It’s been just a day since a gunman burst into the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., killing nine. But already, the media is abuzz with its usual response to mass shootings. On the one hand, pro-gun proponents bemoaned “pistol-free zones” like churches, where guns aren’t allowed. If the victims had been armed, they argue, this violence could have been prevented. Gun control advocates, on the other hand, lamented that easy access to guns emboldened criminals to carry out “unthinkable” crimes. Even President Obama linked the shooting to gun violence, saying “at some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.” Now Wayne LaPierre has explicitly blamed the massacre on there being too few guns in the church that night.”
But turning this shooting into a referendum on the gun debate misses the point. It obscures a deeper, more uncomfortable conversation about race that can’t be resolved by passing gun laws or loosening gun restrictions. Too often, the gun debate serves as a powerful device for avoiding explicit challenges to racial violence, whether by adhering to a colorblind narrative of “good guys” and “bad guys” (at best) or playing into racial imagery (at worst). Instead of rehashing a hackneyed gun debate that has never taken us very far in national conversations on race and racism, we should be explicitly addressing the core issue at stake: racial violence.
To say it differently, this isn’t a story about guns. It’s a story about racial terrorism.
What we know so far is that suspect Dylann Roof targeted the Emanuel AME Church both a place of worship and a historical site of black empowerment. He sat quietly for an hour, then broke out into gunfire, reloading his gun five times. As his victims pleaded with him to stop, he refused.
“I have to do it,” he reportedly said. “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” He apparently wanted to spare at least one woman, so she could recount to others what happened in the church. If you substitute a noose for a gun, Roof’s actions are a shockingly unsurprising repetition of a long-standing history of Southern horrors; his desire to punish African Americans for the alleged rape of white women (“our women”), the fears of African Americans “taking over” government institutions, the insistence on using the public spectacle of white-on-black violence not just to victimize individuals but to warn and intimidate entire groups of Americans — all of these are textbook elements of the rampant racial terrorism marking the South (and, in some cases, the North) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Extralegal violence — whether in the form of rope, clubs, guns, fists, knives or other weapons — sustained this racial terrorism in Jim Crow America. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, 4,000 lynchings occurred from 1877 to 1950 in just 12 states. Race riots — such as the “Burning of Black Wall Street” in 1921 — decimated black wealth and destroyed black communities. Meanwhile, “racial cleanings,” as Elliot Jaspin explains in “Buried in Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleaning in America,“ compelled the forced expulsion of African Americans from towns across the South and the North. Each of these served to reinforce segregation and racial subordination.
Against this historical backdrop, the Charleston shooting is far from inexplicable, as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said.
The FBI keeps a tally on “hate crimes:” Not only do racially motivated crimes constitute roughly half of hate crimes reported to police, but African Americans are by far the largest group of victims — 65 percent in 2012 among race-motivated hate crimes. While a majority of hate crimes go unreported, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates around 200,000 to 300,000 happen every year, the vast majority of which are robberies, sexual assaults, aggravated assaults, simple assaults and murders.
But even as America continues to be haunted by a violent past, there is a key difference: In the past, the state was at best complicit and at worst actively involved. Today, the police chief of Charleston called the massacre as he saw it: a “hate crime” that “no community should have to experience.” Naming these acts as hate crimes is a first step in coming to terms with a violent past that continues to haunt us.
Like racial disparities in violence more generally, racial terrorism is not inevitable, but it can only begin to be addressed if we are willing to first forefront a conversation about the valuation of human life in the United States and how race continues to shape it. We need to have these conversations and use them to direct initiatives that can reduce violence across racial lines. While stories about guns generate clicks and sound-bytes, not every every shooting is a referendum on gun policy. Rather, the gun debate too often hijacks conversations, serving as a stand-in for the discussions we desperately need to be having — and actions we should be taking — about race, violence and inequality. That’s not to say we shouldn’t talk about guns, but when it is the only debate we are capable of having, that is a problem. Calling this incident out as racial terrorism, embedded in a deep, unsavory but persistently relevant history, is a first step.