About 9 p.m., the Bible study concludes. As the group prepares to share a concluding prayer, Roof suddenly stands, pulls out a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol and says he has come to kill black people. He shoots the Rev. Pinckney first, at near point-blank range. Simmons tries to protect the pastor, a father of two young children, but Roof shoots him multiple times, too.
As Roof unloads his gun into the remaining people who had welcomed him, they fall from wounds or to avoid being shot, first Coleman-Singleton, a 45-year-old church pastor and track coach at Goose Creek High School, then Thompson and on and on.
Somehow, Felicia Sanders remains composed enough to pull her 5-year-old granddaughter down with her and whispers: play dead. The two lie on the cold floor covered in the spilled, warm blood of their friends and family. Sanders feels the heat of each gun blast, hears the clank of casings echoing onto the hard tile and struggles to hold utterly still, even as Roof stops to reload. Her son, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, tries to take advantage of the halt in gunfire to calm Roof and talk him out of more bloodshed. But Roof replies that he’s there to do a job — and he must finish it. He shoots Sanders, then the rest, including Susie Jackson, a beloved aunt who Sanders couldn’t save with his final, most desperate words. At 87, she is the oldest worshipper there.
All of the dead and dying suffer multiple gunshot wounds.
As Roof starts out of the building, he passes Polly Sheppard, who is on her knees praying and has somehow avoided his rampage so far. He asks her if she’s shot. She says no. “I am going to let you live so you can tell the story of what happened,” Roof says, telling her he plans to kill himself.
With Felicia Sanders and her granddaughter still pretending to be dead, with Sheppard still alive, Roof returns to the church door, looks both ways as he opens it and climbs into his car and leaves.
The above is from The Post and Courier‘s account of the June 17th shooting inside Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Nine people were killed. The suspect, Dylann Root, is reported to have been a white supremacist who authored “a nearly 2,500-word diatribe against African-Americans, Jews and Hispanics in which the author says he chose Charleston for his killing spree ‘because it is the most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country.'”
The massacre and the issues surrounding it are being widely discussed around the world. I invited several philosophers to publicly contribute, in an abbreviated form, to this discussion. The idea behind posts like this (this is the second one at Daily Nous; the first was on Rachel Dolezal), is to prompt further discussion among philosophers themselves, and also to explore the ways in which philosophers can add, with their characteristically insightful and careful modes of thinking, to the public conversation about current events. Their remarks are below. Others are, of course, welcome to join the conversation. Additionally, if you are aware of other philosophical commentary on the shootings elsewhere on the web, please provide a link in the comments.
I am grateful to the philosophers who, on rather short notice, agreed to participate in this post. They are, in alphabetical order: David Boonin (Colorado), David Brax (Gothenburg), Robert Gooding-Williams (Columbia), Chike Jeffers (Dalhousie), Jeff McMahan (Oxford), Anne Schwenkenbecher (Murdoch), Amia Srinivasan (Oxford), Brad E. Stone (Loyola Marymount), and Jessica Wolfendale (West Virginia / U.S. Naval Academy). Their contributions are below. I’d like to also thank Meena Krishnamurthy for the suggestion to put this post together.
Some Questions for People who Oppose Hate Crime Laws
Assume that Dylann Roof deliberately murdered nine innocent people, that he targeted his victims specifically because they were black, that laws against murder are justified, and that the state has the right to punish people who break justified laws. Many people who accept all of these assumptions nonetheless deny that Roof should be punished for committing a hate crime. This is because they oppose hate crime laws. I have some questions for such people.
Perhaps you oppose hate crime laws because you think the state should punish people for committing bad acts but not punish people for having bad mental states and you think that inflicting extra punishment on someone for specifically targeting his victims because they were black amounts to objectionably punishing that person for having bad mental states. If this is your reason for opposing hate crime laws, you should consider that the only difference between deliberately pulling the trigger of a gun that’s pointed at someone and accidentally doing so is a difference in the shooter’s mental states. Do you think it’s wrong for the state to treat first degree murder as a more serious offence than negligent homicide? If don’t think it’s wrong for the state to do this, why do you think it’s okay for the state to take mental states into account in these cases but not okay for the state to take them into account in the case of hate crimes?
