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How Politicians, Media, and the Gun Lobby Enable Racist Terror

The Charleston Massacre is a product of simmering racial tensions that elites continue to deny. Will the attack be a turning point for change?

A witness said suspected killer Dylann Storm Roof said "you rape our women" as he shot nine African Americans — including six women — in Charleston, S.C. (Photo: AP/Chuck Burton)

On September 15, 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was bombed, killing four African-American girls. The incident shocked people around the nation and galvanized the civil rights movement, making leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. even more determined to end segregation. Just as that horrific attack was a reflection of racist violence and became a pivotal event in the civil rights movement, so too should the Charleston shooting be seen as a seminal moment, indicative of simmering racial hatred. However, right-wing conservatives like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham want us to believe that the massacre of nine African-Americans at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last week was about religion more than race, a sentiment repeatedly echoed on Fox News. But in fact, the Charleston massacre has much more in common with the 1963 Alabama church bombing. Nine people lost their lives because of a pathology in American society that we continue to be unwilling to address. Will we seize this moment and change history before more terror strikes?

"Nine people lost their lives because of a pathology in American society that we continue to be unwilling to address. Will we seize this moment and change history before more terror strikes?"

What is different now is that the resurgence of white supremacist attacks on African-Americans comes at the same time that the U.S. government is fighting a "war on terror" against radical Islam. The hypocrisy of calling Boston marathon bomber Dhozkar Tsarnaev a "terrorist," while labeling the Charleston perpetrator Dylann Roof as a "shooter" who may have been "mentally ill," has raised the ire of many. And yet almost no politician has used the word "terrorist" as yet to describe Roof. FBI Director James Comey has explicitly ruled out calling it a terrorist act. On his website Roof referred to "black on white crime," which he googled and then confessed that "I have never been the same since that day." His statement to one of the survivors of the Charleston massacre that "you rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go," exemplifies a long-standing racist paranoia that African-American men are preying on white women.

Similarly, since 9/11 there is a fear of Americans as victims of Islamic terrorism. But both claims are in fact the opposite of reality. Blacks have historically been victimized by white America to an unimaginable extent through slavery, segregation, lynchings, and today, police and vigilante violence. Muslims, likewise, have been the victims of U.S. foreign policy through our devastating wars on Afghanistan, Iraq, and drone strikes on Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. It is a seductive notion for those with privilege to imagine themselves as victims and arm themselves to fight back against said imagined victimization. Such notions do not blossom in a vacuum. They have help from a number of sources.

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Senator Graham had wildly different responses to the 2013 Boston attacks and the Charleston massacre, even though the perpetrators of both crimes seemed to have been radicalized through online propaganda rather than through membership in extremist organizations. About Tsarnaev, he said, "This man, in my view, should be designated as a potential enemy combatant." In stark contrast, about Roof he said, "I just think he was one of these whacked out kids. I don’t think it’s anything broader than that ... It’s about a young man who is obviously twisted." Graham's words resonate with those who want to believe that only Muslims are motivated by an ideology of hate, whereas whites are immune to hatred, or simply "mentally ill."

The debate over the Confederate flag has also revealed how politicians fuel racism. Roof revered the flag, as do many white supremacists. But South Carolina Governor Nikki Haleyand her fellow Republicans have long backed the flag, despite its association with slave-ownership. However, Haley just reversed her position on Monday calling for its removal. And even though Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush now support withdrawing the flag, they are among the exceptions. A 2011 poll found that a majority of Americans were either indifferent to the flag or reacted negatively to it.

Liberal leaders have also contributed to the denial of racist terror. In the days following the Boston Marathon bombing, President Obama declared it a terrorist act. But so far, the most he has said about Charleston is that the shootings illustrate how racism is a "blight" on society.

Echoing politicians, among the chief perpetrators of double standards is the U.S. mainstream media. After the Boston Marathon bombing, the press did not hesitate: CNN clearly named it a "terror attack," as did CBS, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and many others. In the case of Charleston, however, the only appearance of the word "terror" in its various forms has been in reference to the debate about whether the word should be used to describe the attack in the first place, such as the recent New York Times article entitled, "Many Ask, Why Not Call Church Shooting Terrorism?" Indeed, many are asking and the Times' answer is to report on it rather than respond to it.

While it is true that a significant factor of the Charleston attack is the widespread availability of guns, some contend that seeing this incident within the framework of gun violence misses the big picture of racism. I disagree. Gun proliferation is an enabler of racist terror. It is the difference between racist beliefs and racist violent action. While gun control cannot stop people from harboring bigoted attitudes, it can significantly curb their ability to kill those they hate. The mix of gun culture with racist culture today has created a toxic stew of terror in African-American communities. It has given police the excuse they need to walk into all situations armed and ready to shoot. If we follow the example of Australia and Britain by taking almost all guns off the streets, we can deal with racism without fearing for our lives.

But the National Rifle Association harbors another fantasy: “Wild West” style shootouts where the quickest draw wins. In a statement that sounds as if it was written by The Onion, Charles Cotton, an NRA board member, blamed Charleston victim State Senator Pinckney for voting against a bill allowing guns in churches. Cotton said in an online forum, "Eight of [Pinckney's] church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue."

If the Boston Marathon bombing was a "terrorist" attack, then so is the racist violence in Charleston. Any attempt to reject comparisons between the two reveals a hypocrisy that can only be described as racist. Nine people lost their lives because of a pathology in American society that we continue to be unwilling to address. Will we seize this moment and change history before more terror strikes? The day after the Charleston shooting, there were several bomb threats in South Carolina, while in Richmond, Virginia, an armed white man screaming racial epithets terrorized a church full of black worshippers.

There can be no doubt that African-Americans still face white supremacist racial hatred. The community is asking the rest of us to show up and fight for racial justice. Just as the civil rights movement seized on the horror of the Alabama church bombing to galvanize change, so must we ensure that the Charleston terrorist attack is the last of its kind.

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Sonali Kolhatkar

Sonali Kolhatkar
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV, Roku) and Pacifica stations KPFK, KPFA, and affiliates. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Uprising." She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA. She is the author, with James Ingalls, of "Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence" (2006).

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