I’ve been going over and over this in my mind. I’ve had conversations with friends about it over the years, conversations that have intensified in the Trump age of resurgent, virulent, vehement white supremacy. It’s been three years since the Dylann Roof shooting on June 17th, 2015, and, truth be told, I wrote much of this on the one year commemoration of his massacre; three years is so short a time frame to realize that it feels like millenia ago given the volume of massacres America subjects itself to. I wish things were getting better, but it’s not. Nothing is better. In trying to make sense of Charleston, and everything since, I’ve read and reread the manifesto found in the wake of Charleston. The fact is, Dylann Storm Roof’s actions stunned a few people, shocked many, and lived out the expectations of the millions of others who have an historically informed understanding of life for non-White flesh in the United States. He showed us all, again, America’s embedded and grotesque underbelly of White supremacy, psychopathy, hatred, and cold-blooded murderous intent when he walked into the historic, Black, Emanuel AME church, spent a bewildering hour observing the prayers of a group of African American Christians, and then shot them all dead. Point. Blank. The cruelest act of racial hatred in recent memory was committed, true to form, against Black bodies that were peaceful. To be sure, this violence operates at the intersection of racism/White supremacy and gun violence. And in a nation consumed with debates on both of these fronts, it’s important to point out that inaction continues to demand deadly payment.
We need to have a conversation with Dylann in order to understand him (as crazy and painful as that sounds, yes, it is important) – I’ll be calling him Storm, short for Stormfront, in honor of his middle name and his affiliation with the White Supremacy website that has launched more White terrorists than any other. We have to do this to understand the failures of our society if we seek to redress wounds and address/remove future threats. It’s a lesson long past due.
The calculated hate unleashed in Charleston was beyond the scope of belief for many people born after, say, the 1960’s Civil Rights push, unless you remember the history of neo-Nazi attacks on houses of worship, including the recent Wisconsin Sikh temple shooting (2012) and the Overland Park Jewish Community Center shooting (2014). While Americans often ignore race based hate crimes, the emergence of #BlackLivesMatter during an especially violent, anti-Black year of police murder helped make Charleston international news. 2015 was called the Year of the Mass Shooting by PBS. Racism has been bad for a long time, literally since European settlers decided to come to these shores and Columbus’ first joural entries were about enslavement. Contrary to some opinions, racism hasn’t gotten much better, even if the most overt forms of racist violence have subsided; here we’re talking about an explicit White supremacist terrorist shooter, targeting a large group of Black people.
My concern is this: Storm was on to something. Have you read his manifesto? He was *actually* right about a lot of things. Mind Blown, I know. Stay with me. Don’t flip out just yet; I’m on your side.
Dylan Roof was kinda right. Let me explain: he found a few truths, recognized some half-truths, and he identified patterns of stereotype and oppression that many of us recognize from our own lived experiences. Bluntly put, he didn’t understand what he found and, true to the ignorance of racial hatred, he allowed what he found to be skewed, twisted, manipulated, and turned to terror. Where the rest of us saw these same things and said, “racism bad, white supremacy bad, oppression bad,” he instead gave in to the darkside, if you’ll forgive a Star Wars fascism metaphor.
Dismissing Storm’s manifesto as the scribblings of a hate filled lunatic – a reasonable course of action – accidentally and critically ignores the conversations occurring in White supremacist America; the America whose post-Charlottesville racism and democratic failures gave birth to the rise of President Donald Trump and the explosion of white supremacy in action that we’re all surviving today, the America we all have to navigate. This is the very same America where people of color continue to be killed at incredible rates, where White nationalist run over Americans with their cars and shoot at others, an America where the Becky’s and Karen’s of the world continue to call the police for questionable (read: absolutely normal) behavior, and where Native Americans are still surviving open air prisons, having land stolen, being denied basic human rights, and in an America where Native women remain the most likely to suffer sexual assault, harassment, and rape. Given the indispituable facts of this America, our America, Trump’s America, I absolutely propose to take seriously the racial truths Storm accurately identified, how those were mutated into Hitlerian falsehoods and terror, and, even more seriously, how broader society is complicit in allowing him to come to such a conclusion.
Dylann Storm Roof is a lost soul, having been formally sentenced to death this past January 11, 2018, but he was clear in his intent and his mind was sure at the outset;. it remains set, as he wrote in his jailhouse letters that, “I do not regret what I did”. He is not lost because of some chemical imbalance or some trauma – traditional NRA scapegoats whenever guns are used to commit a massacre – as if either of these excuses could forgive the terror he committed. Dylann is lost because he was never given the tools, either at home or at school, not by community nor faith, not by media nor society, to allow him to understand the racial discomfort he felt; the White Fragility; the anomie that comes with lost racial, and racially supported, economic superiority. He was left to grow angry in a sea of information that told him he was superior, that he should’ve been rich, that he should’ve got the girl, and that people of color were his lesser. That’s your failure, White America. America’s failure is leaving our young to navigate seas of systematic racial inequity and hate where White supremacists trawl the waters looking to radicalize young White men and women, turning their confusion into hate, and their hate into terror.
I’m not excusing him. There is no excusing what Storm did. But there is learning from it and holding the findings up to those in power; to the President, to Congress, to the Department of Education, to our politicians, to the police, to each other, and to ourselves. Take note, America, of the violently emotional, dissonant landscape we have created, in which hateful young white people like Dylann Roof (and his sister) are percolating.
The important part is this: Storm thought a lot about race issues; his writings and his thoughts are critical to examine in depth because if any of us think that “only Dylann Roof” could come to the conclusions he came to and act on them, we would be dead wrong. Emphasis on dead. That fact has been borne out again and again since his massacre on June 17th, 2015. We know we would be wrong because examples of violent white supremacist patriarchy have been acted out time and again since Storm (see: incels), and they’re only speeding op, only exacerbating in the Trump era. We need to examine his thinking and see where it failed if we hold out any hope of reaching the next young, White, male shooter before it’s too late, again.