Perhaps you think there’s a relevant difference between two kinds of mental states: intentions, which you take to be part of what makes a particular act the particular act that it is, and motives, which you take to explain why someone chose to perform the particular act they chose to perform. And perhaps you oppose hate crime laws because you think it’s okay for the state to take intentions into account, but not okay for the state to take motives into account, and you think that hate crime laws illegitimately inflict extra punishment on some people because of their motives while laws that distinguish first-degree murder from negligent homicide legitimately inflict extra punishment on some people because of their intentions. If this is your reason for opposing hate crime laws, do you think the difference between stealing money in order to buy medicine for your sick child and stealing money in order to help fund Al Qaeda is a difference in intentions or a difference in motives? If you think it’s a difference in intentions, and so something the law may legitimately take into account in determining the severity of the offender’s sentence, then why isn’t the difference between pulling a trigger in order to kill people and pulling a trigger in order to kill black people in particular also a difference in intentions, and so also something the law may legitimately take into account in determining the severity of the offender’s sentence? If you think the difference between stealing to help your child and stealing to help Al Qaeda is instead a difference in motives, do you think the former should be punished as severely as the latter? If you don’t really think this, why do you think that it’s okay for the state to take motive into account in these cases but not okay for the state to take motive into account in the case of hate crimes?
Perhaps you oppose hate crime laws on the grounds that there’s no way to draw a sharp and non-arbitrary line between the groups that should be protected by such laws and the groups that shouldn’t be. If this is your reason for opposing hate crime laws, do you think there’s a way to draw a sharp and non-arbitrary line between those who are old enough to be legally permitted to drink, smoke, vote, buy a gun, or get married and those who are not yet old enough to be permitted to do these things? Or between the amount of alcohol that is too much to have in your blood to legally drive and the amount that is not too much? If you don’t think there’s a way to draw a sharp, non-arbitrary line in these cases, why should the inability to draw such a line undermine hate crime laws but not undermine these other laws?
Perhaps you think hate crime laws objectionably set us down a slippery slope to laws that punish people purely for having bad thoughts, or that it’s unreasonable to ask a jury to determine what was going through the mind of the person accused of committing a hate crime. If you oppose hate crime laws for one of these reasons, do you also oppose all other laws that take the offender’s thoughts into account? If not, why not? Do you oppose hate crime laws for some other reason? If so, is there a reason to think that this reason isn’t subject to the same kinds of problems that the other reasons seem to be subject to? I don’t want to insist that these are unanswerable questions. But I do want to suggest that opponents of hate crime laws have not satisfactorily answered them.
Was it a hate crime? Was it an act of terrorism? The answer seems to be obviously ”yes” to both. Statements reportedly made by the suspect, the symbols he wore, the choice of victims and place, the reported premeditation, etc. speaks to this being racially motivated and committed with the intent to cause fear and bring about societal change. Here, I will put most emphasis on the hate crime angle.
On most conceptions of what a hate crime is, the Charleston case seems to count as one. The most common idea is that hate crimes are distinguished by motive, i.e. the reason why the crime was committed. Some jurisdictions understands it as intentionally selecting targets associated with a protected class. A third conception understands hate crimes as defined by intent; to strike fear in the targeted community. A fourth identifies hate crimes as expressing a message to the targeted group. The Charleston case seems to qualify as a hate crime on all these accounts.
