Who Radicalized Dylann Roof?

The manifesto of Dylann Roof, the man accused of killing nine black Bible study participants at a Charleston church on June 17, starts like this: “I was not raised in a racist home or environment.” Short and to the point, it’s more a statement of regret than an exculpatory observation. It’s also the first of a slew of sentences that echo so many casual conservative talking points—in this case, the ignorant dismissal of existing racist sentiment—and, like so many of those talking points, this one is egregiously false. Had Roof taken a moment to look around, perhaps en route to the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church now stained with innocent black blood, he may have noticed that the streets on which he traveled were named after pro-slavery Confederate generals. He may have noticed statues that stand in reverence to those generals, and the flag—symbolic of the racism and bigotry they fought and died for—flying high on government grounds over the capitol of the state he calls home. Maybe he would’ve realized that indeed he was raised in a racist environment because he was raised in the United States of America.

The media has been alight with images of Dylann Roof—snapshots of the history of American racism in his every portentous gun-wielding pose, in his every proud display of Confederate paraphernalia. But as we witness his unwavering gaze and the relentless media frenzy, we’re also aware that “stop focusing on the killer” is now an established square in the game of American Massacre Bingo.

However, with all due respect and concern for the families and victims of this unimaginable tragedy, and with a profound admiration of the community that has endured so many before, I want to suggest that, in this instance, we should not stop focusing on the killer. We should instead dissect, relentlessly, his every word and deed, and realize this opportunity to hold a mirror up to conservative white America. Solving the puzzle that is Dylann Roof—forcing him continually into the faces of those Americans who would rather look away—is a path forward.

In the event of an Islamic terrorist attack this would be standard procedure. We would hold up the portrait of a militant brown man with guns, force it into the face of Muslims the world over, and then ask the big questions: Which of your ideologies produced this monster? Who radicalized him? Where did he get his ideas? Who was he listening to?

Let us do the same here. Let us uncover the genealogy of Dylann Roof’s hate, if only to better understand how to prevent and ultimately destroy it. Because the majority of Roof’s manifesto is not filled with the kind of radical, white-supremacist, fringe crazy talk you might expect; it’s filled with the kind of boilerplate, dime-store racial rhetoric you hear from mainstream conservative pundits every single day; it’s filled with the kind of offhand, matter-of-fact racist remarks people throw around in casual conversation and with the kind of thinly veiled racial ideologies that conservative politicians actively support and encourage.

Who radicalized Dylann Roof? Conservative media did. Fox News did. Republican representatives did. America did. The connection is direct and clear. Dylann Roof may have been a radical in action, but in word and thought he was nothing new. The fear-addled, racially obsessed, white culture warrior who walked into a church and killed nine people was animated by the puppet-masters of mainstream conservatism.

According to his manifesto, Roof was inspired to action after googling black crime statistics—a topic we’ve seen accusatorially trotted out by the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity time and time again and that essentially boils down to screaming, “but what about black on black crime!” as if that one phrase were a negation of all institutionalized racism. The website for the Council of Conservative Citizens was the one that resonated with Roof the most; it’s a proud and open white supremacist group that has donated tens of thousands of dollars to four of the current Republican presidential candidates. In 1993, Mike Huckabee even graced them with a speech.

“Niggers are stupid and violent,” Roof writes, echoing the underlying message of every individual who actively denies the role of sociological and systemic factors in the oppression of African Americans. They “view everything that happens through a racial lens,” Roof continues, echoing the battle cry of every white American who wants to assert that minorities are overreacting to or entirely imagining racial injustice. And, he says, blacks get away with “obnoxious behavior in public,” echoing the condemnation of black culture we’ve seen from mainstream pundits too many times before.

“Hispanics are obviously a huge problem for Americans,” Roof writes, “But there are good Hispanics and bad Hispanics.” This sentiment is eerily close to what Donald Trump said one day before the Charleston shootings when he announced he was running for president: [Immigrants from Mexico are] bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Having read so many “positive” slave narratives, Roof tells us of a slavery that wasn’t so bad, a slavery that may have been, in fact, really good for black people—a time of stability, prosperity, romance, and happiness, where some masters “didn’t even allow whipping.” To think! It’s unfortunate that several mainstream conservative pundits and elected Republican officials have also said the same.

But who radicalized him?

“Negroes have lower IQs,” Roof states in his manifesto. It’s an idea that’s been around for centuries, but it rose to prominence in the modern culture wars in 1994 when Charles Murray, Republican pundit and admitted white supremacist, published The Bell Curve, a pseudo-scientific racist manifesto that claims to prove empirically the genetic intellectual inferiority of the so-called black race. Jeb Bush, GOP presidential frontrunner, recently cited Murray as one of his favorite authors—as someone who has significantly “shaped” his views.

But who radicalized Dylann Roof?

His manifesto makes its way through old conservative tropes—like phrenology and the myth of the anatomically different black man—and new conservative ones like objecting to the fact that history classes now focus too much on the United States’ dark racial past instead of blindly praising its exceptionalism. Like Roof, GOP presidential candidate Bobby Jindal also wants to know: “What happens when we stop teaching American exceptionalism to our students? What happens when the American history they’re taught is not the one you and I were taught but a history of grievances?”

I won’t ask the question again.

At the end of his document, Roof questions whether or not current US soldiers are fighting for anything worthwhile and offers this on the pre-Vietnam military: “at least they had an America to be proud of and fight for.” This gets to the heart of it all. Roof is a young man who has been told, constantly and emphatically, by mainstream conservative news sources and prominent political figures alike that his is a country under siege; that black thugs with guns are going to walk right out of a rap video and straight into his home; that hypersexualized minority men are coming to rape his women and steal his rights; that his pure white culture is being destroyed and tainted by the deficient culture of lesser beings; that somewhere, before civil rights, there was a golden-era, utopian America and that returning to that America is a cause worth fighting and dying for. Fringe lunacy? Hardly. Turn on Fox News or tune in to Rush Limbaugh and you can hear those same sentiments being expressed right now.

Take a good long look into that Confederate flag-waving, gun-toting, “heritage”-protecting mirror, America. There are Frankensteins among us and Dylann Roof is their monster.