What happened in Charelston is not “beyond our understanding”. It is all too knowable.
Yesterday at around 8 o’clock in the evening, Dylann Roof, a 21 year-old white male walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal in Charleston South Carolina, the oldest black church in the Southern United States and whose history, in the words of Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, as a “symbol of black resistance to slavery and racism,” stretches from one of it’s founders Denmark Vessey, who was tried and executed for planning a slave revolt, to Coretta Scott King who led striking black hospital workers on a march which began at the church’s front steps in 1969. Roof sat in on a bible study for about an hour before he stood up, pulled out a gun, and began shooting.
9 people were killed. Among the dead are South Carolina State Senator, and the church’s senior pastor, Rev. Clementa Pickney , Cynthia Hurd, a manager at Charleston’s St. Andrew’s Regional Library, and Susie Jackson, an 87 year-old women and longtime church member.
Condemnation and condolences has overwhelmingly poured out from almost every section of American society, including politicians of every ideological stripe. President Obama remarked that, “There is something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship.” South Carolina’s Republican Senator and GOP presidential hopeful Lindsey Graham released a statement that read, “Every decent person has been victimized by the hateful, callous disregard for human life shown by the individual who perpetrated these horrible acts. Our sense of security and well-being has been robbed and shaken.” Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) called the shooter, “pure evil.”
However, the most telling statement came from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley who, while offering her “love and prayers” to the victims families, opined that “We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter our places of worship and take the life of another.”
Haley’s puzzlement, a sentiment echoed from South Carolina Senator Tim Scott who stated that the massacre could “never be understood” to the preponderance of everyday twitter users who simply could not fathom how a tragedy like this could occur, is not particularly difficult to resolve. In fact, on a rudimentary level, all Governor Haley would have to do to figure out what ‘motivated’ these killings is listen to the words of a spokesman for the Charleston Police Department, “They were killed because they were Black.”
The basic facts of the case make this self-evident. According to CNN, when Roof stood up to begin killing, he declared that he was there “to shoot black people.” Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of Rev. Pickney had talked to a survivor who told her that Roof also remarked, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. You have to go.” Photos have circulated across various news outlets showing Roof wearing a jacket with patches of the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, a racist state dominated by the white-minority population, which ruled the land that now constitutes modern-day Zimbabwe from 1965 to 1979. Other photos show him posing on the hood of a car; displayed on its front license plate is the flag of another apartheid state, the Confederate States of America. They were killed because they were black.
But what makes Haley’s, Scott’s and, in a way, America’s puzzlement that this shooting could happen in this country so nauseating is that Dylan Roof and the crime he perpetrated are just another manifestation of one of America’s most deeply-run credos: White Supremacy. Roof may belong to one individual prong on the pitchfork that has been jabbed into Black America’s throat since the first slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619, unique it it’s unapologetically naked vitriol, but ultimately part of the same body. The same body that brought those slaves and millions more across the Atlantic, the same body that needed to wage a war which cost the lives of a million Americans to excise slavery from the land, the same body that beat, stabbed, shot, and lynched freedman during Reconstruction, the same body that enacted the racial caste system of Jim Crow and brutally enforced it through state-sanctioned terror and violence, the same body that clubbed and bloodied men and women on a bridge in Selma for the crime of wanting to vote while black, the same body that used restrictive covenants and redlining and blockbusting to ghettoize Black America, the same body that unleashes police torture and mass incarceration upon those ghettos, the same body that kept Kalief Browder in Rikers Island jail for three years without trial for allegedly stealing a backpack, the same body that murdered Oscar Grant and Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell and Trayvon Martin and Eleanor Bumpurs and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Renisha McBride and countless others. The same body, just wearing different clothes.
Dylann Roof may exist on the fringes of American society, but those fringes are still attached to us all. He is just the latest expression of a societal tragedy that has been playing out for four centuries. Whether that tragedy has a coda or not is ultimately up to us. On days like this when we, from leaders on down, throw up our hands and express surprise, the chances look dim.