South Carolina, however, does not have a hate crime law. Such laws are held to be part of the dealing with the repercussions of past institutional racial injustice.That SC has not taken this measure is worthy of note. But it is not the end of the matter; the case will probably be run as a federal case. Since the Matthew Sheppard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crime prevention act was signed into law in 2009, federal authorities have extended power to handle cases states are unable or unwilling to take. There is one complication: Given the gravity of the case, it is possible that the penalty, if it had stayed in SC, would have been death. The probability that this would happen in a federal court may be lower. So: In order for it to be judged as a hate crime, it may lead to amilder penalty. But even if a penalty enhancement cannot come into effect, there is a point to treating this as a hate crime. Many victims say that the penalty enhancement is less important than ismentioning the motive in these cases. Recognizing and officially condemning these types of crimes is more important than raising penalties.
What is the significance of calling it a hate crime? Hate crime are seen as worse than similar crimes absent the hate element. There are a number of reasons why, but the most common account is harm-based. Hate crimes, according to scholars like Paul Iganski and Frederick Lawrence, hurt more. The primary victims typically experience more psychological harm, which is not relevant when it comes to murder. But the additional harm also concern the victimized group – which is reminded of their status as potential targets – and society in general – it may increase tensions between groups. Both these factors are relevant here.
Was this an act of terrorism? Again, the answer seems to be straightforwardly ”yes” by most definitions. What makes an act of terrorism is arguably the intent to cause fear in a population and/or to force societal change. Roof seems to be a conservative terrorist, i.e. one that wants to stop change, or to change things back the way they were. The ”typical” terrorist is somehow alien to the system which he/she wants to change. One reason why Roof might not be perceived as a terrorist, then, is that he is (as Åsne Seierstad stated in her book about Norwegian terrorist Breivik) ”one of us”, i.e. as someone not that different from normal members of the (white) population. The reluctance to accept a terrorist as thus part of ”our” culture is probably one reason why we turn to questions about mental health. Why would a person congruent with the dominant culture go to these lengths? Of course, racism should be alien to our culture. A person with this mind-setshould be as alien to our culture, and thus be as easily perceived as a terrorist, as a member of ISIS.
Another reason why Roof might not be understood as a terrorist is if there is no organization behind him – such a background is typical of what people think of as terrorism, and the hunt for them is the typical reaction to a terrorist attack. Of course, the need for such organizations to facilitate acts of terrorism is weakened by the internet, which makes it possible to cherry-pick an ideology, a support base, and a methodology to suit you.
Is this act a sign of things getting worse, a symptom of growing racism? Or (counter-intuitively) may it be a sign of things getting better? Racist offenders may find their justification in others expressing the same views. But they also find their justification in thinking of themselves and the society and values they care about as being somehow threatened. While hate crime criminals are often part of the majority, it is when some members of that majority think of themselves as loosing their privilege that the need to commit crimes to defend that privilege arise. Hate crimes are often understood as a response to people of the hated group ”stepping out of their place”, and there being no other way of putting them back. Segregation, privilege and power means rarely having to worry. But, of course, privilege should be threatened. People with the beliefs that Roof seem to have should be feeling threatened, because the order they want should be collapsing. Ifthis is how it works (note that this is just a hypothesis), a rise in these types of crimes may occur as a reaction to things becoming better at a more everyday level.
Historian Nell Irwin Painter had it right in TheNew York Times, when she writes that Dylann Roof’s speech (“Y’all are raping our women and taking over our country”) and actions (the murders of nine Black Americans) belongs to “a very old racist tradition, stretching from the anti-black violence following the Civil War, through the 1915 movies ‘The Birth of a Nation,” to today’s white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and gun-toting apocalyptically minded Obama-haters.” Judging from a manifesto and photographs that appeared in a website registered in his name, Roof was steeped in this tradition.
