness allows someone to kill 9 people in a historically significant black church, identify with white supremacist organizations, explicitly explain his reasoning for doing so, and still have people say, “maybe he didn’t know what he was doing.” This isn’t unique to Roof. Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista shooter from May 2014, killed 6 people and injured 14 others. He made a video before he attacked a sorority house detailing his motivations to “punish women.” The media quickly came to his defense, with magazines as reputable as TIME printing articles that said “misogyny didn’t turn Elliot Rodger into a killer” and instead blamed Rodger's therapists and family for failing to notice signs of mental instability.

However, coverage is very different when the violence in question is perpetrated by blacks and Muslims than with whites. Black people are quick to be labeled thugs and criminals, Muslim people are labeled terrorists, while white people are more innocuously called “suspects.” In headlines of the Ferguson police shooting, Mike Brown “Charged Cop Like a Football Player." Frontpage Mag calls him “a criminal and a thug.”

Media outlets made sure to say that Mike Brown was a “black man that stole cigars.” Trayvon Martin was “wearing a hoodie,” and Eric Garner had a criminal history of “34 arrests in 30 years” - as if any of these details justify their murder. Dylann Roof, a 21 year old man, is infantilized by the media when he is called “a quiet, shy boy” while Tamir Rice, the 12 year old black boy murdered in a park by police, is called a man. In 2014, after the media found out that Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the shooter at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, converted to Islam, it was labeled an “act of terrorism.” Claims that “he was on his way to Syria to fight the jihadist" were later reported to be completely false.

Roof’s race was not mentioned in the first 3 hours of coverage after the shooting. Even after he was caught and his racist statements brought to light, headlines still referred to him a “suspect” in an “alleged” killing.

White people are arrested by being escorted in bulletproof vests while 5 officers attacked Eric Garner and killed him. These are just some of the ways in which the media whitewashes stories to subtly manipulate public opinion and coverage to justify racist actions towards black people and defend whites.

Contrary to Judge James Gosnell's statements, the victims in this incident are not Roof’s family. They are those who were present during the terrorist attack on the Charleston church. The families of those who died have shown an immense amount of strength and love during what is the beginning of a long process toward healing and justice.

I extend my deepest condolences to those who lost their lives on the evening of June 17, 2015.

Rest in power and peace Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. DePayne Middleton­Doctor, Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., Rev. Sharonda Coleman­-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.


Learn more about the victims of the Charleston church shooting here.

Reach Contributor John Vitzileos here.



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