June 23, 2015, by Guest blog

Race and Rights: Charleston

In response to the murder of nine African Americans by a young white man at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Professor Peter Ling of the Centre for Research in Race and Rights examines the surrounding history, political context and narrative.

In classic English crime fiction, such as Agatha Christie, the recurrent plot is of a crime committed by an outsider who does not belong in the community or village where the offense occurs. Once the perpetrator is apprehended, the subtext is that the intrinsically moral social order has been restored and the aberration is at an end. Ironically, given what has happened in the US and the narrative lines that are developing, American crime fiction is much more associated with the sense that the crime committed occurs within a social order that is immoral and unjust and where the perpetrator punished is often puny compared the larger social forces that go scot-free.

Almost as soon as the news broke of the mass killings at Charleston’s Emanuel Church, the narrative of the lone gunman began to unfold. An advocate of gun control, Mayor Joe Riley spoke immediately of “an evil and hateful person” who “took the lives of citizens who had come to worship and pray together.” He later referred to the murders as “beyond comprehensible.” Meanwhile the city’s police chief declared the killings a hate crime, confirming that the shooting of nine African-American worshippers by a young white male was an atrocity motivated by racism. In the context of inflamed African American opinion over the series of police slayings of young black men, including an incident in North Charleston in April, the fear loomed that the event could trigger retaliatory violence. Perhaps keen to offset that threat, in early remarks on Thursday, President Obama said sombrely that even without all the facts, it was clear that innocent people had suffered because “someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting a gun.” He thus placed the Charleston incident alongside the 2012, “white-on-white,” Newtown school massacre as evidence that inadequate gun control was the key issue. While he also spoke of racism as the “dark part” of America’s history, his emphasis was on the way in which revulsion at the attack had brought unity across racial lines in Charleston.

The intersection of possibly the hottest political issues in American culture—race and gun control—makes the narrative trope of the lone gunman especially potent as the debate and story unfold. While Mayor Riley captured the initial shock by declaring the incident beyond comprehension, in the days since the killings it has become obvious that there are explanations.

The lone gunman, Dylan Roof, offers an explanation that is rooted in psycho-pathology and thus separates the killer potentially from broader social trends. An unemployed, high school dropout, reported as spending a lot of time alone, with drug possession and trespass charges in his past, the twenty-one year old Dylan’s police mug-shot was soon in public circulation, and was followed by another picture showing him wearing a jacket with the flags of the two apartheid nations of Rhodesia and South Africa. Quickly, media outlets found friends who testified that he spoke about African Americans in racially derogatory ways and was “big into segregation and other stuff.” He had apparently indicated a desire “to start a civil war” in this the sesquicentennial year of the South’s surrender to the Union in 1865. In speaking to the media, these friends implied that they did not share his views and thus underlined his “loner” status. Once Roof was in custody, relieved police stated that he had acted alone. Governor Nikki Haley was quick to call for Roof’s execution as the only appropriate punishment for his evil act. She reported that she had spoken to investigators whom she said had “looked pure evil in the eye.” Roof was being set up as a monster, unrepresentative of South Carolinian youth. While lawyers and other police officials spoke of the legal process that had to be followed, the Governor declared her job was to pull the people of South Carolina together, and this meant emphasising that Roof was an aberration. Even the small detail that Roof was not a Charlestonian, but came from another town, Lexington, outside the Low Country, could allow Charlestonians to claim that his hatred was alien. The local newspaper, using Charleston’s nickname “the Holy City” (a reference to the prominence of church spires along its skyline) spoke of how residents were struggling to comprehend how Roof could sit for an hour in Bible study at Emanuel Church and then open fire. Thus, the narrative of a crazed lone gunman was framed to expedite the restoration of the status quo.

Counter-narratives, on the other hand, require the lone gunman to be reconnected; to make him a symbol rather than an anomaly. Obama linked Roof to the question of access to firearms, while some Republicans tried to portray the killings as an attack on Christians rather than African Americans. TV host Jon Stewart used his huge audience to decry America’s peculiar readiness to spend billions against foreign enemies who attack its people and yet do nothing to tackle mass shootings at home perpetrated by Americans on Americans. The failure of state officials to lower the flag to half-mast in mourning at the state capital in Columbia allowed the debate to switch to the unredeemed nature of the South since the flag of South Carolina is the stars and bars of the Confederacy. Stewart alluded to this phenomenon also when he spoke of African Americans living in a state with roads named after Confederate generals who fought to keep slavery. The risk here is that Stewart plays into a long tradition of portraying the South as a gothic savage place where horrors happen in an un-American way.

On some level, Roof did aspire to be a Confederate hero in a nation whose conservative politicians demonise the federal government and its President on a regular basis. In this sense, he could reasonably be seen as a product of radicalisation, a susceptible youth whose fetid quest for meaning lead him to seek his redemption in blood. In the weeks to come, be alert to how the story of his crime unfolds, and how it is used to obstruct the changes that America desperately needs.

Peter Ling is Professor of American History, head of the American and Canadian Studies department, and a member of the steering committee for the Centre for Research in Race and Rights.

Image: Confederate flag outside the capital building of South Carolina (CC BY 2.0)

Posted in American and Canadian Studies