In the two weeks since a gunman walked inside a historic black church in Charleston and, after some prayer, shot and killed nine people, two competing narratives about what happened have emerged.
Apparently the answer depends in large part on whether you are black or white. A CNN/ORC International poll released Thursday revealed a pretty stark racial divide.
Those questions were posed June 26-28, almost 10 full days after the accused shooter, Dylann Roof, had been captured and substantial information about Roof's apparent racist motives had become public.
Whatever Americans heard or read in that window produced almost uniform agreement that the Charleston shooting amounted to a hate crime. But, 61 percent — a comfortable majority — of white Americans do not consider what happened an act of terrorism. By contrast, 55 percent of African Americans say it was terrorism.
My colleague did make a nuanced and important point arguing not to describe Roof himself as a terrorist because that gives too much weight to the brutal actions of a hate-filled, dysfunctional and downtrodden young man. I'm willing to concede that we probably don't think enough about the inner lives and struggles of men — certainly not those who are sliding down the social ladder.
But explaining why so many white Americans seem so firmly wedded to the more-minimal description of Roof's alleged crimes or his intent is not an easy task.
Perhaps a bit of history would be helpful here.
Though many might not know it, white supremacists are a central part of America's history of labeling, combating and responding to terrorism. I'll repeat what I wrote the morning after the shooting because I believe it important.
In 1871, Congress passed a law known as the "Ku Klux Act," giving President Ulysses S. Grant broad latitude, including martial law, to track down and punish members of the Ku Klux Klan. At the time, the group had made a habit of harassing and often brutally murdering African Americans, but also Republicans of all races because of their views on political issues involving race.One of the group's favored tactics involved the singling out of outspoken black individuals and community leaders, subjecting them to horrific torture and then, leaving behind said person's mutilated corpse. The tactic had two aims: (1) to silence the outspoken; (2) to discourage those left alive from emulating the dead. It was a form of organized physical violence with strong psychological elements. It was domestic terrorism.
And blacks who challenged white supremacy are the very reason that the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination and Emanuel AME exist.
Here's what Dennis C. Dickerson, a historian of African American Religion at Vanderbilt University, told me. (Dickerson also served as the historiographer for the AME denomination for 24 years before retiring from that role in 2012.)
In 1783, Richard Allen, a Philadelphia-born slave owned by a Delaware family purchased his freedom at the price of 2,000 Continental dollars. Allen had convinced his owner to let him buy his freedom by working odd jobs along with his daily slave duties. Among Allen’s odd jobs: driving a wagon for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
By the mid-1780s, Allen had returned to Philadelphia a free man, and he soon joined a white congregation then known as St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. But soon, Allen’s compelling sermons drew so many African Americans to St. George’s church that his special services became a problem. The church decreed that black worshipers must pray and otherwise participate in the congregation from the rear of the church.
During prayer in the church sanctuary in 1787, a number of black St. George’s parishioners instead knelt near the front of St. George’s worship space. Many of the white parishioners were outraged. Some tried to physically force the black parishioners to stop praying and stand. At least one person was “manhandled,” Dickerson told me, and nearly jostled to his feet.
If St. George’s wouldn't foster equal worship, then the black parishioners should have their own space, under their own control where their faith and humanity would be fully respected, Allen is said to have told friends.
In Philadelphia, the church Allen founded eventually built a permanent facility within sight of Independence Hall. Later, one of Allen's mentees would come south and — along with the now famous slave rebellion planner, Denmark Vesey — found Emanuel AME in Charleston.
Vesey held several planning meetings for the revolt at Emanuel AME. So when the plot was eventually uncovered, Charleston's all-white city leadership destroyed the church and tried to ban the congregation from meeting. Instead, they continued in secret and eventually rebuilt.
It's not clear if Roof, a serious student of apocryphal and selective Southern history, knew any of that when he allegedly walked in Emanuel AME. But according to a friend, Roof hoped to foment "race war."
Now, if you subscribe to the idea that history does not inform the present or believe that this country's racial wrongs are the definition of this rule, it might be worth your while to read what terrorism experts are saying about the events in Charleston. The brief summary: Violent white supremacists have been a more deadly force in recent American history than radical Islamic terrorists.
So, the plausible reasons that so many Americans do not see what happened in Charleston as both a hate crime and an act of terrorism cannot be comforting.
Maybe some Americans are reluctant to use the term terrorism because they fear that this will make the events in Charleston a sustained and central part of the country's identity, much like Sept. 11.
Maybe some people have a harder time believing the deaths of black Americans in these tragedies are as senseless. We have grim confirmation that these people exist in the many fake photos, biographies and online commentaries posted after the deaths of unarmed black teens like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. The court testimony offered in these cases could form a case study in the role that race plays in fear and perceptions of danger.
Maybe some Americans fear that the biggest baddest label of all crime — terrorism — will bring new attention to long-stalled gun control ideas.
But this CNN poll ultimately should make reasonable people wonder, how would the Charleston massacre be described if the shooter were black and the nine victims white people who came to church on a Wednesday night to pray?