Police are investigating the shooting of nine African Americans at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston as a hate crime committed by a white man. Unfortunately, it’s not a unique event in American history. Black churches have long been a target of white supremacists who burned and bombed them in an effort to terrorise the black communities that those churches anchored.
But listen to major media outlets and you won’t hear the word “terrorism” used in coverage of this latest shooting. Instead, the go-to explanation for his actions will be mental illness. He will be humanized and called sick, a victim of mistreatment or inadequate mental health resources. Activist Deray McKesson noted this morning that, while discussing Roof’s motivations, an MSNBC anchor said “we don’t know his mental condition.” That is the power of whiteness in America.
US media practice a different policy when covering crimes involving African Americans and Muslims. As suspects, they are quickly characterized as terrorists and thugs, motivated by evil intent instead of external injustices. While white suspects are lone wolfs — Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston already emphasized this shooting was an act of just “one hateful person” — violence by black and Muslim people is systemic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion. Even black victims are vilified. Their lives are combed for any infraction or hint of justification for the murders or attacks that befall them: Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. Michael Brown stole cigars. Eric Garner sold loosie cigarettes. When a black teenager who committed no crime was tackled and held down by a police officer at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, Fox News host Megyn Kelly described her as “No saint either.”
I hope the media coverage won’t fall back on the typical narrative ascribed to white male shooters: a lone, disturbed or mentally ill young man failed by society. This is not an act of just “one hateful person.” It is a manifestation of the racial hatred and white supremacy that continues to pervade our society, 50 years after the Birmingham church bombing galvanized the Civil Rights Movement. It should be covered as such. And now that authorities have found their suspect, we should be calling him what he is: a terrorist.