Last week, a 21-year-old carried out an act of terrorism in Charleston, South Carolina.
It is important that we call it an act of terrorism.
Before the rise of Islamic terrorism towards the end of the 20th century, the term was most widely associated in America with attacks by white supremacists on black citizens.
The first documented terrorist attack in this country was carried out by pro-slavery forces. The first federal anti-terrorism act was motivated by the trail of fiery crosses and black men hanging from trees left across the south by the Ku Klux Klan.
It’s also important because it highlights differences in the news media’s response to crimes committed by white people and crimes committed by people of color.
If a Muslim had carried out a similar attack, we would examine his beliefs and attribute the crime to a strain of radical Islam. If a black person did something far less destructive, we wouldn’t even question his motives. We would be content with labeling him a thug.
When a white person carries out a mass shooting, we immediately say they’re crazy. We call them a loner.
As I write this, an anchor on CNN is saying we can never understand what motivated Dylann Roof to walk into that church and shoot those people.
This is despite the fact that the answer is right in front of us.
The flags honoring racist regimes on his jacket, the decision to target one of the first black churches established in this country, telling a woman in the church he carried out the attack because black people were “raping our women” — an excused used for many of the lynchings carried out in the late 19th century — and his stated desire to start a civil war paint a pretty clear picture.
He wasn’t a loner either. He received an education from white supremacist groups online. The attempt to label him a loner differentiates him from other white people in a way we don’t try to distance black or Islamic people who commit crimes from others of their race.
Despite the attempts from the right to frame Roof’s crime as an attack on faith, it is very clearly an act of a man motivated by a belief in white supremacy. Beliefs every bit as radical as the ones that led Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to carry out a bombing at the Boston Marathon.
Of course, if we call Roof crazy, we give ourselves an out. We don’t have to examine things ingrained in our culture that may have informed his beliefs.
South Carolina and Georgia are addressing the flying of a Confederate battle flag at their respective statehouses. Monuments that honor the sacrifice of Confederate soldiers are being defaced.
The government needs to stop endorsing these things — it would be nice if the street on which last week’s attack was carried out no longer honored a former Vice President who claimed that slavery was a positive good — but they are symbols of deeper problems that go unaddressed.
President Obama was called out for using the n-word earlier this week on Marc Maron’s podcast. He was saying that addressing overt discrimination — such as use of the n-word, or the flying of Confederate battle flags — isn’t enough. The outrage served to emphasize the president’s point.
If we call Roof crazy, we don’t have to question whether or not media outlets that disproportionately cover white on black crime — constituting 42 percent of coverage in LA markets despite only 10 percent of crimes involve a white victim and black suspect according to a recent study by The Sentencing Project — engenders a culture of fear.
We don’t have to question a culture that continues — 150 years after the end of the civil war — to incarcerate black people at a rate disproportionate to that of other races.
We don’t have to question whether or not this culture contributed to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice or Freddie Gray.
Maybe it’s easier if we just call him crazy. We won’t have to examine ourselves. We won’t have to change.