Is an ac­cused killer called a ter­ror­ist? Not if he’s white.

Race has swayed media cov­er­age of Charleston, says Anthea But­ler

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @AntheaBut­ler Anthea But­ler is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of re­li­gion and Africana stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia.

Po­lice are in­ves­ti­gat­ing the fa­tal shoot­ing of nine African Amer­i­cans at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., as a hate crime com­mit­ted by a white man. Un­for­tu­nately, it’s not a unique event in Amer­i­can history. Black churches have long been tar­gets of white su­prem­a­cists who burned and bombed them in an ef­fort to ter­ror­ize the black com­mu­ni­ties those churches an­chored. One of the most egre­gious ter­ror­ist acts in U.S. history was com­mit­ted against a black church in Birm­ing­ham, Ala., in 1963. Four girls were killed when mem­bers of the KuK­lux Klan bombed the 16th Street Bap­tist Church, a tragedy that ig­nited the civil rights move­ment.

But lis­ten to ma­jor media out­lets, and you won’t hear the word “ter­ror­ism” used in cov­er­age of Wed­nes­day’s shoot­ing. You haven’t heard the white, male sus­pect, 21-year-old Dy­lann Roof, de­scribed as “a pos­si­ble ter­ror­ist” by main­stream news or­ga­ni­za­tions (though some, in­clud­ing The Washington Post, have cov­ered the grow­ing de­bate about this dis­crep­ancy). An­dif cov­er­age of other re­cent shoot­ings by white­men is any in­di­ca­tion, hen­ever will be. In­stead, the go-to ex­pla­na­tion for his al­leged ac­tions will be men­tal ill­ness. He will be hu­man­ized and called sick, a vic­tim of mis­treat­ment or in­ad­e­quate men­tal health re­sources.

That nar­ra­tive has formed quickly for Roof. Soon af­ter his ar­rest Thurs­day, for­mer FBI spe­cial agent Jonathan Gil­liam ap­peared on CNN, say­ing that Roof prob­a­bly “has some men­tal is­sues” and didn’t know he had done any­thing wrong. That is the power of white­ness in Amer­ica.

U.S. media out­lets prac­tice a dif­fer­ent pol­icy when cov­er­ing crimes in­volv­ing African Amer­i­cans or Mus­lims. As sus­pects, they are quickly char­ac­ter­ized as ter­ror­ists and thugs (if not al­ways ex­plic­itly us­ing the terms), mo­ti­vated purely by evil in­tent in­stead of ex­ter­nal in­jus­tices. While white sus­pects are lone wolves — Charleston Mayor Joseph Ri­ley has em­pha­sized that this shoot­ing was an act of just “one hate­ful per­son” — vi­o­lence by black and Mus­lim peo­ple is sys­temic, de­mand­ing re­sponse and ac­tion from all who share their race or re­li­gion. Even black vic­tims are vil­i­fied. Their lives are combed for any in­frac­tion or hint of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the mur­ders or at­tacks that be­fall them: Trayvon Martin was wear­ing a hoodie, which was “as much re­spon­si­ble for [his] death as Ge­orge Zim­mer­man,” Fox News’s Ger­aldo Rivera con­cluded. Michael Brown

stole cigars, and Eric Garner sold loosie cig­a­rettes—“epi­cally bad de­ci­sions” that New York Post colum­nist Bob McManus, and many oth­ers, used to some­how jus­tify their deaths. And when Da­jer­ria Bec­ton, a black teenager who com­mit­ted no crime, was tack­led and held down by a po­lice of­fi­cer at a pool party in McKin­ney, Tex., Fox News host Megyn Kelly de­scribed her as “no saint ei­ther.”

In public dis­cus­sions, black chil­dren of­ten morph into po­ten­tially men­ac­ing adults af­ter they’ve been vic­tim­ized, while white mass shoot­ers are por­trayed as chil­dren, even if they’re well into their 20s. Media re­ports and po­lice state­ments re­peat­edly re­ferred to Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot by po­lice in Cleve­land while play­ing with a toy gun last year, as a “young man.” But James Holmes, who was 25 whenhe shot dozens at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, was fre­quently de­fined by his youth in media pro­files, which de­scribed him as “a nor­mal kid,” a “typ­i­cal Amer­i­can kid” and “a smart kid.”

Roof is get­ting the same treat­ment. In an in­ter­view with CNN on Thurs­day, Sen. Lind­sey Graham (R-S.C.) in­sisted that the 21-year-old is just “one of these whacked-out kids.” Since Roof’s ar­rest on nine counts of mur­der, the Wall Street Jour­nal and other ma­jor news out­lets have called him “a loner” in head­lines.

