Don't humanize the killer of nine Black victims by trying to understand his motivation. He told you with his actions. Now, let's get in a real conversation and confront our own racism.
Dylann Storm Roof is a domestic terrorist. He is a 21-year-old White supremacist. He has made it as clear as possible that he hates Black people. He went into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of our nation’s oldest Black churches, in Charleston, South Carolina, armed with a loaded gun and said to the congregants: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.” And then proceeded to kill nine people. And finally he’s been captured at a traffic stop in Shelby, North Carolina.
Really, that is all we need to know. We don’t need to learn anything more about what motivated him. Not about his mental health. Not about his relationship with his parents or how he did in school or whether he had friends. He told us and showed us everything: He hates Black people. He believes Black people do not deserve to live. And he feels entitled enough to take away their lives.
I’ve been reading my Facebook feed all day. What gives me hope is that all of my friends, of all races and ethnicities, have been discussing this tragedy nonstop—we are all devastated and outraged and grieving. But I can divide along racial lines the takeaways from the tragedy: Most of my White friends are talking about gun control. And mental illness. My friends of color are talking about racism.
Here’s the thing: We should all be talking about racism. In 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed, and four girls were killed. Last night, it was a gun and nine adults. And there have been too many murders and acts of terrorism that preceded Birmingham, and too many to count that followed up to Charleston. And it sure isn’t going to stop any time soon. Black people have been killed by White people by lynchings. By tasers. By bats. By pipes. By glass bottles. By bare hands. It doesn’t take guns to kill Black people. It takes racism. And we are a nation founded on racism, and we have done nothing to combat it. Racism is not a mental illness. It is something that is instilled in each and every one of us, not just cross-burners or tasteless-joke tellers or people who wield the N-word and similar epithets, but those of us who assume the Black person at the store is a clerk and not a fellow customer, or that the group of Black kids walking down the street is going to mess with us, or that the Black child who got into Yale over our kid was filling a quota. Or our silence and apathy when a cop kills an unarmed Black person. Rationalizing a White perp’s motivation, that he was mentally ill or had a troubled childhood, that he was a loner or on drugs. That a victim was a thug or “no angel.” Our insistence that we’re not a racist, that we have Black friends, well, okay, one Black friend. That “all lives matter.” Or just our simple refusal to engage in a conversation about race or racism because it’s too hard. Any of it. All of it.
To this day, there is a Confederate flag flying over the state of South Carolina. The state is run by a tea-partier. Yes, our nation is obsessed with guns, and it is absolutely frightening. And we have politicians who enable that obsession. The open-carry movement is, as far as I’m concerned, and many will agree, a terrorist movement comprising terrified White supremacists who feel threatened by a Black president and a White population in decline. But let’s be clear here: What happened last night at the Emanuel AME Church that stole the lives of five women and three men—Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Ethel Lance, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons, and Reverend Depayne Middleton-Doctor—was an act of terrorism by a white supremacist, and very deliberate. The gun was just a means to make it happen. Know the names of these nine people. Remember them. Forget Dylann’s. Black lives matter. They might not matter to cops, or, as we keep seeing, to politicians, even our president who has proven to be ineffectual in these dire times. But, my message to other White people, of which I am one and learning to engage in these difficult conversations more with each passing tragic day, is please make the Black lives matter to you. As the saying goes, stay woke.
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