Image by Santeri Viinamäki
Since last week, memories of the church massacre that led to nine pointless deaths in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, have returned to haunt me. As mass killer Dylann Roof stands trial, we are witnessing a transition to the Trump Administration, which has embraced white supremacist rhetoric and support, and made a hero of the “alt right” white supremacist movement a top White House advisor. Black South Carolinians cannot help but be horrified by this confluence of events.
Roof, a frightening human being, a hate-monger, posted racist remarks on his Internet site before he went on his killing spree. He blatantly opined that blacks are morally and intellectually inferior to white people. He urged other whites to join him in a race war. He justified his hatred of blacks and Jews by arguing that they are subhuman.
While Roof sat in jail, awaiting trial for his terrible crime, Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. Trump embraced bigots, delighted in shocking the public with crude, racist and misogynist remarks, encouraged violence at his rallies, and has not hidden his contempt for immigrants and Muslims. He has laid out his vision for a nation in which immigrants will face mass deportation, blacks will be heavily policed, and Muslims will lose their civil rights. He also justifies himself by claiming these groups are to blame for America’s problems. The actions he has proposed, although unconstitutional, will, he claims, “make America great again.” Trump campaigned by issuing insidious appeals to white Americans, encouraging them adopt an attitude that black Americans, immigrants, and Muslims are the enemy.
Roof took that kind of rhetoric very seriously. He massacred nine innocent African Americans at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015. The date is forever etched in my memory.
Is it wrong of me to connect Roof’s hate crime to the kind of rhetoric we’ve heard from our President-elect? Is it obnoxious to attach this sick loner with a murderous hate-filled heart, and the mass movement which led millions of white, mostly male voters to propel Donald Trump into the White House?
I couldn’t be sadder about it, but I don’t think so.
Dylann Roof was imprisoned before the 2016 election. But I have little doubt who would have been his chosen candidate. After all, at a recent conference of neo-Nazis in Washington, D.C., participants raised their hands and yelled out “Heil Trump!” Roof is not just a seriously mentally ill person--although he is that. He is a product of a strain of the irresponsible twenty-first century white rage which helped elect Donald Trump.
I am a black Southerner who has had too much experience with Southern white supremacist attitudes to dismiss Roof’s attack on black people as a freak event with no larger social meaning. I live among people who defend a sense of inherited privilege, and who feel a need to justify slavery and the Confederacy. Racist vitriol increased across America following the election of President Obama. It spilled over into movements including the Tea Party, and the birther conspiracy movement--one of whose leaders was Donald Trump.
I returned to Charleston for the funerals after the shootings. Every fellow African American I joined in mourning shared my sense that the massacre was the fruit of toxic and deceptive neo-Confederate lies, which too many Southerners steadfastly defended. There was also widespread concern that Dylann Roof might be emblematic of a larger phenomenon—that our nation is moving backward toward the repressive racist culture of the 1950s.
Black people fear that our nation is morally regressing. Donald Trump’s election may have justified those concerns. His campaign was built on promoting the return to a terrible and illusory past—an America free of feminism, black protesters, or Hispanic immigrants. Some 60 percent of South Carolina Republicans say they want to ban Muslim immigration.
Roof was raised in Lexington, South Carolina. It’s an area I know well for its unwelcoming reputation toward blacks. Lexington is 83 percent white. Roof attended school in a highly segregated suburb.
Like all of South Carolina, Lexington has suffered an economic pinch since the recession, Lexington is not the poorest area in South Carolina, however. It is closer to solidly middle class, with an average household income of $53,865. The poorest area in the state is Williamsburg County, which is predominantly black.
These facts are consistent with what we know about Trump voters, and the new white rage. Trump supporters have often been sympathetically described as "poor" and working class. They have experienced a loss of status, but they often enjoy better incomes than the very poor. Trump supporters tend to live in segregated communities, where they have little contact with minorities, although they harbor strong anti-immigrant feelings. They are often middle class whites, whose sense of entitlement has been wounded. Their response to their wounded pride has been physical intimidation such as often occurred at Trump rallies, and the kinds of threats of political violence which figured in Trump's speeches.
On June 17, 2015, in my hometown of Charleston, South Carolina, a twisted man committed a string of racially motivated murders so sinister that the first witness on the stand at his trial described him as "evil, evil, evil."
After Election Day 2016, the whole nation experienced an unprecedented rise in hate crimes, bigoted graffiti scrawling, and attacks on Muslims.
I cannot look at Dylann Roof's massacre, and the surge in hate crimes which followed Trump's election, without wondering whether this nation is on the verge of a tragic fall. I have been in mourning, along with my entire community, since June 17, 2015. But mourning is insufficient without acknowledging my deepest fear: Dylann Roof may be a sign of what America is becoming.