Last week, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof drove two hours from his home in Columbia, South Carolina to Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. After being welcomed in with open arms by the African-American churchgoers, Roof sat. And sat. And sat. A little over an hour after he arrived, he jumped back into his car and sped away, leaving behind the bodies of 9 people he shot to death in a horrific act of racial terrorism that has justifiably outraged the nation. Thanks to a perceptive florist, the 14+ hour manhunt for the killer ended in Shelby, North Carolina, more than 245 miles from Charleston. Following his arrest, he has been charged with 9 counts of murder and possession of a firearm. His bond is set at $1 million. The shock and bewilderment felt by many USAmericans upon first hearing of his deadly crime largely centered around “why would someone do this”. The answer to that was made apparent less than 24 hours after his shooting rampage:
“I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,”
Those are the words the shooter uttered to one of the few survivors of his murderous act. Those three sentences convey quite a bit of information about him. They tell us that he believes that there is an epidemic of black men raping white women, that black people are taking over the United States and, as a result, black people need to be killed. That’s one level of reading his comments. A deeper level reveals his views of white women, both that they’re the victims of sexual assault by armies of black men, and that they are the property of white men. Oh, and at first glance, one might miss the reference to “our country”, which indicates that this young murderer thinks the United States-which was stolen by Europeans from the Indians-belongs to white people. To his mind, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans–none of them belong here. And then there’s the fact that he’s obviously addressing his sentiments towards black men, and erasing the existence of black women, thus adding misogynoir to his long list of bigoted views. Additionally, in a string of 68 short letters, it becomes quickly apparent that Roof is acquiring his knowledge of the world from inaccurate and misleading sources. Some might say sources that advance far-right propaganda. After all, a casual look at news headlines does not reveal an epidemic of black men raping white women, nor can one look around and find black people taking over the country. Barack Obama’s presidency does not mean that black people have taken over the country. One need only look to corporate CEO’s, Wall Street executives, and the vast majority of politicians at every level of government to see that white people are still in control.
Within days of his arrest, a manifesto surface online, purportedly written by the killer. In the document, he describes his views of African-Americans. The manifesto reads like something out a white supremacist handbook. In the first-person screed, the author mentions the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin at the hands of self-appointed vigilante George Zimmerman as the event that prompted him to explore “black-on-white crime”.
The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case. I kept hearing and seeing his name, and eventually I decided to look him up. I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was unable to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right. But more importantly this prompted me to type in the words “black on White crime” into Google, and I have never been the same since that day. The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?
It’s clear that prior to reading about Martin’s murder that Roof was biased against black people. After all, how could someone reach the conclusion that Zimmerman was justified in his actions given that he was the one who instigated the very situation that resulted in him “defending” himself by killing Martin, unless that person already held negative prejudices about black people?
A cursory glance at the first page of results in a search for “black on white crime” (with quotation marks) turns up multiple far right, conservative sites including Angry White Dude, American Thinker, White Girl Bleed A Lot, and Conservative Headlines. Given that most crime is intraracial, sites hyping the rate of “black on white crime” are in all likelihood right-wing propaganda sites that ignore the fact that most violent crimes are committed between people of the same race/ethnicity. While the rate of “black on white crime” is higher than the rate of “white on black crime”, any discussion of the former that elides the proper context must be considered highly dubious. That context must include a discussion of the wealth and power that is disproportionately concentrated in the hands of white USAmericans. As the Southern Poverty Law Center notes in its rebuttal of white separatist author Jared Taylor’s 1999 booklet The Color of Crime: Race, Crime and Violence in America (which tries-and fails-to provide justification for white people to be fearful of black people):
Taylor uses an incredibly simplistic analytical method that flatly ignores the fundamental conclusion of decades of serious criminology: Crime is intimately related to poverty. In fact, when multivariate statistical methods such as regression analysis are used, study after study has shown that race has little, if any, predictive power.
This basic fact is so well understood among scholars of criminal justice that the preface to Minnesota’s official crime data reports carries this caveat: “Racial and ethnic data must be treated with caution. … Existing research on crime has generally shown that racial or ethnic identity is not predictive of criminal behavior with data which has been controlled for social and economic factors.”
When more sophisticated methodology is employed, socioeconomic factors including poverty, education, social status and urban residence account far better for criminal behavior than race. Above all, income counts.
It is precisely because being black in America is closely correlated with being poor, suffering from high unemployment and having low levels of education that the black community has relatively high crime rates.
In 1994, the same year that Taylor’s data comes from, the poverty rate among blacks was three times that of whites. In addition, nearly 40 percent of black children grew up in poverty.
So while it is true, for instance, that blacks rob whites far more than vice versa, that is hardly a surprise — whites, after all, own nearly 10 times the wealth that blacks do on average. They also own far more businesses. Thus, it is only natural that any rational robber would select whites over blacks as victims.
It would truly have been a “startling conclusion” if the facts had shown that whites attacked blacks more than the other way around. That poor people are more prone to criminality at the expense of the wealthy is utterly unsurprising.
Such context is missing in Taylor’s booklet as well as the fear-mongering white supremacist and separatist sites that turn up in the searches above. Given that Roof’s “research” consisted of viewing such sites, it is no wonder that he had a warped perspective on violent crime in the United States. Unfortunately, further reading of his manifesto shows that his poor critical thinking skills are far from his only problem:
From this point I researched deeper and found out what was happening in Europe. I saw that the same things were happening in England and France, and in all the other Western European countries. Again I found myself in disbelief. As an American we are taught to accept living in the melting pot, and black and other minorities have just as much right to be here as we do, since we are all immigrants. But Europe is the homeland of White people, and in many ways the situation is even worse there. From here I found out about the Jewish problem and other issues facing our race, and I can say today that I am completely racially aware.