Initially, several news media discussions of Roof’s actions seemed bent on interpreting his actions exclusively as expressions of anti-Christian bias (Fox News) and/or mental illness. With evidence from his website come to light, it will become more and more difficult to press this line of interpretation, and thus to avoid acknowledging that Roof’s actions express an ideology of anti-black racism. It is important to add that anti-black racist ideology, in all its permutations, like the anti-egalitarian practices of racial subordination with which it has always been intertwined, is not an anomalous feature of American history, but a constitutive, normative feature of what the United States is and has been (The philosopher, Charles Mills, develops this point at length in an essay entitled “The Racial Polity” in this volume). The rush to avoid acknowledging this fact is an expression of collective bad faith in the extreme. Regrettably, too many Americans continue to believe that we live in a “post-racial” society.
Yesterday’s NY Times also quotes law professor, Bryan Stevenson, as saying that “this latest violent act is an extreme and terrifying example, but not disconnected from the way black men and boys are treated by police, by schools, and the state.” The point of Stevenson’s remarks, I take it, is to invite us intellectually to connect seemingly “disconnected” dots by drawing attention to the ongoing, systematic character of racial oppression in the United States.In a related vein, political theorist Brandon Terry recently writes that the “Black Lives Matter” movement has insisted on viewing racial oppression as systematic and historically cumulative, specifically by emphasizing “forms of degradation, domination, and disadvantage that are not reducible to individual intent or episodic acts (see Terry’s “After Ferguson” in The Point). What we require now is antiracist critical theory and antiracist politics geared to dismantling systematic racial oppression.
Finally, a few words about Rachel Dolezal. I largely agree with Laurie Schrage’s suggestion (as I read her) that Dolezal can be seen not so much as “lying” or “pretending,” but as challenging prevailing conventions of racial classification. But as the Emanuel Church murders remind us, it is not straightforwardly available to most black people to solve the problem of their vulnerability to racist terrorism by challenging such conventions—or do we think that Dylann Roof would have refrained from shooting his victims had they suddenly announced that they did not identify as black?
Jon Stewart’s monologue on the events in Charleston includes this powerful point about how the legacy of slavery shapes everyday life in the contemporary United States: “In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road.” He goes on to use this point to highlight how ludicrous it is that Dylann Roof could suggest, while murdering innocent people in a church, that he was responding to his country being taken away from him. But there is a philosophical debate to be had about what it means to lose your country and, reading his manifesto, it is a debate that Roof would be prepared to engage in. One thing that is fascinating about the manifesto is how it describes his journey to racial awareness: awareness of race, of the importance of race to one’s identity, and of the centrality of race to the nature of the world around us. This awareness is relevant to thinking about what it means to lose your “country.” Roof writes about being shocked to read of Europe having to deal with racial problems similar to what he had begun to notice as systemic in America: “As an American we are taught to accept living in the melting pot, and black and other minorities have just as much right to be here as we do, since we are all immigrants. But Europe is the homeland of White people, and in many ways the situation is even worse there.” What Roof sees as being threatened is not just the United States but the larger “country” of whiteness.
We must next connect this to the known fact of his admiration for apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) – indeed, his website, where he posted the manifesto, is lastrhodesian.com. Roof clearly understands something many in North America who think of themselves as anti-racist do not. Many here are used to thinking of racism as primarily a problem of how racial minorities are mistreated by a dominating majority. White domination in Africa as recently as 1979 (in Zimbabwe’s case) and 1994 (in South Africa’s case) show this understanding to be false. Racism is primarily a problem of the development in the modern era of a sociopolitical system called global white supremacy. Charles Mills, a mentor of mine, has become well-known for insisting that Western political philosophy must take this system seriously in order to be relevant to understanding, evaluating, and aiding in changing the contemporary political landscape. Similarly, I think the best way to understand both Jon Stewart’s perceptive comment and Roof’s chillingly lucid manifesto is to accept that we all need to be increasingly racially aware. Roof’s ability to make connections between settler colonialism in both North America and Africa shows how deeply he thought about the evil he intended to do and succeeded in doing. I believe only increased awareness of the global history of race, of how it has shaped our past and how it shapes our present, will properly equip those dedicated to seeking a better world than the one he seeks.
