A state senator, a librarian, a recent college graduate…like most of my friends, my newsfeed on Thursday was dominated by the events in Charleston, South Carolina, where suspect Dylann Roof allegedly opened fired and killed nine members of the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
According to witnesses, Roof had come to the church and had been welcomed to a Bible study group on Wednesday evening when, after about an hour, he stood up and started shooting. When asked to stop, Roof was said to reply, “No, you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country. I have to do what I have to do.”
Authorities have called the shootings a hate crime.
Like many, I was curious to learn more about the victims whose lives were lost in the most senseless way imaginable. Still, when I saw the first photo of Roof my attention shifted towards the suspect. My immediate reaction when I was saw him was, “Wow, he looks like a kid!” (And at 21 years old, Roof is a kid or at least he is to someone like me who is pushing 40.)
While details about Roof are still coming out, what seems to be certain is that Dylann Roof held some very racist attitudes. His Facebook profile picture shows him wearing a jacket decorated with the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Zimbabwe when it was still known as Rhodesia and ruled by a white minority.
Until today, I was unaware that these flags are popular with white supremacists.
As someone who was a junior in high school the year that Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, it occurred to me that 1994 was also the year that Roof had been born. In fact, according the information I found about Roof’s date of birth, he would have been one month old at the time.
Wasn’t this guy too young to be a racist?
As someone who grew up in the rural South, I certainly experienced my share of racism and prejudice. However, by the time I was in high school, my generation was supposed to be, as one teacher dubbed it, “the last to really know what racism is.” We were told that by the time we had kids, racism would be by and large the bygone memories of a past era.
While I was not so sure of that, many people I knew seemed to think that was the case. After the 2008 election of Barack Obama, I heard more than one say that this “proved” that racism was no longer the big deal that it once was. While I agreed that things had come a long way from the days of Jim Crow laws and segregation, I argued we still had a long way to go.
Case in point was a comment from a friend of mine who worked in the Obama administration: apparently hate groups had surged following Obama’s election, and he had the dubious achievement of receiving more death threats than any other president. Comments on social media from people I grew up with expressing what can only be described as thinly, or even not so thinly-disguised racism, as well as suggestions that “someone take him out” also seemed to confirm that racism was still very alive and well.
Despite this, though, many people seemed to be in denial or made it plain they didn’t want to discuss the possibility that racism was not the rare bird that many claimed it was.
In Roof’s case, the most telling things that have come out so far are the statements by others, including his roommate who told ABC news, “He was big into segregation and other stuff. He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself.”
Another friend of his claimed that he made similar statements but dismissed them as “humor,” while yet another person, a former high school classmate said, “He had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs. He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that. You don’t really think of it like that.”
When I read those statements all I could wonder was why these kids didn’t take these things seriously or why in the case of this classmate no one was calling this “Southern pride” or “jokes” for what they really were: racism.
While there are many other factors at play here including allegations that Roof abused prescription pills and that he was supposedly given the gun he used in the shooting as a gift, it’s impossible not to wonder if this tragedy could have been prevented if someone had taken Roof’s racist comments seriously. The fact that he attended a racially diverse school and had “many” black friends on Facebook is immaterial: it completely is possible to be young, live in a diverse environment, and interact with black people on social media and be a racist.
In a recent post, I discussed the strange case of Rachel Dolezal, the leader of the Spokane NAACP who claimed to be black when in fact she was white. Before the Charleston shootings, the Dolezal case was arguably the lead story in the national media. Many asked what was the problem if Dolezal or anyone chose to identify as black or any other racial group even if they weren’t of the racial/ethnic group they were identifying with. As I argued in my post, my biggest problem, besides the lies she told, was Dolezal claims she knew what it was like to be a black woman when she always had the option to stop being black and identify with the majority culture which is arguably exactly what she did when she sued Howard University in 2002, claiming that the university had discriminated against her for being white.
As a biracial woman (half-Asian, half-white), I have often found myself becoming frustrated when I tried to explain to my white family members and friends the discrimination I have faced only to be dismissed with statements like, “Oh, those people are the exceptions, not the rule!” or, “Things like that hardly happen anymore!”
And perhaps while those things aren’t as common place as they once were, the tragedy in Charleston shows racism is still a problem and can even cost lives.
When society acknowledges that racism is real—even young people are not immune—we will start to become the post-racial society that many like to believe we are living in.
Author: Kimberly Lo
Editor: Travis May
Photo credits: desertnews.com