Charleston shooting: A consequence of racist imagination

‘Race’ has a particular place in US society as does the gun. Combined they have truly devastating consequences as with the murderous spree in Charleston S.C. on the evening of 17 June 2015.

Nine murders took place in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of America’s oldest black churches. The suspect is a now-apprehended white 21 year old, Dylann Storm Roof. He apparently sat with churchgoers for an hour before launching his attack.

Themes emerging in the commentary include the domestic terror facing African-Americans and the need for an enforcement response; the problem of white supremacism – Roof has been pictured with segregationist symbols used in South Africa and Rhodesia; and bewilderment – the Chief of Police describe the actions of the killer as ‘unfathomable’.

However, whilst Wednesday’s events are undeniably terrifying, devastatingly sad and shocking they are not surprising. To some extent they are the warped but logical product of an important part of the American, and indeed Western, imagination about black people.

Roof himself was reported as justifying his actions by saying ‘I have to do it. You rape our women and you are taking over our country. And you have to go.’

In doing so Roof has absorbed and regurgitated themes familiar in popular and political culture about black beastliness; black insurgency as an enemy within; and a narrative where vengeance equals justice. In the gunman’s grotesque and gendered logic Black men rape white women and he made sure that black women bore the brunt of his attack, making up six of his nine victims. Similarly, by attacking a black church Roof was striking a blow to a bedrock of resistance against racism and oppression.

It is too soon to understand the response that will emerge to this atrocity. If this act, in the US or UK, unfolded in a place of white gathering by someone claiming to be Muslim there would no doubt be vilification and securitisation. The accompanying narrative would position the perpetrator as part of a sustained and organised campaign against whites and western civilisation. In Roof’s case it is more likely that he will be portrayed as an unhinged loner – catastrophic but an outlier. At most this may be seen as a hate-crime. But we must read more into this and assert that Roof is deeply connected to and a product of society.

Roof and people who will be cheering his actions can choose a different path but they are also formed by a system that racialises and dehumanises members of society. Racism is multi-stranded and so too must be the response. One strand of counter-politics is to call out and contest the racialising and dehumanising stories that contaminate the collective imagination. We must notice and challenge the commonsense idea advanced in everyday talk and by Dylann Storm Roof that certain populations belong less or that some amongst us ‘have to go.’