A gun rampage. A hate crime. An act of domestic terrorism. The shooting deaths of nine people in the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday night must be characterized as all three. While we await further information about the suspect, Dylann Roof, and as we mourn with the families of the victims, it is important that we categorize this tragedy accurately.
Roof, apprehended by police on Thursday, is a 21-year-old white man. Before he opened fire on a group of adults and children who had gathered for Bible study, Roof apparently told the congregation, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have got to go.” According to his roommate Dalton Tyler, he had planned something like this attack for six months. “He was big into segregation and other stuff,” Tyler told ABC News. “He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself.”
The Charleston shooting is a violent act of racial hatred, intended to terrorize and intimidate black people. It exists on the alarming spectrum of other acts of hate in places of worship, including the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963; the spate of arsons against African-American churches in the late 1990s in the South; the anti-Semitic graffiti regularly sprawled on the walls of synagogues and murders at Jewish community centers; the burning of Korans and throwing of Molotov cocktails at mosques; the vandalism of Hindu temples; and the 2012 shooting of six Sikh worshippers at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, by a white supremacist.
Indeed, acts of violence are perpetrated regularly in this country, on the streets and in places of worship, and on the basis of racial bias, sexual orientation, religious bias, ethnicity, disability, gender bias and gender identity. Annual reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) sketch a national landscape filled with hate crimes against people, including assaults and homicides, and property, including vandalism to places of worship or cross-burnings. The BJS reports that the percentage of hate crimes involving violence increased from 78 percent in 2004 to 90 percent in 2011 and 2012.
Meanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking the organized activities of anti-immigrant, anti-gay, anti-Muslim and anti-government “patriot” groups, many of which are forming in response to changing American racial demographics, immigration patterns and the election of a black president. They are motivated by the belief that the balance of power will shift away from white Americans — a sentiment apparently voiced by Roof when he said “you are taking over,” before opening fire at the church. These domestic right-wing hate groups should not be taken lightly. Their ideologies of white supremacy and white nationalism are seeping into mainstream political activity and rhetoric, and influencing “lone wolves” who are committing the majority of hate violence in the country.
The steady targeting of black communities, the increase in crimes against Muslim, South Asian, Arab and Hindu communities since 9/11, and the rise in reported hate crimes targeting transgender women of color are trends that we cannot ignore any longer. Hate violence stubbornly persists in the United States and we must mount multi-pronged, structural approaches to confront it.
We can start by calling the Mother Emanuel Church shooting a hate crime, as Charleston police chief Greg Mullen has already done. But we should also call it domestic terrorism. Doing so will help us understand the gravity of such acts and ensure that we characterize acts of hate in similar ways, regardless of the race or faith of the perpetrator. Typically, the media and lawmakers label an act of mass violence motivated by hatred or bigotry as terrorism when the perpetrator is Muslim or is of Arab, Middle Eastern, North African or South Asian descent in order to trigger a sense of national insecurity related to the 9/11 attacks. On the other hand, white perpetrators of similar crimes are given the benefit of the doubt, treated as innocent until proven guilty or characterized as mentally unfit. These disparate narratives in turn influence policy and legal decisions as well as public opinion towards people from marginalized backgrounds.
Categorizing mass violence motivated by bigotry as domestic terrorism will also compel the federal government to study, monitor, track, prosecute and ultimately prevent the hateful actions of radical right groups motivated by notions of white supremacy. Currently, the government’s programs to combat violent extremism almost exclusively focus on the threat of Muslim radicalization. Notwithstanding the negative perceptions of Muslims fueled by these programs, it is vital that the federal government allocate resources towards countering violent extremism by hate groups that target communities of color and faith.
But a label is only a start. In order to address the roots of hate violence perpetrated by individuals, we must come to terms with the structural inequities in America. The cycles of economic, education, incarceration and housing policies that abandon, criminalize and disenfranchise black and brown people foster an environment in which hateful individuals feel empowered to violently target already marginalized communities. We must disrupt these cycles through policy and culture shifts that include dismantling the narratives, propelled by xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism, that are constructed about black and brown communities — as people who are undeserving of benefits and rights.
Most importantly, we must acknowledge the tremendous emotional toll that hate violence has on the communities that are targeted. In Charleston this week, grieving families are struggling to explain how and why this tragedy occurred. Black children nationwide have once again been reminded that their skin color makes them a target, even in sacrosanct spaces.
Reporting from a prayer circle that formed in the wake of the shooting in Charleston on the night of the massacre, MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin tweeted a plea from one of the participants: “If we’re not safe in the church God you TELL US where we are safe!” It’s a devastating reminder of the pain endured by black communities, who are running out of safe spaces in which to live without fear. The neighborhood corner, the playground, the swimming pool, the church — all have been transformed from communal places into sites of terror. Through targeted policies that address structural inequity and individual bias, government efforts that counter domestic right-wing extremism, honest community-based dialogues about the racial realities in our nation, and support for movements of liberation and resistance, Americans must commit to reclaiming these spaces. We must accept nothing less from our institutions, our leaders and each other.