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To start a race war: Dylann Roof and the ideology of white supremacy

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | June 25, 2015

The mass murder of parishioners at the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina law week, by a young white supremacist intensified the already profound national conversation about racism and violence that has been building since the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.

There are more topics in play around Charleston than any single post (even an over long one like this) can address. So a couple of brief points before an extended discussion of one question, already taken up here on Prawfsblawg by Rick Hill (but I come out a bit different) on whether to categorize the act as one of terrorism or as an example of a mentally deranged or ill person taking an otherwise unthinkable action. My answer is: its an act of terrorism that calls for a political response, but we need a more complicated framework to think about how mental illness and acts rooted in diseased ideation can parallel acts of terrorism.

So briefly, two strands that in my view should not receive significant attention.

On the political right, or at least its penumbras on Twitter, the bogey of “black on black crime” has been raised, as if to say white killers are not the real threat facing black communities. Suffice it to say that this is a total dodge. So-called “black on black” violence, overwhelmingly a problem of young men in super segregated communities of urban poverty, is a terrible problem. But unlike acts of racist violence, it plays no role in maintaining the legacies of white supremacy, including segregated neighborhoods, white privilege in access to jobs, educational opportunities, and even sexual partners. We need social and economic strategies to reduce levels of violence among young men in predominantly black communities, but it is by no means an answer to what occurred in Charleston or a reason not to vigorously pursue one.

On the political left, one major response has been to revive the ever-flagging gun control debate. While less invidious, I also think this is something of a dodge.  Roof was not using an assault rifle that could fire scores of bullets in a short time.  He apparently used a 45-caliber handgun and had to reload several times to carryout all nine killings. No politically realistic gun-control proposal for decades has attempted to bar access to such weapons and one is not going to emerge now. If President Obama could not lead a national movement for gun control after the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, he sure isn’t going to do it now. Period.

A much bigger issue in my view is the question of how this crime is being characterized, and particularly the politics behind the alternatives of viewing it as terrorism versus a deranged act linked to some sort of serious mental illness.

Many commentators on Twitter and in columns and Jon Stewart, have pointed out that early responses from politicians and mainstream media figures shied away from identifying the perpetrator Dylan Roof as a terrorist, raising instead the possibility that mental illness lay behind this terrible act of violence. The critique is that white people who kill are rarely described as terrorists (or other categorical terms like “thug”), while people of color, especially African Americans and Middle Eastern or South Asian Muslims are.

This point is indeed well taken. In media and lay discussions, mental illness tends to emerge as an explanation for behavior that strikes the speaker as out of character for the type of person involved. Since we typically know little about the actual people involved, at least initially, race is hugely salient in forming this judgment about character. When the people unreflectively assign white people who kill the label “mentally ill,” the assignment testifies to the speaker’s probably unconscious assumption that white people do not engage in unprovoked acts of violence (but that African Americans and Muslims, do).

It would be a mistake, however, to go further and assume that any claim of mental illness to explain a person’s acts of violence is dissembling. There are many homicides where the delusional beliefs generated by psychotic processes are clearly at work. James Holmes, who killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater in 2012, is a likely example. Few people can make sense of his crime without relying at least in part on his well-documented history of mental illness. As is typical is such cases, even the prosecution acknowledges the presence of mental illness but asserts that it fails to reach the extreme threshold established for a legal “insanity” defense in most states today (what amounts to delusions so profound that they prevented the perpetrator from understanding that nature or societal proscribed nature of their conduct).

It is also not uncommon for people living with psychotic mental processes to be attracted to extremist political ideologies and conspiracy theories, because their content often has a striking affinity with the paranoid pattern of psychotic ideation. Such people may sound like racists or anti-Semites but their narrative comes from the disease, not their values. At the same time we should not be surprised that many of the participants in clearly politically motivated terrorist attacks, who are drawn to the values behind those politics, also have mental illnesses (not typically the leaders, but sometimes those persuaded to undertake the fatal or at least very dangerous acts involved).

Putting aside the legal test of insanity, what should be most salient to the public conversation about such acts of extreme violence is whether a particular incident seems to be best explained by political beliefs and values or by psychotic mental processes that lie behind it (even when both are involved). Are the key ideas behind the crimes (and there always are key ideas, describing violence as senseless is almost always incorrect) rooted in the subject’s values, long-term beliefs, and commitments? Or are they more likely to have been filtered from the ever available stream of hateful ideas through a mind disordered by disease. Or to put it another way, is the best way to prevent another such incident to expand mental health screening and treatment services, or does it require a political process of some sort (from war to conflict resolution to social movements).

In what follows, I would like to offer a preliminary (and possibly flawed) framework for thinking about acts of violence so awful that normal human motivations (jealousy, anger, despair) simply do not seem sufficient. I start with a typology that moves from those most clearly influenced by disease, to those most clearly influenced by values.

