How America Created Dylann Roof

June 28th 2015

Emma Bracy

Last week, America saw an example of homegrown terrorism: Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white boy who gunned down nine members of the historically Black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina. It looks like the moral debt of a society that has always promoted an “us versus them” mentality. It looks like the refusal to believe what deep down, we all know to be true: America created Dylann Roof.

The media has struggled to call Roof a terrorist, despite how plainly his actions reflect our nation’s legacy of anti-Black terrorism. The difficulty of acknowledging a painful truth is something I know well. I too have struggled, here, in writing this. Do I call America a hateful, racist place? I remind myself to tread lightly. Don’t offend. Don’t say the wrong thing. And then I acknowledge what I know -- this self-censorship, this regulation of my Black body, of my anger, of my pain, of my sadness -- is a product of the same flawed logic that birthed Dylan Roof.

It is the logic of a society built out of a racial hierarchy where “whiteness” has always been on top. Whiteness might be an abstract idea, but the murder of nine Black people is not. This is why, contrary to what Ann Coulter thinks, belief in a racist America is not fantasy. Call it what you want -- racism, systemic inequality, white privilege, white power -- it’s all the same thing, and it is alive and well and insidious. It permeates every aspect of American culture and daily life. It is politically propagated, disseminated through our institutions, and imposed upon individuals. It is taught and instilled; passed down generationally, like holiday traditions.

Maybe some like Ann Coulter can’t acknowledge the reality of a “racist America” because they fear their whiteness would implicate them as some sort of villain. I’m guessing many doesn’t like thinking about themselves that way. So instead of wrestling with the concept of racism, striving to really understand it, they just deny its existence. Ann Coulter and many Americans succumb to willful ignorance.

Jon Stewart pointed to this idea just one day after the Charleston massacre. He called America out for having a “gaping racial wound that will not heal,” which we “pretend doesn’t exist.”

The monologue got a lot of play in the media. It was quoted and applauded all over the place, but few have attempted to address what it is Stewart was actually talking about. Unfortunately, this lack of critical reaction perfectly illustrates his point.

If there’s anything we take away from Charleston, it should be that now is the time for reflection. Dylann Roof has reminded us that we are not as untethered from our sordid racist past as we we may want to believe. We can’t ignore the “gaping racial wound” anymore. We must acknowledge that the fabric of our nation has been woven with bigotry.

Slavery is arguably the most obvious example. We all learn that slavery existed while we're in school, right before we learn about the Thirteenth Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation. We’re taught that Blacks were slaves, they picked cotton and/or tobacco, but are quickly ushered into learning about the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln! We learn that slavery meant free labor; we learn how it contributed to the economy of this great nation. Then we gloss right over all the atrocities. All of the ugliness. In the blink of an eye, slavery’s over and it’s time for algebra class. There is something missing from this narrative.

Baton Rouge, La., April 2, 1863

As Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), told Salon, the evil of American slavery wasn’t involuntary servitude. Rather, “the great evil of slavery was this narrative of racial difference, this ideology of white supremacy, that black people weren’t fully human, that they had deficits and deficiencies that meant that it was okay, that it was moral and just, to enslave them.” The Thirteenth Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation addressed involuntary servitude; the sick notion of owning people -- but not the mentality behind the practice.

And that mentality -- “white is better!” -- was a pervasive one. It still is.

Even after slavery was abolished, the belief that Blacks were somehow “less than” persisted. (Just look at the long history of segregation and violence in both the North and South.} An example of this lasting mentality is lynching. What greater explanation could there be for the nearly 4,000 documented lynchings that took place in the American south between 1877 and 1950? “[L]ynching was very much a tool designed to sustain the economic, social and political order of the day, which very much had people of color in a subordinate position,” Stevenson explained.

Lynchings weren’t just some form of frontier justice, either. Nearly all lynchings took place in spaces where there were fully functioning criminal justice systems. It was simply the prevailing cultural attitude that Black people weren’t worthy of basic human rights, like due process, or, say, life.

This is no exaggeration: the history is available for anyone willing to search it out. Read up on Jeff Brown, who was lynched in 1916 for accidentally bumping into a white girl while running to catch a train. Or William Little, a soldier returning home from World War I, who was lynched in 1919 for refusing to take off his army uniform. Or Jesse Thorton, lynched in 1940 for referring to a white police officer by his name without the title of “mister.”

Black men and women were burned to death; shot hundreds of times; dragged through the streets by white lynch mobs. The EJI documented hundreds of “public spectacle” lynchings, which were attended by white town members in support and celebration of the racist barbarism. “Judge Lynch” -- as journalist Ida B. Wells called the lynch mob -- made it very clear that living while black was unacceptable.

White Americans used lynching to instill a fear in Black Americans so great that they regulated themselves -- they knew where to sit and where to go to school and even to whom they could speak. "Judge Lynch," a masterful social engineer, kept black bodies under strict control.

Eventually, lynching became less popular, but white Americans continued to dole out racial violence. Black children were attacked on their way to and at school. Black men and women literally died for the right to voteDuring the Civil Rights era people were attacked with hoses, bloodied during peaceful marchesassassinated for leading a movement.

That was then. This is now. Despite great strides made by the Civil Rights movement, schools are more segregated than they were 40 years ago -- in a different but no less insidious way. Now we see McKinney, Texas: “Get out of my pool, or I’ll shove your face into the ground.” Now we see the devastating impact of mandatory minimum sentencing. In New York we heard, “I don’t care that you can’t breathe.” There's been no indictment, after no indictment, after no indictment.

Unfortunately, political movements and the adaptation of laws have done little to truly change the status quo. The narrative of racial difference is exactly the same as it always has been. And yet, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley wrote in a Facebook post that that “we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” I guess hundreds of years of racial tension and anti-Black violence perpetrated by white people is just really, really hard for some to “understand.” (Roof was very clear with his reasoning: he was there to shoot Black people.)

To Nikki Haley, and anyone else still seeking clarity: We are responsible for Dylann Roof, molding him in the image of white supremacy that has been the bedrock of our nation for hundreds of years. It is up to us, to all human beings, regardless of color, to do something about it. Please, don’t give in to denial. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson deserve more respect than that.