A couple of months ago I wrote a short piece for Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog that attempted to challenge two of the central claims of gun rights advocates in the US. When I had completed the piece, the moderators of the blog mentioned that posts on the blog were intended to be responses to events in the news and therefore wondered whether we should wait to post my piece until the next gun massacre occurred in the US. They noted, almost without irony, that we surely would not have to postpone publication for long.
The US does seem to have more massacres by deranged loners than any other developed country. But I am writing from Norway, where only a few years ago there was a massacre by a single perpetrator in which 77 people were killed, mostly children, and many more wounded. The Norwegian murderer was, like the one in Charleston, racially and ideologically motivated. He was able to get the guns he needed. But perhaps this should not be surprising, as Norway is a country in which restrictions on gun possession are weaker than in most other Western European countries. (To me, that is surprising.)
Given that the population of the US is about 65 times that of Norway, the US does not compare too badly with Norway in the matter of domestic gun massacres. What singles out the US is instead the relentless the daily toll of gun homicides. It is in this that the US really excels. And it is impossible to believe that it is unconnected with the fact that the US is awash in handguns, readily available to every gang member, drug dealer, housebreaker, homeowner, barroom brawler, and enraged husband.
The vast majority of gun owners in the US are decent people. But when they buy their guns and pay their dues to the NRA, they are providing the resources that gun manufacturers and their lobbyists use to keep members of Congress in a state of fear and dread of the consequences for their reelection prospects if they were to respect democracy and vote on gun control in accordance with the views of the electorate. If the US is to cease to be the murder capital of the developed world, American gun owners will have to be willing to put the lives of their fellow citizens ahead of their sense that they are themselves more secure with a gun, and ahead of their fondness for the recreational uses of guns.
Was the Charleston massacre a terrorist act? Nothing suggests that it was a random act of killing. It was meant as a message to African Americans and the wider public. Apparently, the killer said to his victims “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” He is also reported to have told one woman that she would be spared so she could tell others about what happened.
Cleary then, the killing was no accident. It was performed in cold blood and with a political goal. Whether or not the justification that the killer provided for his deed seems deluded or based on wrong assumptions doesn’t matter for establishing the nature of the act. It was murder with a political motive. Does this make it terrorism?
In 2012, I defined ‘terrorism’ as
an indirect strategy of using fear or terror induced by violent attacks or force (or the threat of its use) against one group of people (direct target) or their property as a means to intimidate and coerce another group of people (indirect target) and influence their actions in order to reach further political objectives. Terrorist acts are the violent acts that form part of such a strategy. (from Terrorism: A Philosophical Enquiry. Palgrave Macmillan)
Was the Charleston massacre meant to induce fear by violent attacks against a group of people? YES. Was it meant to intimidate another – larger – group of people than those directly targeted? YES. Was this done for political motives? YES, again.
We know that people disagree on what the exact definition of terrorism should be. But the majority of the definitions don’t diverge so greatly as to not include the Charleston massacre in the class of terrorist acts.
Here’s for instance how the F.B.I. defines acts of ‘domestic terrorism’:
- Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
- Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
- Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.
The Charleston massacre is an act of terrorism according to this definition, too. It was meant to intimidate African Americans, it involved criminal acts dangerous to human life and it occurred within the jurisdiction of the U.S.
Why does it matter whether or not we call the massacre an act of terrorism? It matters for a number of reasons:
First, we owe the victims of the attack – the direct and the indirect victims –acknowledgement of the nature of the crime. Downplaying it by calling it an accident is ignorant at best and hypocritical at worst. It is disrespectful to the victims.
Second, it matters for deciding which course of action to take: measures meant to minimize gun accidents are one thing, counter-terrorism measures another. I’m not saying that restricting gun ownership is not required. In fact, it would be one of the most effective ways of reducing such crimes by making it harder for racists to carry them out. But once we think of the Charleston massacre and similarly motivated acts of violence as terrorism, we need to start addressing them as terrorism.
