Terrorists Like Us

From President Obama’s statement regarding the terrorist attack in Charleston:

This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked.  And we know that hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.

The President could have used the active voice instead of the passive. He could have said “This is not the first time that racist white men have attacked black churches”. That would have been more descriptive.

But it would have sounded unnecessarily inflammatory. Unnecessary, because who else would murder nine black people while declaring that “You rape our women and you are taking over our country”. Inflammatory, because calling attention to the killer’s color would upset people who say or want to believe that white racism isn’t a problem anymore.

Britt Bennett’s brief article in the New York Times does an excellent job of explaining how and why white terrorism isn’t called that:

This is the privilege of whiteness: While a terrorist may be white, his violence is never based in his whiteness. A white terrorist has unique, complicated motives that we will never comprehend. He can be a disturbed loner or a monster. He is either mentally ill or pure evil…. Either way, he is never indicative of anything larger about whiteness, nor is he ever a garden-variety racist. He represents nothing but himself. A white terrorist is anything that frames him as an anomaly and separates him from the long, storied history of white terrorism.

I’m always struck by this hesitance not only to name white terrorism but to name whiteness itself during acts of racial violence. In a recent New York Times article on the history of lynching, the victims are repeatedly described as black. Not once, however, are the violent actors described as they are: white. Instead, the white lynch mobs are simply described as “a group of men” or “a mob”…. [Obama’s] passive language echoes this strange vagueness, a reluctance to even name white terrorism, as if black churches have been attacked by some disembodied force, not real people motivated by a racist ideology whose roots stretch past the founding of this country.

In America’s contemporary imagination, terrorism is foreign and brown. Those terrorists do not have complex motivations. We do not urge one another to reserve judgment until we search through their Facebook histories or interview their friends. We do not trot out psychologists to analyze their mental states. We know immediately why they kill. But a white terrorist is an enigma. A white terrorist has no history, no context, no origin. He is forever unknowable.

Like South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said this week: 

While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.

But the thing is, in this case, we do know.