It has already been established that his attempts at research have been quite poor. Worse, he has developed his worldview based upon faulty, misleading, and outright deceptive information. Bereft of the tools necessary to determine the accuracy and credibility of the information he received, and already exhibiting biases against People of Color, one can almost see the inevitability of Roof’s rejection of multiculturalism. The rest of his odious manifesto descends into a pit of nationalism, antisemitism, and xenophobia. Along the way, he throttles the racism dial to 10 as he spouts racial stereotypes about African-Americans, Jews, and Hispanic-Americans. Curiously though, he holds Asians in high regard, saying “They are by nature very racist and could be great allies of the White race. I am not opposed at all to allies with the Northeast Asian races”. This curious oddity aside, Roof’s rhetoric is nearly identical to the views espoused by conservative white supremacist sites such as the one he first visited, the Council of Conservative Citizens (click at your own risk; that site is a cesspool of racism, paranoia, and hate). With such views percolating in his head, is it any wonder that the same guy who wants to start a race war (because those end so well) also embraces the Confederate flag (his license plate even read ‘Confederate States of America’)? After all, the Confederate flag is an oppressive symbol of racism, slavery, and white supremacy.
In the last week, social media has blown up with people arguing back and forth about the Confederate flag. Some say it is a symbol of slavery and white supremacy. Others say it’s a symbol of their “Southern heritage”. I’ll leave aside the question of what the fuck “southern heritage even means” (I’ve seen exactly one person explain what it meant to them). Instead, we’ll go straight to the horses mouth. Specifically the words of a man who was crucial in creating the Confederate flag, William Tappan Thompson:
And it’s also the same flag that was explicitly designed to symbolize “heaven ordained supremacy.” Syracuse University historian Jonathan Wilson, who studies antebellum American literature, tracked down the meaning of the second Confederate flag as described by its designer, Thompson.
The following is Thompson quoted in an excerpt from the book Our Flag by George Preble:
If that isn’t clear enough for you, Thompson then wrote that this new flag would “be hailed by the civilized world as THE WHITE MAN’S FLAG” (sic):
It’s clear that Thompson felt the Confederate flag symbolized the right to enslave other human beings-specifically black people. He knew full well that the war was being fought over that supposed “right” of the Southern states. Claiming that the flag somehow represents honor or bravery (or the vacuous phrase “Southern heritage”) is one of the worst attempts at historical revisionism I have seen.
The Civil War was not the only time the Confederate flag was used to symbolize white supremacy. During the Civil Rights Movement, the flag was adopted by many Southerners in opposition to calls for equality for African-Americans:
In the early 1950s, stock car racers, Southern universities, and social groups embraced the Confederate flag, Coski wrote in his book [The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem–Tony]. It’s this kind of use of the Confederate flag that has made it a cultural marker, shorthand not just for the Confederacy but for a specific strain of white Southern culture.
But it’s not a coincidence that white Southerners were embracing the Confederate battle flag just as the South’s system of violently enforced white supremacy was under its first real threat since Reconstruction. President Truman had vowed to do more to promote civil rights, integrating the military and telling the NAACP that civil rights could not wait.
In response, the Ku Klux Klan surged. Southern politicians displayed the Confederate battle flag when they railed against Truman. College students who supported Strom Thurmond’s segregationist presidential campaign in 1948 waved Confederate flags at campaign events. The flag even became popular in the North: a man purchasing the flag in New Jersey told Life he was doing it to oppose Truman.
And when Southerners at the time said the flag represented their culture, they made it very clear whose culture they meant: “It means the Southern cause,” Roy Harris, a legendary Georgia politician, said in 1951, according to Coski’s book. “It is becoming … the symbol of the white race and the cause of the white people.”
Somewhat puzzlingly, in the same report that featured the anti-Truman flag buyer in New Jersey, Life wrote off the flag’s popularity as a fad. But black newspapers didn’t buy it: “Have we so soon forgot what the Confederate flag represents?” Coski records the Afro-American, a nationally prominent black newspaper, as asking. “The Confederate flag stands for slavery and human degradation. The Confederate flag stands for rebellion and treachery. The Confederate flag stands for bloodshed and segregation.”
The flag’s supporters didn’t buy the fad theory, either. “If displaying the flag of the Confederate States of America is a fad, it is one of the longest-lived fads in history, lasting some 90 years,” one sniffed in a letter to Life.
The civil rights movement didn’t change the flag’s meaning — it simply made the hate underlying the heritage more explicit. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, white Southerners used the Confederate flag to intimidate civil rights activists and demonstrate states’ willingness to protect segregation at all costs.
The flag no longer represented just a 19th-century battle to preserve white supremacy, but a 20th-century one as well.
The KKK waved the Confederate flag. So did the Citizens’ Councils, white supremacist groups of prominent and successful people who opposed integration. White mobs at the University of Alabama carried Confederate flags when they threw rocks at Autherine Lucy, the university’s first black student, before the university decided to expel her rather than protect her. Mobs fighting to protect segregated schools wore Confederate flags in Little Rock and New Orleans and Austin and Birmingham.
The link between Southern anti-abolitionists who sought to retain the right of states to subjugate African-Americans and civil rights era segregationists is clear. Neither group wanted integration. Neither group would accept blacks as their equals, seeing them instead, as beneath them. Neither group wanted to give up the power they had to dominate black USAmericans. And the legacy of both groups-a legacy of oppression, marginalization, and discrimination of African-Americans-lives on in the white supremacy of people like Dylann Roof. Before we can begin to see substantial progress in equality for African-Americans, Southerners need to own up to that legacy and accept the truth behind their “Southern heritage”.