This involves addressing the ideological background conditions of the crime: terrorists usually feed off communities of people who think alike and they see themselves as acting on behalf of those communities.
Finally, calling the massacre an act of terrorism might send out a moral message: it would liken supremacist murderers to international terrorists. Rather then allowing them to see themselves protecting a ‘white’ America, they who attack society from within would be portrayed in the same light as those terrorists who attack it from without.
Another nine people are dead. President Obama said it is “now the time for mourning and healing”. The families of the dead will mourn. But ‘healing’ suggests a harm that is over, completed, a harm from which its living victims can gather themselves and ultimately prescind. But this is an old wound, continually re-opened. It is the same wound we saw gaping when seven-year-old Aiyana Jones was shot in the head during a to-be-televised police raid, when the killers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner were acquitted, and when Dajerria Becton was pinned to the ground under a police officer’s knee, having contaminated a pool with her black body. It is a wound opened by slavery and salted by state-sponsored terrorism and daily brutality.
Many are saying it is time for empathy. We should look at the photographs of the murdered and imagine them as our own parents or siblings or friends. But empathy will only take us so far. To empathise is not to inhabit a subjectivity; we cannot simply imagine our way into the full wages of race hatred. At the same time we should be wary of calling Dylann Roof’s actions ‘incomprehensible’, treating them as a singular event totally recalcitrant to our cognitive grasp. Roof’s crimes are an extreme symptom of a structure with which we are all too well acquainted.
Soon some will say that this is not the time for anger. They will remind black Americans that these nine victims died in a place of worship, forgetting how Jesus raged in the temple. They will point to the victims’ families who have forgiven Roof, and ask that all black Americans be like them: that is, better than the rest of us, saint-like in their oppression. (This is how we like our victims.) They will counsel against black anger by saying that it is ‘counterproductive’, that it damages the interests of black people themselves. They will offer this advice under the banner of empathy and pragmatism. In so doing they will obscure the question of whether anger, whatever its consequences, is here justified.
Many will say that, whatever else this is the time for, it is not the time for violence. They will exhort black Americans to emulate Gandhi and Mandela. They will see broken windows and smashed-up cars and think it is much the same as violence against people. (The logic of capitalism.) They will talk of ‘non-violence’ while remaining silent on the violence of the state. They will condemn the violence of ‘rioters’ without questioning their own inviolable right to violent self-defence. They will continue to believe, after watching a white man execute nine black people and leave a tenth to tell the story, that black people are the ones who are really violent.
Brad E. Stone
“You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country, and you have to go.” Anyone who has philosophically studied race, gender, and sexuality immediate see all of the evidence of a White supremacist. These three phrases are not the utterances of someone on drugs or someone with a mental illness (although Roof might indeed be on drugs and mentally ill): these utterances are at the operative core of White supremacy.
At the heart of White supremacy is a patriarchy that claims possession of White women for the sole purpose of reproducing Whiteness. Do not take the phrase “our women” here to refer to some noble, aesthetically pleasing, virtuous group of human beings; Roof is himself raping White women by relegating their sexual reproductive abilities to his own (racist) ends. Since White women are the only hope for the perpetuation of White supremacy, they must be “guarded” from non-whites and forced to reproduce Whiteness. That “guarding” created the suburbs and the modern notion of the housewife: the preservation of Whiteness. It is also the primary fuel of the recent “war on women” and fight against birth control and abortion. If White women are not out-producing non-White women, or if they are producing non-White babies, indeed “our country” will be taken over. I want us to focus on the racist logic at use here. The logic does not need any actual Black man/White woman rape to take place, for it is White supremacy itself that is raping White women. If feminism is to properly talk about “intersectionality,” it would be in recognizing that the patriarchy against which feminism fights is itself part of the White supremacy that anti-racists condemn. Without the racist imperative, the worry about reproduction would not exist (or at least be quite lessened). A similar argument can be made about homophobia and heterosexism: same-sex relationships hinder White supremacy since there is less possibility for the reproduction of Whiteness. This issue has become complicated in light of marriage equality and same-sex couples being parents by adoption or other reproductive technologies: one must ask whether White supremacy will find a way to co-opt homosexual life in light of these changes. Are same-sex couples also of use to White supremacy?