No political beliefs or values can explain the Aurora killer, James Holmes’ actions. Even his prosecutors view him as person motivated by individual considerations, e.g., to achieve fame, or in response to being rejected by a girlfriend, (considerations that rarely result in actual violence where mental illness is not at least a background factor). Whether or not the jury decides that Holmes’ deserves the death penalty, few if any people can seriously believe that executing him will prevent the next movie theater massacre. Meanwhile, expanding mental health screening, and treatment, certainly for those seeking to purchase assault weapons, would provide at least some measure of protection.

At the other extreme are the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon. At least one of the convicted plot participants, Zacharias Moussaui, exhibited behavior throughout his trial (in which he was most problematically allowed to represent himself) consistent with major mental illness (although he was found competent to stand trial, that is a fairly low threshold that excludes most defendants with mental illness).

Yet even if Moussaoui and other plot participants were in part influenced by their mental illnesses to become involved, the plot as a whole had an overwhelmingly political logic. The attack appears to have been motivated by a strategy of provoking a “clash of civilizations” between the Christian west and the Muslim world (a strategy that seems at least partially successful in generating the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the rise of Isis, and a host of other developments still far from settled). There is no easy political option to resolve terrorism associated with militant Islamic extremism, but surely politics represents the only realistic path. Few could believe that even the most generous expenditures on mental health screening and treatment (presumably on a global basis) are unlikely to significantly reduce further acts of terrorism.

Of course, I do not mean to imply it will always be easy to determine whether a particular atrocity is best understood as a reflection of political values or diseased ideation. Consider Theodore Kaczynski, known as the “Unabomber” for his practice of sending letter bombs to scientists and engineers involved in research that Kaczynski associated with the rise of technological civilization. Kaczynski’s manifesto, published originally in the New York Times and the Washington Post, in a controversial deal to end his attacks, presented his belief that industrialization has done irreparable harm to both nature and humanity and that therefore killing people in an attempt to halt it was justified.

His ideas clearly have a political logic, one that resembles the beliefs of others involved in what is sometimes labeled “eco-terrorism.” Still, a close reading of the manifesto suggests a highly idiosyncratic perspective and narrative, shared in fact by few others; and acts far more violent than those typically undertaken by even militant environmentalists. Mental health screening (perhaps of overachieving academics), seems more promising than a political or security strategy to stop the next Unabomber.

This brings us at last to Dylann Storm Roof, the perpetrator of the Charleston AME massacre. I would not be surprised at all if forensic psychiatric examination by both defense and prosecution turns up evidence of mental illness, but the logic of his act and even the words he articulated have a clear political sensibility to them; one of unremitting racialized hatred and fear of African Americans.

We still do not know precisely where in his life these ideas and values began for Dylann Roof. I would begin by looking at the beliefs of his parents (does anyone know whether spelling Dylann with two “n’s” and giving the middle name “Storm” is any indication that his parents were involved in Neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups and ideologies?). Most of us get our ideas about race and racism from our parents. Mine (of blessed memory) were white allies of the civil rights movement and taught us to believe that the project of completing emancipation was the defining mission of the modern American nation.

The discovery of Dylann Roofs’ online manifesto of race hatred provides a direct link to the thinking and language of existing white supremacist organizations. Unlike Kaczynski’s, Roof’s ideas are not idiosyncratic or even marginalized, but belong to a well-developed body of ideas that once dominated Southern politics and continue to have an important influence nationally on Conservative and Republican politics. Indeed, Roof specifically cited the ideas of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a well-known white supremacist group with roots in the violent segregationists of the 1960s and continuing interest in the Republican Party.

What was the strategy? Roof reportedly told a friend that wanted to start a race war. I’m no expert in the logic of race wars, but this rings true to me as the primary motivation for the act. It explains the target, a historic church long a focus of white terrorism against African Americans, and where the victims would draw the maximum amount of outrage and clarity as to the racial meaning of the murders. Likewise the date, June 17, corresponds to date on which a slave rebellion was planned to launch in Charleston in 1822 and which involved Denmark Vesey, a former slave who was a founder of Emmanuel AME Church.

I would love to hear from some historians on the origins of the “race war” trope in American racist ideology. Its most significant modern proponent until now is Charles Manson, who taught his followers to prepare for an apocalyptic race war  culminating in a black uprising that would overthrow the United States (a fear he apparently shared with J. Edgar Hoover) and that his Family would then emerge to lead what was left of civilization.

