Why recognising the Charleston Church shooting as an act of racially motivated terrorism is only the first step

Published: June 21, 2015
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The flags on Dylann Roof's jacket suggest he may be an admirer of white supremacist states. PHOTO: REUTERS

The flags on Dylann Roof's jacket suggest he may be an admirer of white supremacist states.  PHOTO: REUTERS Mourner kneels outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. PHOTO: REUTERS Dylann Roof arrested for the Charleston Church massacre. PHOTO:REUTERS

I took a moment of silence.

A long moment… as I struggled to sort through my emotions while I watched the breaking news reports that gunshots had torn through Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, around 9pm Wednesday. Nine people gathered for a prayer meeting were killed.

The shots were fired by Dylann Roof, a white man in his early 20s, who entered the church, worshipped with the members and later opened fire. The massacre will be investigated as a hate crime, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said. However, by definition, it was a domestic act of terrorism and the gunman, a terrorist.

As the victims become publicly identified, among them state Senator Clementa Pinckney. We must acknowledge that this atrocious act occurred inside one of the nation’s oldest and most prominent black churches, making it hard to argue against the logical assumptions that all of the victims are black. More importantly, despite few specific details about the gunman’s motives, it would be remiss not to consider this wicked act of violence as one of racial hate and terrorism. It appears steeped in the repulsive reality of race in America and the injustice it has forged against black lives everywhere.

One local resident told an MSNBC reporter of the murderer’s motives:

“It’s obvious that it is race, you got a white guy coming into an African-American church. That’s a choice: he chose to go into that church and harm those people.”

The agony pulsing through Charleston now is the same felt every time a black life is lost to the acts of bigots and brutality, every time a black life is violently dehumanised or devalued – often without repercussion.

It’s not breaking news that being black in America can be difficult and frightening, to say the least. Now, more than ever, we cannot ignore or mask the reality that we live in a country where one’s complexion can be a direct threat to safety and livelihood.

Last week, I watched in horror as a white police officer yelled and used excessive force against young, black kids at a pool party in McKinney, Texas. A 15-year-old black girl was pinned to the ground and cried out for her mother as the officer dug his knee into her back. Moments before, he brandished his gun at two young black boys as they tried to come to her aid.

Much less importantly, in the last few days, I have seen former NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal’s white face, terribly tanned and masked as ‘black’, plastered across TV screens, her name dominating my Twitter timeline and her life dissected through discussions I’ve both overheard and participated in.

I no longer care to see, hear or say her name.

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his latest piece for The Atlantic, urges us to weigh that circus against,

“America’s greatest and most essential crimes – the centuries of plunder which birthed the hierarchy which we now euphemistically call ‘race’.”

He continues:

“Kalief Browder died, like Renisha McBride died, like Tamir Rice died, because they were born and boxed into the lowest cavity of that hierarchy. If not for those deaths, if not for the taking of young boys off the streets of New York, and the pinning of young girls on the lawns of McKinney, Texas, the debate over Rachel Dolezal’s masquerade would wither and blow away, because it would have no real import nor meaning”.

Dolezal is a distraction, and her story is far too confusing, contradictory and complicated to serve as a useful catalyst to re-examine or redefine race or what it means to be black. Instead, if we are genuinely motivated to examine the role of race and racial violence, we must return our attention to how these institutional forces are affecting the lives of those who don’t have the luxury of crafting their own identity.

Let us look to the events in McKinney, which made us witness yet again the harsh treatment of black citizens by white officers.

Let us look to the Dominican Republic, where hundreds of thousands of Haitians fear being deported by a xenophobic immigration policy that human rights groups say is rooted in longstanding racism.

Let us look to our own criminal justice system and the long-term and fatal effects it has had on countless individuals like Kalief Browder.

Let us look to the death of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was shot from behind by a white police officer in April, just miles away from Wednesday’s church shooting.

Let us look to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, when four young black girls were the victims of another hate crime at another predominantly black church.

Let us look to the purpose and mission of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Lastly, let us look to all the other black men and women who have been brutalised and killed under similar, distressing circumstances, and consider them for what they are: acts of racial violence.

One black Charleston resident told a reporter Wednesday night,

“This is as bad as it can get. If we can’t find refuge in church, where can we go? Where can we be safe?”

The piece originally appeared here.

Lilly Workneh

Lilly Workneh

She is the Black Voices Editor at the Huffington Post. She tweets as @Lilly_Works (twitter.com/lilly_works)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Habib

    USA is becoming disintegrated and looking to be more fragmented with time. I guess Orwell was right when he said “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”Recommend

  • Ibn-Arastoo Ibn-aflatoon Ibn-B

    Please keep away from Pakistan and Pakistani websites. We don’t want Black people misleading our people with their politics and their incorrect perception of the world. The US is our allies and we remain loyal to the Capitalist West (and we have the greatest affection for Russia). Is this your idea of westernizing and helping Pakistan? By bombarding our nation with Blacks and Indians ? What sort of allies are you? This paper and her French / US/ or Russian backers along with their Indian and Black infiltrators is not helping us but continuously misleading our people. We want you out and we would much rather have the loving Canadians, Brits, White people communicating with us. Please leave us alone and leave our allies (the US. and the Western hemisphere) alone.Recommend

  • p r sharma

    Just wearing the name of Arastoo does not make one wiser. This article was published in an American news paper. Author is least interested in Pakistan and Pakistani websites.Recommend

  • Ibn-Arastoo Ibn-aflatoon Ibn-B

    Again the point is we do not want the Blacks and Indians and their political ideas infiltrating Pakistan and the Islamic world. It does not matter whether this was intended for publication in the US or Pakistan. We specially do not want Black / Indian / minority/ Eastern militant propaganda from infecting our people.

    We fought for the capitalistic west and shed the blood of our children so we can remain allied with the West. We will not abide the enemies of the West and the United States and the White people to corrupt our people. We will not allow blacks and Indians and divergent minorities from harassing , misleading and associating with us. We are a western and separate and monotheistic people. We have nothing to do with either Africans and their culture or religion nor Indians and their polytheistic ways.

    The only thing admirable about India is perhaps Gandhi and his non violence etc. but you people profess to non violence and then come to our websites and mislead our people with subtle innuendo and what you mistake for “wisdom”? You mislead us with sarcasm and jeers that would put the most wicked women to shame.

    We are a people descended from Abraham and his children and we are famous for not having any deceit or duplicity in us. You Indians will not understand that (I see now) because your culture and religion is entirely different. Neither you will understand and we hope we remain innocent of your incorrect ways. We politely ask you to not try to associate with us over some “Asian” , “Indian” , “South East Asian” nonsense. We are a western people and our allegiances are with all that is good and fair. A long time ago the Indians were asked to interact with the Pakistanis because it was assumed that they were Gandhian and more westernized than the Pakistanis. Of course this is not the case with the hordes of Indians mis leaders and now black / Indian/ divergent / minority propaganda. You are taking us away from the West and intervening in our relationship with the US and Russia (as always) That is not allowed . . . kindly leave us alone or I assure you that you will not have a land from which you may bombard us with propaganda. We love our neighbors but what you are doing is passive aggressive and duplicitous and misleading (ungodly).Recommend