But it will be dif­fi­cult to hold to this cor­ro­sive, racist media nar­ra­tive when re­port­ing on the Charleston shoot­ing. Those who were killed were sim­ply par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Wed­nes­day night Bi­ble study. And the shooter’s choice of Emanuel AME was most likely de­lib­er­ate, given the church’s sto­ried history. It was the first African Methodist Epis­co­pal church in the South, founded in 1818 by a group of men in­clud­ing Mor­ris Brown, a prom­i­nent pas­tor, and Den­mark Ve­sey, who would go on to lead a large, yet failed, slave re­volt in Charleston. The church was tar­geted early on by fear­ful whites be­cause it was built with money from anti-slav­ery so­ci­eties in the North. In 1822, church mem­bers were in­ves­ti­gated for in­volve­ment in plan­ning Ve­sey’s slave re­volt, and the build­ing was burned to the ground in ret­ri­bu­tion.

In that con­text, it’s clear that killing the pas­tor and mem­bers of this church was a de­lib­er­ate act of hate. Mayor Ri­ley noted that “the only rea­son that some­one could walk into a church and shoot peo­ple pray­ing is out of hate.” But we need to take it a step fur­ther. There was a mes­sage of in­tim­i­da­tion be­hind this shoot­ing, an act that mir­rors a history of ter­ror­ism against black in­sti­tu­tions in­volved in pro­mot­ing civil and hu­man rights. The hes­i­ta­tion by some in the media to la­bel the white, male killer a ter­ror­ist is telling.

In the rapidly form­ing news nar­ra­tive, the fact that black churches and mosques his­tor­i­cally have been the tar­gets of racial vi­o­lence in Amer­ica should not be over­looked. While the 1963 Birm­ing­ham church bomb­ing is the most his­toric, there also was a se­ries of church burn­ings in the 1990s. Recog­ni­tion of the terror those and sim­i­lar acts im­pose on com­mu­ni­ties seems to have been for­got­ten post-Sept. 11, 2001. The sub­se­quent Is­lam­o­pho­bia that has gripped sec­tors of the media and pol­i­tics sug­gests that “ter­ror­ism” ap­plies only in cases in which the sus­pects are dark­er­skinned.

This time, I hope jour­nal­ists will ask ques­tions that get to the root of racially mo­ti­vated vi­o­lence in Amer­ica. Where did this man learn to hate black peo­ple so much? Did he have an al­le­giance to the Con­fed­er­ate flag that con­tin­ues to fly over the South Carolina capi­tol? Was he in­flu­enced by the right-wing media’s end­less por­tray­als of black Amer­i­cans as lazy and vi­o­lent?

I hope the cov­er­age won’t fall back on the typ­i­cal nar­ra­tive as­cribed to white, male shoot­ers: lone, dis­turbed or men­tally ill young men failed by so­ci­ety. This was not an act of just “one hate­ful per­son.” It was a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the racial ha­tred and white supremacy that con­tinue to per­vade our so­ci­ety, 50 years af­ter the Birm­ing­ham bomb­ing gal­va­nized the civil rights move­ment.

That sys­temic prej­u­dice is ev­i­dent in the Con­fed­er­ate flag that re­mains at the state­house be­cause white “tra­di­tion” is more im­por­tant than a history of racial ter­ror­ism against black peo­ple. It is ev­i­dent in the as­sault ri­fles that white “pa­tri­ots” were able to pa­rade around out­side a mosque in Ari­zona, while a black man was killed by po­lice for pick­ing up a ri­fle for sale in an Ohio-Wal-Mart. It is ev­i­dent in the tea party ral­ly­ing call to “take back our coun­try,” words mir­rored by the Charleston shooter as he killed nine black Amer­i­cans.

The Charleston shoot­ing is a re­sult of an in­grained cul­ture of racism and a history of ter­ror­ism in Amer­ica. It should be cov­ered as such. On Fri­day, Depart­ment of Jus­tice spokes­woman Emily Pierce ac­knowl­edged that the Charleston shoot­ing “was un­doubt­edly de­signed to strike fear and terror into this com­mu­nity” (though ter­ror­ism is not among the nine mur­der charges brought against Roof, so far). And now that Roof has ad­mit­ted to killing those peo­ple to start a “race war,” we should be call­ing him what he is: a ter­ror­ist.


Dy­lann Roof, 21, has been charged with mur­der in the shoot­ingWed­nes­day at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

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