A few of nights ago, Dylann Roof entered an AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and, after about an hour, he brandished a .45-caliber handgun – gifted to him by his parents on his 21st birthday – and opened fire, killing 9 African-Americans.
The story, unfortunately, is not unfamiliar: mass shootings carried out by white males are beginning to become a semi-common occurrence in the United States yet the mainstream media continue to portray the perpetrators of these massacres as soft-spoken, brilliant students whose violent behavior were caused by a mental illness.
This contrasts sharply to the language deployed at people of color whenever they commit a crime: African-Americans are called thugs, gangsters and criminals; Muslims are labeled as terrorists; and somehow the conversation always reverts back to illegal immigration for Hispanics. These narratives are calculated and reinforce dominant tropes white Americans have about these communities. We don’t have the luxury of being ‘troubled loners’ or people who suffer from a mental illness because, to them, poverty and violence are innate cultural traits. As a result, we have to constantly apologize for the actions of others because our individual actions are always interpreted to be in solidarity with our community.
But the term ‘mental illness’ also has another strategic purpose: it serves as a tool to divert attention away from deeper issues, like race and white supremacy, and ensures that white Americans do not ever have to feel guilty or uncomfortable by acknowledging or discussing these topics privately or in public.
As noted by Harris and Lieberman (2015), many Americans – particularly conservatives and those on the political right – genuinely believe that racism is a thing of the past and cite the presidential election of Barack Obama as proof that race relations have been transformed. The U.S. is now officially – according to their estimation – a colorblind, post-racial society.
This is why conservative politicians and the media put the effort to convince the American public that the shooting in Charleston was not racially motivated because it would destroy the illusion that the U.S. had overcome racism. This horrific act – never an act of terror, by the way – is not, we are told, a prevailing belief in the U.S. mainstream. Senator Lindsey Graham insists that the shooting is “not a wind into the soul of South Carolina, it’s not who we are, it’s not who our country is.” It was the act of “a young man who is obviously twisted” (Legum, 2015). But as Coates (2015) points out: the Confederate flag – the flag that white supremacists embrace, the flag that represents “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man” (Stephens, 1861), the flag whose cultural heritage includes intolerance and hate – continues to fly at the Statehouse in Columbia and it is adorned by many Southerners.
Let’s be clear, perpetrators like Dylann are not shy about possessing white supremacist paraphernalia (Robles, Horotwitz and Dewanjune, 2015) and wanting to instigate a race war (Nguyen, 2015) and neither was Elliot Rodgers shy about his intentions when he went on his shooting spree the year before. Yet the underlying problem for most people continues to be ‘mental illness.’ It’s never about race, it’s never about misogyny, and it’s never about white supremacist ideology.
It’s time to address the elephant in the room and stop doing a great disservice to those who actually suffer from mental illness disorders.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. (2015, June 18). “Take Down the Confederate Flag – Now.” Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/take-down-the-confederate-flag-now/396290/
Harris, Fredrick C. and Robert C. Lieberman (2015). “Racial Inequality after Racism: How Institutions Hold Back African Americans.” Foreign Affairs, March/April Issue. Available here: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2015-03-01/racial-inequality-after-racism
Legum, Judd. (2015, June 18). “The Wildly Different Ways One Senator Responds to Terrorism: Boston Versus Charleston.” Retrieved from http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2015/06/18/3671525/wildly-different-ways-one-senator-responds-terrorism-boston-versus-charleston/
Nguyen, Tina. (2015, June 19). “Suspected Church Shooter Allegedly Said He Wanted to Start a Race War.” Retrieved from http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2015/06/charleston-church-shooter-confesses-dylan-roof
Robles, Frances, Jason Horowitz and Shaila Dewanjune. (2015, June 18). “Dylann Roof, Suspect in Charleston Shooting, Flew the Flags of White Power.” Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/us/on-facebook-dylann-roof-charleston-suspect-wears-symbols-of-white-supremacy.html?_r=0
Stephens, Alexander H. (1861). “’Corner Stone’ Speech.” Retrieved from http://web.archive.org/web/20130822142313/http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/cornerstone-speech/