Countless people were heartbroken by the news of Wednesday's massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, but conservative writer Mona Charen seems to have been doubly upset. Writing in National Review, she complained that the prospect that the tragedy could be politically exploited by Democrats was “even more depressing” than the actions of the killer. “The heinousness of a person who can sit for an hour studying the Bible and then open fire is unfathomable,” Charen wrote. “Even more depressing, if that’s possible, is my suspicion—and I truly hope I’m wrong—that this event will play a role in the 2016 presidential campaign.”
Later, when the crassness of the phrase “even more depressing” in this context was pointed out to her, Charen amended the sentence. But her article's flaws run much deeper. Charen takes a curiously blinkered view of how atrocities are politically exploited, citing examples of political haymaking that pale in comparison to those who respond to racist murders by downplaying the role of bigotry.
As it happens, National Review offers a prime historical gem of this sort of denial of racism. On September 15, 1963, an explosion at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killed four black girls, and left many more children injured. The bomb was set by white supremacists hoping to intimidate the Civil Rights movement. National Review Bulletin, a biweekly offshoot of the magazine, editorialized about the event two weeks later:
The fiend who set off the bomb does not have the sympathy of the white population in the South; in fact, he set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically as to raise the question whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur—of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro. Some circumstantial evidence lends a hint of plausibility to that notion, especially the ten-minute fuse (surely a white man walking away from the church basement ten minutes earlier would have been noticed?).
The language used in this editorial is antique. Few today would talk about “a crazed Negro.” Yet many of the underlying assumptions of National Review in 1963 are echoed by conservative discourse today. On Twitter, the conservative pundit A.J. Delgado wrote of the suspect—later identified as Dylann Storm Roof, who reportedly confessed to the crime—“Sorry, am I the only one who isn’t seeing a ‘white’ male? I know the media wants to run a racial angle here but this guy doesn’t look white?” Others on Twitter agreed with her and speculated that Roof was of “mixed” race and not white. (Delgado's Twitter account is no longer publicly accessible.)
Both National Review’s 1963 theory that about a “crazed Negro” and Delgado’s notion that Roof doesn’t “look white” spring from a profound commitment to the myth of white innocence. The underlying idea is that white people have only good intentions, so horrific crimes like Birmingham in 1963 or Charleston in 2015 must somehow spring from another source, most likely a dark-skinned person.
Parallel to the idea that Roof is not white is the desire to deflect attention from Roof’s racist motivation in the church killing, the evidence for which has been steadily accumulating. “He was big into segregation and other stuff,” Roof’s roommate told ABC News. “He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself.”
Despite the strong evidence pointing toward a racist motive, conservative pundits and politicians have been reluctant to call this a racist crime, and instead have spun a theory that perhaps Roof was motivated by an anti-Christian animus, a notion that has the unique merit of being completely without any factual foundation.
Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum linked the killings to the alleged “assault” on religious liberty taking place in America. (Only after being criticized did Santorum walk back his position and acknowledge the racist basis of the crime). From a political point of view, the merits of this analysis are that it takes a likely racial atrocity which affected a group that overwhelmingly supports the Democratic Party and redefines it as an assault on Christians, a group that leans Republican. This plays well with the Republican Party’s stoking of majoritarian resentment against minority rights and the conservative idea that white Christians are one of the very few true victim classes in modern America.
Another presidential hopeful, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, said, “I don't know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” The editors of the Wall Street Journal were equally baffled, writing, “It does not matter that the alleged killer, Dylann Roof, brings to mind the mentally troubled young men who committed horrific mass murders of innocents inside buildings in Newtown, Conn.; Aurora, Colo.; or Virginia Tech….What causes young men such as Dylann Roof to erupt in homicidal rage, whatever their motivation, is a problem that defies explanation beyond the reality that evil still stalks humanity.”
This unwillingness to admit a racist motive for the Charleston killings has a deeply political motive, for doing so would mean admitting that racism is a real, ongoing problem in American society—one that requires policies to counteract it.
American conservatives aren’t necessarily racists, but they are invariably anti-anti-racist. The creed of anti-anti-racism goes something like this: racism was a problem in the past, but no longer is a serious issue; the chief barrier for non-whites to advance in American society is their own behavior; attempts to remedy racism, such as affirmative action, are themselves a form of racism. For the anti-anti-racist, the very word “racism” has a strange, talismanic power. To utter the word “racism” is to create racism, which otherwise does not exist in the wonderful meritocracy that is America.
For the anti-anti-racist, an event like the Charleston massacre goes deeply against the grain of firmly held ideological commitments. Hence the denial of reality of Dylann Roof’s racism and spurious arguments that he was motivated by anti-Christian bigotry, as well as outlandish theories that he doesn’t “look white” or is “mixed.” The conservative response to Charleston is a perfect example of how ideological belief is a powerful hallucinogenic which can override factual reality.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that A.J. Delgado posted a photograph of Dylann Roof on Twitter and wrote, “Sorry, am I the only one who isn’t seeing a ‘white’ male? I know the media wants to run a racial angle here but this guy doesn’t look white?" Delgado did tweet those comments, but not alongside a photo. The tweet to which this article linked as evidence appears to have been photoshopped.