Charleston and White Supremacy: A Reading List


As many of us continue to reel from this week’s mass murder at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, there are many broader issues and histories we need to reflect on — to make sense of this crime and to help us see a better future ahead. We’ve curated a weekend reading list that offers context for everything from the history of the targeted church and Charleston, to media criticism, to an in-depth look at the faces of today’s organized white supremacy movement.

To begin with, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ much-echoed call to take down the Confederate Flag is stirring and succinct.

An entire people are poorer for his action. The flag that Roof embraced, which many South Carolinians embrace, does not stand in opposition to this act — it endorses it.

An obituary for the nine victims in the New York Times turns the focus from carnage and terror to lives lost. In the Guardian, the Reverand Broderick Greer explores the ironies in the crime coming when and against whom it did, and demands the government change its policies.

In the wake of the lynching of Walter Scott in April, the Rev Pinckney assisted in presiding at a prayer vigil held in his honor. That the Rev Pinckney, an outspoken advocate against police brutality, died from gunfire in his own church is a testament to the potency of white supremacy in American life. That Dylann Roof, a young white man, was greeted with open arms in a predominantly black space, and yet reportedly used that hospitality as a catalyst for terrorism, is exactly why so many black people were suspicious of the white woman pretending to be black. Because, not even in black churches – havens of rest from the rigor of white supremacy – are we immune to white violence.

The spike in attention to anti-black violence, has been notable in the Obama era, full of backlash and struggle. In his essay on Obama and Charleston, David Remnick compares what has happened this week to America’s long and troubled history of lynching.

How is it possible, while reading about the alleged killer, Dylann Storm Roof, posing darkly in a picture on his Facebook page, the flags of racist Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa sewn to his jacket, not to think that we have witnessed a lynching? Roof, it is true, did not brandish a noose, nor was he backed by a howling mob of Klansmen, as was so often the case in the heyday of American lynching. Subsequent investigation may put at least some of the blame for his actions on one form of derangement or another. And yet the apparent sense of calculation and planning, what a witness reportedly said was the shooter’s statement of purpose in the Emanuel A.M.E. Church as he took up his gun — “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country” — echoed some of the very same racial anxieties, resentments, and hatreds that fuelled the lynchings of an earlier time.

The shooter allegedly accused the victims of “raping our women.” But was that sexual dynamic his real grievance? Rebecca Carroll takes on the combined race and gender dynamics of the shooter’s words and actions.

The shooter allegedly used the salvation of white women’s bodies as a motivation for his acts, an old trope that was once used to justify the lynching of black men and the denial of rights to all black people. The idea that white women’s bodies represent that which is inviolable while black women’s are disposable hasn’t changed enough since it was first articulated by white men; but again, aimed at black men on Wednesday night, it was predominately black women who suffered by their invocation.

Latoya Peterson lists some of the varied tragedies — failures of empathy and understanding and justice — that have emerged in the wake of this heinous act. She also delves into the history of violence against black places of worship.

Violations of black sacred space are part and parcel with racist campaigns against blackness in America. The breathless “attack on faith” coverage on Fox News is strangely ahistorical – churches were burned and firebombed as a matter of course because they were sites of black organizing and black sanctuary. This trend did not end during the civil rights era- in 1996, the Washington Post reported on a series of arson crimes targeting black churches in the South.

Media double-standards have been a major subject of discussion. One of the best responses is from Anthea Butler at the Washington Post:

U.S. media practice a different policy when covering crimes involving African Americans and Muslims. As suspects, they are quickly characterized as terrorists and thugs, motivated by evil intent instead of external injustices. While white suspects are lone wolfs — Mayor Joseph Riley of Charleston already emphasized this shooting was an act of just “one hateful person” — violence by black and Muslim people is systemic, demanding response and action from all who share their race or religion. Even black victims are vilified. Their lives are combed for any infraction or hint of justification for the murders or attacks that befall them: Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie. Michael Brown stole cigars. Eric Garner sold loosie cigarettes. When a black teenager who committed no crime was tackled and held down by a police officer at a pool party in McKinney, Tex., Fox News host Megyn Kelly described her as “No saint either.”

The history of the AME church in Charleston, a seat of Denmark Vesey’s planned slave rebellion and a long tradition of resistance and community, resonates both symbolically and also perhaps has use in pinning down the racist intentions of the killer, The Nation‘s Greg Grandin argues.

Maybe others remembered him as well, though it might just be a coincidence that “the clean-shaven white man about 21 years old with sandy blond hair and wearing a gray sweatshirt, bluejeans and Timberland boots” chose the anniversary of Vesey’s preempted revolt to massacre nine members of the congregation Vesey founded.

For another, more disturbing kind of history, read an earlier excerpt from Michael Kimmel’s book about (organized) White Supremacists. Here, he talks about the root of their anger.

It is through a decidedly gendered and sexualized rhetoric of masculinity that this contradiction between loving America and hating its government, loving capitalism and hating its corporate iterations, is resolved. Racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, antifeminism—these discourses of hate provide an explanation for the feelings of entitlement thwarted, fixing the blame squarely on “others” whom the state must now serve at the expense of white men. The unifying theme is gender. These men feel emasculated…