By now, some of the basic details are clear: on Wednesday night, nine people (six women, three men) were murdered in the basement sanctuary of “Mother” Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during a bible study service. Victims include forty-one-year-old Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and South Carolina state senator; Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a minister, speech therapist, and high school track coach; Tywanza Sanders, a recent college grad; Cynthia Hurd, a library manager; and Myra Thompson, a bible study teacher. The alleged shooter, twenty-one-year old Dylann Storm Roof, reportedly spent one hour with a prayer group under the pretense of worship and fellowship before uttering an eerie preamble—“I want to kill black people”—and opening fire. After a fourteen-and-a-half-hour manhunt, Roof was arrested during a traffic stop in Shelby, North Carolina, still armed and supposedly compliant—a striking contrast to the long recent litany of unarmed young black men gunned down by white cops in a wide variety of far less fraught circumstances.
Unfortunately for the Emanuel A.M.E. Church, this latest tragedy is not the first time it’s been the subject of coordinated acts of racist violence. Black Methodist Episcopalians founded Emanuel in 1816 after years of being denied equal access to burial grounds by members of the white Methodist Episcopal church. In July 1822, freeman Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders, was found guilty of plotting a slave revolt in a secret court proceeding and was hanged, along with five other men. For weeks prior to Vesey’s arrest, white militias patrolled Charleston in search of the cabal. It’s worth noting that no white people were actually injured or killed during the panic over a slave uprising. Soon after, Emanuel A.M.E. was torched by white supremacists. Wednesday night’s assault seems to differ from the racial hysteria of 1822 only by virtue of its enhanced technological infrastructure. In June 2015, as in July 1822, we face the same delusional specter of a white majority under siege by a sinister black threat, one that paranoid white supremacists can divine everywhere and nowhere, depending on the chosen target of the moment. “I have to do it,” Roof reportedly announced as he started opening fire and killing his nine victims. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. You have to go.”
There, amazingly enough, were all the coordinates of the white antebellum plantation owner’s paranoid style, right down to the sexual demonization of the black Other. It seemed as though the past century and a half of emancipation, black civil-right agitation, and (grudging) desegregation of southern strongholds of white supremacy had simply never happened. And in important ways, that’s very much the case in South Carolina, the first southern state to secede in 1861, and still a bastion of symbolic white resistance. Roof’s now-infamous Facebook page featured a picture of him in a jacket emblazoned with the apartheid-era flags of South Africa and Rhodesia—but also boasted shots of him in a far more conventional white “Southern pride” pose, gesturing at a set of vanity Confederate flag plates on his car. That same flag still flies, notoriously, outside the South Carolina state capitol in Columbia—a brutal daily reminder of just who continues to wield duly legitimized social and political power over the state. (There’s also been a quite discomfiting, and more than a little surreal, debate over whether the Stars and Bars—a hated symbol of totalitarian and terrorist white rule in the postbellum South—which fly outside the capitol should have been lowered to half-mast to commemorate the victims of Wednesday’s tragedy, whereas any sane commitment to racial equity would have dictated the flag’s retirement, and ritual burning, long ago.)
Indeed, the effort to displace the Palmetto State’s collective racial guilt onto the figure of a “troubled” and “disturbed” lone gunman will be especially tricky in the wake of Wednesday’s massacre. Pundits on the right are already desperately trying to downplay the all-too-palpable racist motives behind the attack, with the reliably faux-colorblind daytime talkers on Fox News trying to portray the church shootings as an anti-Christian hate crime (a summer extension, perhaps, of the Fox-branded annual “War on Christmas”). No less an eminence than the Palmetto State’s senator, Lindsey Graham—a recently announced presidential candidate, no less—declared that the shooter appeared to be looking “high and low” for South Carolinian Christians to gun down.
Of course, it’s far more comforting to depict Roof as a maniacal atheist on the loose than to own up to the far simpler, self-evident social background of his deranged massacre. In adopting the well-worn symbols of white supremacy, Roof was able to project a kind of power otherwise closed off to him, in just the same way he was able to seamlessly ventriloquize the centuries-old sexual hysteria of the plantation. Roof, who lived in a trailer park in nearby Lexington, had already been arrested on minor drug and trespassing charges; an uncle had given him a handgun as a twenty-first birthday present—something of a de rigueur rite of passage for any heir to the south’s tradition of endorsing interpersonal violence as a stand-in for other, more conventional modes of male achievement. And anytime one generation of white southerner passes down arms to the next, the visage of racialized vigilantism always very much in the background; Roof was clearly attuned to this tradition, as well, when he reportedly told a friend he wanted to touch off another “civil war.” Roof’s friends, perhaps not wanting to take his delusional race talk at face value and involve themselves in the shooter’s descent into madness, said in retrospect that they thought that Roof had meant his comments in jest. (What sort of joke features race war as a punchline remains unexplained.) It’s just as likely though, that Roof’s racist outbursts didn’t merit sustained challenges or comment from his friends because they were simply not far out of the social norm for them—in much the same way that Roof’s confederate vanity plates were simultaneously symbolic of Jim Crow-era political terrorism and culturally normalized signs of their possessor’s in-your-face posture toward the world at large.
In another strange irony, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision the day after the Charleston massacre, affirming the right of Texas transportation officials to stop distributing confederate plates to would-be Dylann Roofs. To be sure, the denial of publicly sanctioned symbols commemorating the southern slave regime won’t begin to remedy the underlying pathologies of American racism in our time. Still, to begin to reckon with the true proportions of the cultural sickness that produced a Dylann Roof, we need to set aside the phony, comforting conceit that he was somehow outside of his society’s cultural consensus. What’s truly chilling about the Charleston murders is that the ritualized denial on display in our centers of media and political power alike show that the alleged gunman is far from alone in his dissociation from reality.