When Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a sociopath, white supremacists online took pains to find photos of the victim looking “thuggish” and threatening, even circulating fake photos via email and social networks. They pulled the same trick when Mike Brown was gunned down by a police officer, circulating fake photos of Brown in an effort to make him appear violent, to fit the white supremacist stereotype of the scary black man.
These were conscious efforts to control the narrative, to distort reality until it resembled the manufactured and false narrative white supremacists require to support their beliefs. Such efforts are often successful, too, because white supremacists are not some fringe cult, isolated and easily identified by their Klan hoods and swastika tattoos. White supremacists are all around us, in our police stations and our schools and our legislatures, and their ideas infect the mainstream like a virus.
Those fake photos of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin made their way into mainstream news outlets that were sloppy in their fact checking, and into the inboxes and news feeds of millions of Americans who would never call themselves racists, but didn’t have the time or the inclination to check their veracity. They succeeded in distorting and confusing the narrative, not only for the white supremacists themselves but for millions of otherwise well-meaning individuals.
This is the ugly truth that makes so many white Americans uncomfortable, the one most white people refuse to believe: White supremacy and racism are pervasive aspects of American culture.
To be clear, most white Americans are not white supremacists, in the David Duke sense of the word. We’ve never attended a Klan rally, never consciously discriminated against a person based on race, never called someone a race-traitor or talked about blood purity. But undercurrents of white supremacy still infiltrate white thinking, because they are embedded in American culture.
Most white people might not believe black people are inferior, but they avoid black neighborhoods and integrated schools. They might not label black people violent, but they vote for “tough on crime” candidates and support modern-day Jim Crow laws that have turned our prisons into the 21st century slavery. They might not openly call black people lazy, but they buy into political myths about welfare queens and food stamp gourmands. They might not believe a race war is coming, but they believe distorted statistics that tell them black people are more likely to be criminals, and think a young black man in a hoodie looks suspicious. And they might not use the term “race traitor,” but when someone points out racism in everyday life, they know “who the real racists are.”
This is the reality Dylann Roof forces us to confront. Because this monster, who mercilessly gunned down nine innocent people who welcomed him into their place of worship, is a product of white America’s dark side. His deplorable actions force us to confront that aspect of America that we would prefer to ignore.
Not that we won’t still try. In the wake of the shooting, our (mostly white) media has tried to distort the facts, to act as though the motivations behind this incident were unclear, even to pretend this was somehow an attack against white Christians, but at every turn the killer has left a clear and indisputable answer for their questions.
They try to act as if his motives were unclear or unknowable, but the killer told witnesses he wanted to kill black people, because they “raped our women” and were “taking over our country.” They try to pretend this was just a random act of violence, and not domestic terrorism, but the killer left two witnesses alive, specifically so they could share his story and spread fear. He’s since told authorities that he wanted to start a race war. They try to imagine this as the violent distortions of one deranged mind, but the killer left a manifesto in which he cites conservative and white supremacist web sites, one of them by name, that shaped his hatred. They try to portray this as temporary insanity, a fit of mental illness or a side effect of medication, but again we have the crafted manifesto in which the killer lays out his racial philosophy and announces his intentions. They try to separate his actions from America’s legacy of racism and hate, but the killer staged photos of himself with a Confederate flag, the same flag that still flies beside the capital of his home state.
There was no need, in this case, for anyone to find fake photographs to control and distort the narrative–this white supremacist monster left his own cache of photos that make the narrative crystal clear.
In the coming weeks and months, White America will endeavor to distance itself from the Charleston shooter, to pretend he was an outlier or an exception. We will prosecute him, and we will almost certainly execute him, treating him as a cancer that must be removed from our polite society. But like a cancer, this killer did not arise spontaneously from nowhere; he grew from within ourselves, a malignancy fed by the invisible poison in our system and grown out of control.
In the coming weeks and months we may also learn more from the killer himself, because he was taken alive by police and not gunned down in the street as so many black men have been–as Walter Scott was, only a few weeks earlier and a few miles away. He will provide more uncomfortable answers for our make-believe questions, and White America will be forced to confront our terrible secret, the fulminating product of the festering hatred that lurks beneath our claims to a “post-racial America.”
White America will try to make this about guns. We will try to make this about mental illness. Northerners will point at the Confederacy and the south. White America will attempt in a variety of ways to create a distance, to absolve themselves of responsibility, to make this killer seem unfamiliar, but he will always remain much too close and much too familiar.
He’ll be there in that racist joke that arrives in the inbox, that suddenly seems less harmless. He’ll be there in the ethnic slurs grandpa drops at the dinner table, in front of the grandchildren with their pliable minds. He’ll be there in the veiled racist rhetoric employed by politicians in their speeches and debate answers. He’ll be there in the Confederate flag, as it flies over state capitals and monuments, and in living rooms and car windows. He’ll be there every time white America lays claim to “heritage” and pretends that can be divorced from racism, hatred, and white supremacy.
This killer stripped away another layer of the deception white America likes to live behind. He dealt another blow to the ludicrous suggestion that, by electing one man President, we somehow became “post-racial.” That it requires the lost lives of innocent people for White America to recognize this–not only at the hands of this killer, but in the back of a police wagon or at the end of an officer’s gun, over and over again–only serves to reinforce America’s distorted reality; a person of color should not have to die for white people to learn a lesson.
And yet that flag still flies.
There is no greater lie than the lie we tell ourselves, and White America has for more than a century lied to ourselves about the way we treat race. Dylann Roof exposes that lie for what it is; he is a reflection of ourselves, a mirror we cannot look away from or deny. To those who would dare put the “white race” forward as something superior, he will always be the counterpoint.
Because he is ours. We made him.
[A brief editorial note: I am of the opinion that killers should not be made famous, and an early draft of this piece attempted to omit the killer’s name entirely. However, I determined that I could not effectively make these points without using the name, and so I have used it only three times: once in the headline and twice in the body. I have used the photos because, as is central to my thesis here, ignoring the reality is a greater harm than circulating the images.]