Justifying and erasing hundreds of years of white-on-black violence has left many Americans ill-equipped to make sense of the racist violence that we live with today. As a result, whites often lack the vocabulary to contextualize even the most obviously racist events. After Dylann Roof murdered nine black Bible study participants at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, media outlets tended to use vague language like “evil” or “monster” to describe Roof. That kind of equivocal terminology implied that Roof had an inherent, inevitable propensity for violence, a propensity that sprang up organically rather than being nurtured by extremist influences, and that his motivation was inscrutable because evil is incomprehensible and mysterious. Many politicians sounded like then South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who wrote, “We’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”
But Roof’s motive could not have been clearer. He wrote a manifesto about the threat black criminality poses to Western civilization. He confessed to police that he planned and carried out the shooting with the intention of starting a “race war.” Roof was desperate to make sure everyone understood that he had acted to promote white supremacy, but many Americans stubbornly refused to take him at his own word, insisting that it would be premature to interpret the shooting as racial terrorism. By failing to connect Roof’s racism with his obvious criminality, many allowed themselves to think of the Charleston tragedy as an isolated and senseless act, instead of seeing it as a seamless continuation of the racial terrorism that is America’s heritage.
In every generation, Americans have consistently spoken about racist violence committed by white people as justified, erased it from memory, or simply called it something else. So when self-identified white nationalists seeking to turn America into a whites-only homeland held a torchlight protest, many observers failed to make the clear connection to bands of night riders, armed and carrying torches, driving blacks out of their homes to cleanse the region of anyone not white. When gun-toting white men at a neo-Nazi rally brutally beat a black man with metal poles, Americans failed to see the connection to the violence of slavery, to whites whipping blacks into submission. When a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of anti-racist counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring nineteen others, Americans condemned it thoroughly, but failed to recognize it as a lynching, as the kind of terrorist act whites in this country have long used to maintain racial control.