Manson orchestrated the murders of privileged white victims and then sought to blame the crimes on African Americans by leaving stolen items in clearly black neighborhoods. He imagined a law and order crack down on African Americans would lead to an uprising and ultimately his rise to power. Manson called his plan “Helter Skelter”, after the Beatle’s song which he believed contained a prophesy of these events. Manson, originally from Oklahoma, has been racist all his life, recall the swastika he carved on his forehead during the trial, who assumed necessarily inferior blacks would lead the country into a disaster and leave his Family in charge.

The whole idea of race war seems to be a distinctively white supremacist fantasy/nightmare. I could be mistaken, but from my knowledge of history, even armed and militant African American groups have always used violence defensively, or to eliminate perceived movement traitors, not to provoke a race war that African Americans, very much a minority demographically and in political influence, would almost certainly be the ultimate victims of.

So how to prevent another racist massacre? In my view the political option of an aggressive social movement to finally drive white supremacy out of its existing strongholds in American society is what is called for. Don’t get me wrong; we should spend a lot more money on mental health as well. Compared to money spent on prisons, seeking the death penalty, or even hiring police officers, mental health spending is probably a good way to prevent violence in general. I fear, however, that it would do little to prevent the kind of racist violence we are dealing with here. So long as white supremacist narratives are spread by groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens, and sheltered by the powerful Republican Party, there will be no shortage of marginal characters, some of them with mental illness, attracted to its ideology and willing to put their ideas into action.

If we are to prevent this kind of atrocity, a political strategy is clearly necessary. My colleague Rick Hills worries that if forced to choose between their Southern heritage and common decency, they will choose the former. I feel we need a strategy that forces that choice. (We’ve had 50 years of letting them slide by on being American and Confederate, its time to choose). It consists of calling out, boycotting, demonstrating against and generally shaming the leadership of racist political organizations, and politically destroying any politician that doesn’t place miles of distance between themselves and this entire ideology.

This requires acts of public memorialization such as have been undertaken in other countries with a history of systematic racist violence, like Germany.  This means cleansing the American South of the residual honorific symbols of the Confederacy: everything must go, flags, statutes of Confederate generals, or parks or streets carrying their names.  This also must extend to the segregationist descendants of the Confederacy. Pictures of segregationist governors should be removed from state houses (they can go to museums along with the flags and statues).

The Congress of the United States, dominated by segregationists for most of the 20th century, should remove any monument to, and posthumously condemn all of the major figures (most prominently former South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond). Just as importantly it is time to finally make the history of white supremacy and racist violence against African Americans visible in every American city through museums (a new Smithsonian museum of African American culture is about to open in Washington D.C.), public monuments, and street names (Charleston can have nine new ones).

Fortunately, American society is lot less prone to race wars than white supremacists believe in their fevered fantasies. Manson’s murders failed to launch one (although they did help fuel the punitive turn in American penal policy) and clearly Dylann Roof has failed in his ambitions as well. But let us make sure his victims did not die for nothing. Their blood calls on all Americans of conscience to join an unrelenting cultural war against white supremacy in all of its manifestations.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog, Governing Through Crime

Comments to “To start a race war: Dylann Roof and the ideology of white supremacy

  1. Very thoughtful piece, Professor. The simple point that you cannot be an American and a Confederate should be self-evident, but sadly isn’t. Often the people muttering about nullification and secession are the same ones ramming the Pledge of Allegiance down our throats, with no apparent recognition of why the phrase “one nation, indivisible” is in the pledge, or what it means.

  2. South Carolina does have the death penalty and it would be inhumane and racist not to execute Dylann Roof.
    Lawyers financially benefit from seemingly endless legal appeals to capital punishment, and the prison industry financially benefits from young murderers who spend many decades of their entire remaining lives in prison.

    However, significant financial benefits to these special interest groups at the financial expense of the taxpayer should not prevail over common sense. On a moral level, Roof’s truly heinous crime must not be compounded by a lawyered-escape from legislatively mandated capital punishment.

  3. The Constitution is silent on the question of secession. Lincoln had no express right to go to war to prevent the slave states from leaving the Union. What he did was to claim that the seceding states had been ceased by a combination too large to be suppressed by lawful authorities. He would have done many things differently had he not misjudged the strength of Union sentiment in the South. The fact is, though, most Americans, not just Southerners, thought of themselves first as citizens of their states and local communities and second, as United States citizens.

    Further, and this must be kept in mind, the issue of slavery had led Northerners and Southerners more and more to think of each other as foreigners. The North was outraged by the attack on Ft. Sumter, but few would have followed Lincoln if he had said: We are going to invade the South and conquer it. Yet this is what they did: They conquered it. Not to free the blacks, not to make them free men and women, but to deprive their “slavocrats” of their “property,” and to prevent them from using their “property” unfairly against free labor, and marginalize the yeomen of the North to the status of the poor whites in the South. The “slave power” had to be stopped, but for the sake of the white man. The Union had to be preserved for the white man.

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