By Nahela Nowshin
June 27, 2015
June 17 saw one of the deadliest attacks on a house of worship in recent decades. Nine people, all of whom were African American, were shot dead in cold blood at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. The alleged shooter is Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white male, who opened fire after he spent an hour at the Bible Study. A photo of Roof wearing a fleece jacket decorated with the racist flags of apartheid-era South Africa and the former colony of Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) surfaced, pointing strongly towards his racially motivated killing spree which police officials have called a hate crime.
In the US, where African Americans are routinely abused, discriminated against and killed by a system designed and cultivated throughout centuries to work against them, it would be nothing short of ignorance to say that the Charleston massacre has come as "shocking." It would also be wrong to say that *this* particular hate crime has kick-started a conversation about race in America. There is already an ongoing debate about race and justice for black communities because African Americans never really stopped coming under attack simply for the colour of their skin, be it by the police, media, or politicians. And this isn't the post-Civil Rights era, nor is this a post-racial world.
However, it seems like more and more people, including whites, are becoming aware of the double standards of the media whenever it's a case of the white guy behind the trigger. How many remember, or have even heard of, the white gunman who fired automatic weapons and left explosives at the Dallas police headquarters on June 13? Had his name been Abdullah or anything else that remotely pointed to him belonging to the *Arab* or *Muslim* clan, pictures of him along with his life history would have been splattered on every news outlet -- since it fits in perfectly with the western narrative of the foreign "terrorist" whose (oil-rich) country must be invaded and people arbitrarily killed with unmanned death machines to keep American soil safe. Had he been black, you surely would have heard about his past run-ins with the law, gang affiliations, and a horde of other reasons that explain his "thuggery," doesn't matter how true. The prejudiced portrayal of African Americans in American society extends to every other sphere, including the entertainment industry where black rappers only make the news when they're either locked up or dead and the Oscars are dominated by white males.
But let's talk about the perks of white privilege that come with being a white terrorist, white murderer, white thug, or white what have you. There seems to always be a rationale behind a white person's criminal act. When three Muslim students were shot dead in their own apartment in North Carolina on February 10 by Craig Hicks, a 43-year-old white man, the police came up with the preposterous assumption that the shooting may have been motivated by an ongoing parking dispute since Hicks "obsessively photographed the couple's parking spots." Comedian Aamer Rahman sarcastically remarked on Twitter, "I just realised that the War on Terror is just a big parking dispute."
And who isn't familiar with the free pass of mental illness that whites have whenever they feel like going on a killing spree? Right after the Charleston massacre, an MSNBC anchor said, "We don't know his mental condition," as if the racist nationalist flags Roof was wearing weren't enough of an indication of his diabolical motivations.
Elliot Rodger, a half white 22-year-old, killed six people before committing suicide last year in California. In a video posted on YouTube, titled "Elliot Rodger's Retribution", he claimed that he wished to exact revenge on the world "for being rejected by women and to punish sexually active men for living a more enjoyable life than his." Eight months after his mass murder, the Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office released a report alleging "he suffered from a number of mental health issues throughout his childhood, and he received treatment up to his death." Never mind the fact that he was a misogynist who felt entitled to women's bodies in a culture where women are endlessly objectified and sexualised. Never mind the fact that calling every other cold blooded white killer "mentally ill" not only partially absolves him of the responsibility and punitive consequences of his crime(s), but also stigmatises those who are actually mentally ill.
Recently, FBI Director James Comey said that he wouldn't label the Charleston shootings terrorism, even though Dylann Roof confessed to investigators that he wanted to "start a race war." Award-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald rightly pointed out the malleability and the selective usage of the term "terrorism" which is nothing more than a tool of propaganda.
It seems like Muslims and blacks have a monopoly on the terms "terrorist" and "thug" that they are quickly characterised by due to their "evil intent". But the white culprit is a "suspect", "shooter", or "attacker" whose motives must be carefully deliberated. Brown and black men are inherently savage but the white man's barbarity is an exception. Racial markers such as "Arab" and "black" are clearly designated in headlines but you won't see the white male's race being identified nearly as often. The white killer is a “lone wolf” and his act an “isolated incident”, but when a person of colour commits a crime, entire populations that share his race or religion must be held accountable for his wrongdoing and proves that they aren't guilty by association. Muslim and black victims are somehow responsible for their own deaths but the white killer has an explanation.
150 years after the emancipation of black people from slavery in the US, America's racial wounds are still fresh and it's startling how little things have changed. The Confederate flag, a racist symbol of the seven slave states and a dark reminder of the slavery era in colonial US, continues to fly high at the South Carolina State House. What's even more disgraceful is the fact that the flag, a sign of oppression and feudalism, wasn't even lowered to half-staff in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre.
Frequent attempts to detach white men's crimes from the broader context of racism and white supremacy are akin to ignoring the history of hate movements of white nationalism. And there's no doubt that it'll take many more deaths of people of colour at the hands of white mass murderers before people realise that a "terrorist" or a "thug" can very well look white.
Nahela Nowshin is a journalist at The Daily Star.