Multiple news outlets are reporting that a white male suspect, approximately 21 years old, joined a Bible study service at the Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston, South Carolina, then stood and began firing a gun. He killed nine people, all of them black, including State Senator and pastor of the church, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney. At this time, the suspect remains at large.
The Emanuel A.M.E. church, the oldest AME church in the South and home to the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore, Maryland, is rooted in the struggle for black freedom in the US and has a long history of being targeted by white violence. The church is listed as one of the historic sites in Charleston, South Carolina by the National Park Service, which details some of the church’s history on its website. In 1822 the church was investigated for its involvement with a planned slave revolt. Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders, organized a major slave uprising in Charleston. Vesey was raised in slavery in the Virgin Islands, and ultimately won his own freedom and then began to organize for others’ to gain their freedom. He organized a slave rebellion, but authorities were informed of the plot before it could take place. During the Vesey controversy, the AME church was burned. Vesey reportedly advanced the date of the insurrection to June 16, a date that many point to as having significance fort his attack. Ultimately, some 300 alleged participants were arrested for their involvement in the slave revolt plot, and 35 including Vesey were executed. If you’re not familiar with this history, I recommend Robertson’s biography of Vesey.
Black churches have a long history of being targets for white terrorist violence. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four little girls were killed by members of the local KKK in 1963 is the example with which most people will be familiar, but there are many others. Bernice King reminded her followers that her grandmother, Dr.King’s mother, was killed in church:
My heart is heavy re: Charleston #AMEChurchshooting. Remembering 41 years ago, 6/30, when my grandmother (dad’s mom) was killed in Church.
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) June 18, 2015
And, these attacks have continued. Throughout the 1990s there were a series of arson attacks against black churches throughout the South for which no one was ever arrested or charged for these crimes.
While the suspect in the shootings in Charleston remains at large, he has been identified by eye-witnesses as a white man and is thus connected to a long history of white terrorism enacted by white men against racialized others in the US. Most recently,
David Leonard Zak Cheney-Rice (thanks Kyra!) explained this dynamic in his piece about James L. Boulware, the white man who opened fire on Police Headquarters in Dallas and lived to tell about it.
While Boulware is just the most recent, there is a long string of white men with guns who act out their rage in violent ways. Frequent readers here will know that I’ve been on about the trouble with white women and the way they(we) are implicated in perpetuating systems of white supremacy, but let me be clear: it is white men who are the most deadly threat. Indeed, although the bulk of the mainstream media attention focuses on “Islamic extremists” — and we continue to take off our shoes at airports because of this putative threat — the reality is that most of the terrorist activity occurring in the United States in recent years has come from white men drawn from a combination of radical Christian, white supremacists and far-right militia groups.
Why is it always a white guy and why can’t we connect these dots?
Sociologist Michael Kimmel suggests that it is “aggrieved entitlement that lies underneath the anger of American white men.” Similarly, Joe Feagin has written extensively about the social problems created by white men as a population. Of course, if you’re a woman of color and a professor, saying that America is reluctant to call out white men as a problem on social media could cost your job.
Still, these dots do not get connected. People, for the most part, do not make the connection between Timothy McVeigh – who bombed the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City – and the shooter in Charleston, South Carolina. Part of the reason most (white) people can’t make these connections is the way that this story will get reported in the mainstream media. My pal Chauncey Devega and I discussed how this is going to play out a little earlier:
Even when white men commit the most heinous acts — like killing people at a place of worship — they get treated to a sympathetic narrative and backstory. I promise you when this suspect is identified, we will see multiple mainstream news stories about how “he wasn’t always like this” (complete with baby pictures), testimony from white parents and neighbors about “what a good guy” he always seemed to be, and finally, an “investigative” piece that uncovers the fact that he was posting on Stormfront and asks the burning question: “did the Internet do this to him? Did it lure an otherwise good boy into the dark world of neo-nazis?”
We Need to Talk about White Supremacy
People keep saying that we need to “have a conversation about race” in this country, but what we need to have is a conversation about white supremacy. To be sure, the mass murder at the Emanuel A.M.E. church is an act of white supremacist terrorism. The white man who did this is a terrorist with a political agenda to kill black people. When one segment of the population can easily — and legally — buy and carry deadly weapons and almost never seen as suspect while another segment of the population is always a target of violence, even in a place of worship, that is white supremacy. Yet, for the most part, we have no way to talk about this kind of systemic racism in US culture. When most (white) people hear the term “white supremacy” they think of the people in robes and hoods, not the white men pictured above.
The deaths of nine black people in Charleston, South Carolina who were doing nothing more than attending a Bible study — and were targeted for their blackness — is a stark reminder that there are very real, material ways that all lives do not matter in the same way within a white supremacist context.