The basic facts we find, upon engaging in a review of Storm’s manifesto, are manifold. I will lay out the basics here for those who don’t want to re/read his vile screed.
What Dylan Roof found:
- White supremacist sites are guiding and teaching angry, disenfranchised young white people.
- Prejudice works both ways. He referred to all of it as “racism,” though, and we know it is not.
- America is a melting pot. Even immigrants have the right to be here.
- Europe also has severe problems with racism.
- Black folk (PoC in general) are more tuned in to race than White people.
- Jewish folk have a long history of agitating for social justice, “especially among African Americans”.
- White people have no serious racial awareness, and it’s a problem when dealing with racialized people.
- White people are taught, from school and society, that White people are superior to Black people and that PoC are beneath White people.
- Education systems fail all of us and teach white supremacy.
- White flight happens partly because of fear (of racial confrontations).
- Integration is not without a downside.
- Poor whites feel left behind and owed, as well as “lessened”.
- White supremacist seeking national/racial separatism is stupid.
- Racial stereotypes abound.
- The White cultural deficit is real and really problematic.
- Jewish people are racially/culturally aware.
- Latinos suffer from internalized oppression and White supremacy (cites Univision).
- East Asians (Asians) suffer from the same.
- Patriotism is a joke to many.
- The military is fighting bullshit wars.
- We spend too much on Israel.
- We have terrific bright spots in American history to be proud of.
- Not all of us can catch the meaning in a movie about complex issues like race.
- Charleston has a long, important history to the African American experience.
- There are lots of great minds out there.
Looking at the list, decontextualized, it seems strange that someone who saw all this could have been responsible for one of the worst racist mass murders in modern history. Summed, these are the thoughts of someone on the verge of a racial justice awakening, the logic of someone struggling to understand why the system operates in such a racist way. But you missed the point, Storm. Though your murderous actions are entirely yours to own and pay for, the fact that you couldn’t quite connect the dots in your thinking is not entirely your fault. None of us is politically activated on our own. This is an idea I’ve come across recently. We like to think we’re deep, conscious folks who figured all this [insert: racism, sexism, homophobia, capitalism, etc] out, but the reality is that we come to these ideas by way of those who came before us. We’re politically activated by our parents, by our friends, by our experiences, by reading on the experiences of others. This makes a white awakening—a movement to politically activate young white people towards progressive, inclusive politics—a white movement. The rest of us, all we can really do is resist: we can protest and dance and chant. We can obstruct and offend and occupy. But we can’t save white people. We can’t fix whiteness. That’s on y’all.
Here’s the point: If we care to have the conversation and change the narrative, there’s a better world available to us; one that understands the histories of pain, violence, hate, subjugation, poverty, erasure, and suffering as much as it values the beauty, power, hope, compassion, creativity, generosity, purpose, and glory in all shades of humanity. There’s a world that wants to acknowledge our flesh and our pain while working with us and for us as equals instead of seeking to dominate.
That’s the world I want.
I want a world where I don’t have to leave American soil to finally put down my racial baggage to suddenly feel fully human (as a Native American, I’m not the target of racial animus outside of the Americas). I spent two years in Europe, where no White women felt the need to cross the street to avoid me and no police officers stopped me for being the wrong color for the area. There’s a world where young people are taught that diversity is beautiful, that the better people are those who work in the service of others, that the best people lay down their lives for others. There’s the world where I can be an atheist and know that nine beautiful people praying in their church will go home to their families safe and alive. There’s the world where Dylann Storm Roof will get a hug and an explanation from his elders, a lesson from his father, reinforcement from his teachers and from society at large, and examples from his brothers and peers, that remind him that his life has value, as much but no more than anyone else’s, and none need lose all for want of more than they deserve.
The great Jewish scientist, immigrant, and thinker, Albert Einstein said, to paraphrase: The world we have created is a product of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing the way we think. He was right. He lived through an era of great scientific advancement, incredible and terrifying achievement, and he also witnessed one of the worst genocides in history: the holocaust.
Racial hate, envy, greed, violence, scapegoating: these are not means to an end. They are merely an end. They are an end for good and beautiful lives, an end for one’s own humanity. They don’t help us transition from petty, warring peoples to a great, global citizenry. They don’t hold accountable those who are responsible for the massive inequality in the world, for genocide, imperialism, slavery, mass rape and murder, and the massive continental resource thefts of the last few centuries.
These things you felt and acted on, Dylan—these vile, base responses to fear, these manipulations by racists—are only an end. And you’ve given yourself an end. And yet you gave new life to the fight against racism, even as racism continues to grow; I see this resurgence as the death throes of a people, a system, a way of life that’s soon ending. In the end, after all has been said and written and done, as we look to the failures in our schooling around how we equip young minds to deal with the structures and strictures of the past, as we look into the inadequacies of our social safety net, into our continued policing issues, into the hollow and often hateful rhetoric of our politicians, into preserving and protecting the lives of our precious young people of color and rescuing our radicalized white youth from the twisted logic of white supremacy, we can in part thank you for that new life, while we mourn the lives you took.
Dylan Roof is no race war hero. He is no martyr. He is an abberation of nature, a failure of logic and imagination and hop; he’s a failure of America. And soon, only others on the verge of failure will seek to remember his name. Meanwhile, we will all work towards a brighter future, combating the failures of our nation’s past, and we will always #SayTheirNames:
Cynthia Hurd, 54
Susie Jackson, 87
Ethel Lance, 70
Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49
Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41
Tywanza Sanders, 26
Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74
Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45
Myra Thompson, 59.