On Wednesday, a white man attacked an entire building full of black worshippers at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
In reaction, Jamil Smith writes in the New Republic:
It gets harder to love thine enemy the more we come to know them. A church born of black liberation understands the inevitably scarring effects of racism; it understands how we react to American whiteness’ corrosive hatred, so often on display. I certainly hope the church can lead us in this moment, when our skin has been flayed, our bodies broken, and our beautiful souls spit upon. We find ourselves here again: A hated people holding each other tight as the space around us closes in.
“A hated people holding each other tight as the space around us closes in.”
Think about an act so vile — just one in a long history of repeated violence against a people — that it provokes that response.
Does that deserve to be called terrorism?
There are lots of definitions of terrorism, but the best summary probably is something along the lines of “violent acts, with some ideological or politically bent, intended to create fear among some group of people.”
Think about it for a second, against what you know of the history of African Americans in this country. Violence intended to provoke fear for political benefit is what white Americans have been doing to black Americans since the first slave ship arrived from Africa. The entirety of American history could be considered a terror regime against African Americans. If violent racism is terrorism, we’ve got 400 years of history to reckon with. The weapon of American terrorism against black Americans has been the police.
In considering this question at Vox, Max Fisher is less forceful:
When we ask whether the Charleston killer is a terrorist, we are really asking whether such a trend of politically motivated white-on-black violence still exists.
That is an intensely controversial question in this country. It touches on sensitive, raw issues of racial inequality, which extends to everything from criminal justice to college admissions. It is not easy to talk about.
This is wrong. It’s actually quite easy to talk about. If you were paying attention to the news events in this country over the last year and still think that “politically motivated white-on-black violence” doesn’t exist, you are ignoring the facts. You are part of the problem.
A black person cannot reasonably walk down the street in almost any part of America with the same sense of physical safety as a white person. There’s a completely universal, reasonable culture of fear for an entire race of people in one of the largest countries on earth.
There should be a word for that that that makes the entire nation uncomfortable. We should hear it over and over, and be forced to reckon with our history and with our present.
Then again, perhaps that word should not be terrorism. Terrorism allows us to group this together with other kinds of violence. It allows us to put it in a box and file it away with other political problems going on in far-away places that Americans don’t identify with. As much as nightly news viewers might fear the idea of ISIS, it’s a very abstract hysteria.
America has a very unique white-on-black racial violence, and a specific culture of fear related to it. Call it the very dark side of American exceptionalism. And maybe it needs its own name.
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