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Charleston shooting reverberates across political sphere

As Democrats propose policy fixes, many in the GOP characterize the tragedy as an isolated incident

Nearly a week after Dylann Roof walked into a black church in Charleston and allegedly gunned down nine African-American members of the congregation, the reverberations of the massacre are still echoing across the political sphere.

President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley have said the mass shooting is cause to once again re-examine the nation’s inadequate gun laws and reckon with the nation’s unresolved racial history.

NAACP President Cornell Brooks linked the tragedy to the broader oppression of African-Americans in the voting booth and in other arenas of society. He also pointed to a wider atmosphere of racial animus that inspired Roof’s actions.

“This crime occurred in minutes but it was developed over a long time period of time,” Brooks said at a press conference in Charleston last week. “We as a nation have to confront those values — a little bit of bigotry, a little bit of racism, is not acceptable.”

Prominent Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates, on the other hand, have at times struggled to articulate Roof’s motivations and have been reluctant to raise the Charleston shooting to the level requiring a political solution. Even as many members of the party, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, on Monday moved to endorse removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state Capitol — a flash point in the aftermath of the shooting — the awkwardness of the overall response opened a window into a party still looking for a way to handle race relations.

“I don't know. Looks like to me it was, but we'll find out all the information,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said on Friday when asked by the Huffington Post if the attack was racially motivated. “It's clear it was an act of raw hatred, for sure. Nine people lost their lives, and they were African-American. You can judge what it is.”

His spokesman later clarified that “of course” Bush believed the act was racially motivated.

Others, meanwhile, characterized the shooting as the tragic actions of a deranged individual that did not point to larger issues of race relations in South Carolina or the United States.

“I just think he was one of these whacked out kids. I don't think it's anything broader than that," South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a 2016 presidential candidate, said on CNN. "It's about a young man who is obviously twisted.”

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, a presidential candidate who has been unusually outspoken on issues of racial injustice, said despite the horror of the Charleston shooting, there was little policy could do to prevent such massacres.

“What kind of person goes into church and shoots nine people? There’s a sickness in our country, there’s something terribly wrong, but it isn’t going to be fixed by your government,” he said Friday. “It’s people straying away, it’s people not understanding where salvation comes from. And I think that if we understand that, we’ll understand and have better expectations of what we get from our government.”

Leola Johnson, chair of the media and cultural studies department at Macalester College, said politicians risk minimizing the issue of white supremacy and racism if such acts are perpetually treated as isolated incidents.

“There is a pattern of medicalizing white pathology and criminalizing black and brown pathology. White supremacists are not behaving in some collective way in some broader social way, they’re crazy, they’re mentally ill, right?” she said. “Whereas other people — Muslims, black people — their stuff is criminalized. They don’t get to be mentally ill, they don’t get to be crazy.”

“There’s no question that we need to have a conversation about white nationalism and white supremacy, and we never get to have that when we individualize these instances,” she added.

Joe Hicks, a member of Project 21, a network of black conservative leaders, said he understood the impulse to look for a political fix but such heinous crimes as the Charleston shootings could be the tragic byproduct of a free society.

“We live in a country that affords a great deal of liberty and individual responsibility for what we do, and as a result of that, we are also a nation that is susceptible to these kind of rogue shootings,” he said. “Sometimes the presence of evil will allow these things to take place, no matter how much we think there’s a policy or a law or something we can do to stop it.”

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