The U.S. media's more thoughtful corners were ready for the worst after 21-year-old racist Dylann Roof gunned down nine black parishioners in South Carolina last week. A river of digital ink flowed to preemptively warn against news cycle idiocy. Concerns abounded that the vile massacre would be designated a freak event, that Roof's actions would be dismissed as "senseless," inexplicable, and/or the result of nondescript mental illness.
But, aside from a few reactionary splutters from Fox News, the tropes never came. It speaks to the power of the Black Lives Matter struggle that discourse around the shooting moved directly where it belongs—to structural racism.
The killer's interiority is not being ignored. His simple, brief, and monstrous manifesto has been pored over, as have his white supremacy-drenched photos. Journalists are interrogating the vagaries of his upbringing. One might argue that his machinations seem so base in their racism that no room was left for bafflement. But the published reflections on the shooting have not tended to focus on Roof's racism as unique or deranged. There has been widespread acknowledgement that his racism is America's racism, historic and far from expunged. And I do not believe this massacre would have prompted the collective reflection on the state of pervasive racism had it not been preceded by over ten months of tireless, ferocious protest over the daily decimation of black life in America.
Roof is an avowed white supremacist and would, I hope, be roundly condemned as a monster with or without the political context of the Black Lives Matter movement. But this heightened moment of anti-racist resistance has helped frame the killer as a particular kind of monster. He is uncanny, in Freudian terms. Freud didn't just use "uncanny" to mean "eerie," rather it designates something unsettling because it is strange but also familiar. It's of note that for Freud, the feeling of the uncanny arises when there is a consistent repetition of the same actions.
Roof is an uncanny monster, all the more scary for the American consciousness that rightly recognizes its darkest aspects in him, brought to the fore by an act of murderous racism repeated in kind over centuries. This is no time to dismiss Roof as an unfamiliar outsider; it is right that we feel the unease provoked by the uncanny.
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The impact of this moment of political resistance is especially pronounced in the focus on the Confederate flag in the wake of the shooting. "Confederate" trended on Twitter as images were released of the killer posing with the flags. A nationwide movement to remove symbols of the Confederacy from public space and consumer items has gained vast ground. Walmart, Sears, Amazon, and eBay have all stopped selling merchandise carrying the flag image. It's too easy to see this overdue condemnation of a racist symbol as a reaction to Roof alone.
True, it's bad optics to be affiliated with the preferred iconography of a racist murderer—but that hasn't stopped Southern state houses, nor ill-thinking clothing manufacturers, in previous decades. The Stars and Bars have long stood for white supremacy, but has nonetheless been accorded public exhibition under the pretext of U.S. history. (As if Swastikas should hang outside the Bundestag in Berlin in a nod to bygone times.)
I don't praise Republican South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley for reversing her defense of the Confederate flag flying outside the state capitol. Nor do I think Walmart execs deserve a pat of the back for withdrawing Confederacy-themed merch. It is Black Lives Matter fighters who have forced the national conversation about the persistence of violent racism, and how it is enforced and maintained by state institutions.
To ask why it has taken 150 years for action to be taken to remove the Confederate flag from the public arena is like asking why we still need to assert that Black Lives Matter in 2015. But we are in an historic moment of resistance against white supremacy, when a mass killing prompts nationwide contemplation of quotidian racism.
Of course the retiring, or better, burning, of Confederate flags is no solace for the victims of Roof's massacre, and it doesn't close the book, or even turn the page, on white supremacy in America. But the flag movement is more than a trite strike at the symbolic, it's about recognition. The persistence of Confederate symbols is representative of how racism is treated in this country—as something historic and finished, save for a few extreme cases. The calls to remove the flag following the Charleston shooting reject this; they insist that daily, insidious racism, the acceptance of racist speech and symbol in the public sphere, be linked to the most extreme acts of racist violence.
Indeed, a number of reports have noted how the killer's friends believed Roof to be merely joking when he expressed racist sentiments. How commonplace the discourse of race hate is; if the kids thought Roof was kidding, nasty racist jokes must abound. Like demanding the removal of Confederate flags, we must call time on the permissiveness accorded to this quotidian racism.
There's no such thing as casual racism. There's just racism normalized, creating fertile ground for monsters we already recognize.