June 20, 2015 by tristan savage
Dylann Roof in South Carolina
I’m reading Dylann Roof’s white supremacist manifesto today, from his blog “Last Rhodesian” (a reference to the white supremacist state that white South African separatists tried to maintain as a holdout of apartheid in modern-day Zimbabwe).
I’m still processing and thinking through it, but here are a few immediate thoughts that I’d like to suggest for discussion and strategizing. We will not think or talk our way out of racial terror- it will take long hours of difficult, disorienting, and unthanked work.
1) Over the last few days a lot of conservative institutions and politicians (from the Mormon-owned “Deseret News” in Salt Lake City, to Fox News, to Bill Freeman here in Nashville) have tried to minimize or deflect from the fact that Roof specifically stated that he was targeting black people and that he was trying to start a race war. Fox, for example, tried to argue that this was an “attack on Christianity”. At first it seemed like Fox and others would be immediately discredited and would have to retract and correct their mistakes, but then it looks like they doubled down and decided they would hold to that line and try to fragment the US media conversation into two self-contained worlds- a mainstream world where people acknowledge this as an attack of intentional racial terror, and a separate conservative media world where journalists and Right-wing politicians collude, in collective bad faith, to maintain a misleading narrative that there was no racial content to the Charleston murders (and continue to try to co-opt the tragedy in defense of conservative christianity).
Reading this manifesto leaves no doubt that Roof’s attack on the Mother Emanuel church was explicitly intended to kill black people, and that he chose the target (or at least the city) because of its historic importance to the black liberation struggle. Hopefully most news sources will quietly drop the ‘christianity under attack’ narrative. But Roof’s manifesto also reminds us that getting good information into the mainstream media simply isn’t enough to prevent this kind of racial terror in the future. In Roof’s manifesto, he argues that he has “read hundreds of slave narratives”, that he spent extensive time on the website of the “council of conservative citizens” (a grassroots fascist organization with ties to dozens of prominent Republicans including Trent Lott and Bob Barr), which he found on google, and he references extensive conversations from within the white nationalist movement (about the Northwest Front, ‘jewish question’, etc). In order to prevent racial terror, we must enter, disrupt, and starve the resources of the white nationalist movement, including its own self-contained media and its relationships with the conservative mainstream media.
2) Roof explains that he was radicalized by racial tensions rising during the George Zimmerman murder trial. We need to understand that rising tensions have two poles- within anti-racist circles, these events may galvanize and spark action and renewed anti-racist commitment, but within racist circles, they often have the same result of generating new cadre of white supremacists. The only way to prevent this is to interrupt that process by reaching the people that white supremacists are working every day to recruit before they do, and containing their ability to multiply their resources and ideologies. The Council of Conservative Citizens, for example, was founded in the 1960’s as part of the backlash against the black freedom struggle, and quickly rose to nearly 1 million members. It’s up to us to challenge and isolate the rising white supremacist movement in the US, and prevent them from gaining similar kinds of ground.
3) Roof summarizes his views on various racial groups- Jews, Hispanics, East Asians. He explains in what is actually a fairly observant racial analysis, what the prospects are for allying Anglo-European white supremacists with the latent white supremacy / anti-blackness that is present in Latino, Jewish, and East Asian societies. He lays out a specific (if extremely brief) blueprint for that alliance: light-skinned Latino people, Jews with extinguished Jewish identity, and a caricatured ‘model minority’ version of East Asians. He recalls watching Spanish-language television and being surprised that it is perhaps even more embracing of whiteness than US television is, and he is pleasantly surprised and positive about alliances with what he calls “good hispanics”. We can imagine similar white supremacist alliances with fragmented sections of various ethnic groups. The only way to effectively combat these strategic fronts that white supremacist groups are already actively pursuing is to work within multiracial and people of color communities to confront the anti-blackness that is often cultivated by (mostly light-skinned) owning elites. As they say in Mississippi, Black + Brown + Unions = Power.
4) Roof is young, and he is particularly attuned to school. He even points out specifically that “The fact is that how good a school is considered directly corresponds to how White it is”, something that racial justice and education activists have been saying for a long time. On a personal note, I am the product of segregated education systems myself (I have been to three schools since 1996, and all three were set up as racially-segregated institutions). I went to all three because they had significantly more budget-per-student than racially-integrated schools. We cannot stop racial terror unless we work very hard at dramatically changing the current racist education system. The Council of Conservative Citizens found and recruited Roof as a working-class white high schooler. We need to be there first.
5) Roof is also particularly attuned to issues of white working class people. He is disoriented and angry about the fact that most white people were not slaveowners. Reading between the lines, he is angry about the fact that white people are ‘responsible’ for racism, but he suspects that (most) white people do not correspondingly “benefit” from racism. He’s obviously pretty blind to the many ways that even working-class white people do in fact ‘benefit’ from not being raced black, but he’s also hitting on something key here that he encounters, has run up against, and can’t think his way around: working-class white people also face tremendous obstacles, but often have no way of articulating that they (we) and working-class black people face a common struggle and common enemy. Maybe with a few weeks and a patient cousin, he could have worked out that working-class white people still don’t have universal free health care, and racism is the reason why capitalists have managed to keep it from us. We don’t have universal free education, and racism is the wedge that has prevented us from achieving that too. We need to be able to center and articulate the common cause between working-class white people and people of color – and demonstrate that our best shot at getting what all of us need is to work together against a common opponent.
6) Roof is obsessed with white male ownership over white women. It’s already been reported that he ‘snapped’ after his crush chose to go out with a black guy, but in his manifesto he re-emphasizes how his thoughts are “bordering on insanity” about white women choosing non-white partners. “These women are victims and they can be saved”, he says. Racial terror cannot be stopped unless we focus on how to concretely internalize the lesson that white women do not belong to white men, and that women do not belong to men.
I would love to work through this in community with others, and rather soon, take that discussion to intentional, principled, and long-term action.
Note: I actually haven’t quite figured out Roof’s own class background. I’m reading what I can to try to figure it out, but I figured I’d wait to correct anything. It’s probably not the most crucial point, but I don’t want to mislead either.