Since White people in America consider this land some kind of God-given promise (be it the White adaptation of the Jewish narrative of the promised land or the myth of Manifest Destiny), the looming non-White majority raises White anxieties. The standard racism (namely, anti-Black and anti-Native American racism) merges with anti-immigrant racism, anti-multilingualism, and religious intolerance to try to preserve the (racist) notion of America as a homogeneous (White, English-speaking) nation. Obama was elected, and it was due to too many non-Whites in the country voting. [Even worse, it was also due to too many liberal Whites forgetting their “duty” to preserve Whiteness.] The “our” of the phrase “our country” is an exclusive “our;” it claims possession of a country that never existed, for there was never an America that was exclusively White. If White supremacy had its way–and non-Whites left or were killed off–only then would our country be taken over. Roof’s adjective “our” denies the Black investment in the United States of America, and it is thus Roof (and White supremacy) that is actually trying to “take over” the country.
Notice that everything Roof says about Blacks in this statement is actually about White supremacy. White supremacy rapes and takes over. Indeed, it is White supremacy, not Black people, that has to go.
Hate crimes and moral security
Regardless of whether the massacre at Charleston is an act of terrorism (a question I will leave to others), it is undoubtedly a hate crime. Dylann Roof was motivated by White Supremacist ideology that expresses profound hatred of African-Americans. Similarly, Elliot Rodger’s shooting of 13 people at Isla Vita, California in May 2014 is also a hate crime: in his detailed plans for his killing spree his referred to his “war on women,” and allegedly sought retribution against women who sexually rejected him. Thus his actions were motivated by deeply misogynistic beliefs.
What I want to briefly explore here is two ways in which these crimes are morally distinctive. While I will focus on the Roof and Rodger’s cases, what I say would also apply to hate crimes committed against other groups, such as homosexual and transgender people.
Firstly, these acts should not be construed as the result of individual pathologies. Like many, I reject the “mental illness” explanation for these crimes. Instead, these crimes are extreme manifestations of racist and sexist beliefs that are sustained and fostered through informal social practices and structural and institutional forces. Roof’s White Supremacist beliefs were supported by his personal interactions with racist groups and individuals, and by the social and institutional acceptance of racist beliefs expressed through, for example, official endorsements of the Confederate flag, and the ongoing issue of excessive police violence against African-Americans. Likewise, Elliot Rodger’s views reflect widespread misogynist beliefs about men’s sexual entitlement to women’s bodies—beliefs that find expression in, for instance, the problematic ways in which sexual assault is discussed in the media. It is thus crucial to recognize that these crimes reflect racist and sexist beliefs that are deeply normalized in our current society.
Secondly, the impact of these hate crimes reveals how racist and sexist beliefs and practices affect not only the sense of physical security of African-Americans and women, but their sense of moral security as well. By moral security, I mean one’s sense of security in one’s basic moral standing¾the belief that my interests, needs, and welfare matter and that others will treat me with the kind of respect due to those considered moral equals. Those of us less vulnerable to systemic prejudices often take this kind of security for granted¾we assume that others will not abuse us, demean us, or ignore us. But for those who are deeply affected by embedded racist and sexist practices, the belief that “I matter” cannot be taken for granted. My point is not simply that racist and sexist beliefs by definition involve the judgment that members of some groups are less morally valuable than others. Instead, my point is that hate crimes tell the members of the victim group in a brutal way that they do not matter and that what happens to them does not matter. These crimes thus serve as a visceral and threatening reminder to many African-Americans and women that they live in a society in which their moral security is constantly under attack.
(image: photo by Brendan Smialowski for AFP/Getty, modified)