The Charleston massacre in which a white terrorist gunned down nine black people at a church in South Carolina on 17 June was not a random act but a concentrated expression of the deep racism embedded both in US history and contemporary US society.
The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is one of the country’s oldest black churches. It is known as ‘Mother Emanuel’ and has long been a centre for civil rights organisation going back to an attempted slave revolt in 1822. South Carolina was one the pro-slavery southern states in the American Civil War and to this day flies the racist Confederate Flag in its state capital.
This ‘murder while praying’ by an avowed white supremacist also calls up memories of the murder of four black girls at a church in nearby Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 – an atrocity which led to the famous Selma civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King.
But this mass killing is by no means just some hangover from a bad past from which America has ‘moved on’. It comes in the context of the regular and systematic murder and brutalisation of African Americans by police in recent years and months – the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, of Eric Garner in New York, of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, the horror at the Texas swimming pool and innumerable other less publicized incidents – combined with the no less systematic tendency of the US Courts to acquit ‘killer cops’ despite compelling evidence.
Also highly revealing and significant has been the contrast in the response of politicians and media in the US and internationally to their response to terrorist actions by ‘Muslims’.
When French journalists were killed at Charlie Hebdo there was a massive state and media orchestrated campaign of outrage and solidarity. Almost every Western leader went to Paris and we were all supposed to be ‘Charlie’. There has been no such response to Charleston. The Boston Marathon bombing, which claimed far less lives, received far more intense media coverage.
Another, highly significant difference in the media coverage is that when the alleged ‘terrorists’ are Muslims they are immediately seen as representative of their religion and community and other Muslims are asked or told to dissociate themselves and issue condemnations and apologies. When the alleged terrorists are white (it was the same with Anders Breivik in Norway) they are treated as deranged individuals – there is no implication that they are representative of all white Americans, white Christians or Norwegians.
In other words the response of politicians and the media, despite ritual condemnation, implicitly reinforces racism and Islamophobia.
No wonder, therefore, that this wave of racist murders has given rise to a new and powerful anti-racist revolt in America in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Baltimore Riots – a revolt that deserves solidarity from all of us.