The Emanuel African Methodist Church is the oldest black congregation in the South. The Charleston, South Carolina church, however, is far more than a place of worship. It is a historical landmark. A space where black churchgoers escaped the suffocating conditions of Jim Crow yesterday, and thousands of faithful members gather and worship today.
However, the sacred space was the site of ungodly tragedy late Wednesday evening. Nine black members of the congregation were shot and killed by a white gunman, who at the time of this article was still at large. Police responded to the shooting at roughly 9pm local time, and surrounded the Emanuel AME afterwards.
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Early reports indicate that racism was a motive. Charleston police called it a hate crime. And the interracial dynamic of the culprit and his victims have centred on race and racism in the public discourse.
The attack on Emanuel AME cannot be divorced from the broader targeting of black bodies in the US. It follows last week’s horrific events in McKinney, Texas, where vivid images of policemen manhandling and sitting atop black youth intensified frustration among African Americans.
Moreover, it takes place amid a broader context of both public and private violence against black American communities, which spawned the Black Lives Matter movement.
Clean-shaven, white suspect
However, the attack on Emanuel AME marks a new low. Apart from the gunman shooting at worshippers engaged in an evening Bible study session, the attack took place within the confines of a space of African American worship. And more specifically, an African American Christian landmark, which once extended dignity, humanity, and community to freed slaves. Wednesday night’s events indicate that racism, then and again today, cannot be completely evaded.
While the investigation continues to unearth the clean-shaven, white suspect in his early 20s – American racial logic establishes that his specific identity may ultimately not matter. Terrorism is a term, and act, almost exclusively reserved for Arab or Muslim actors.
While the investigation continues to unearth the clean-shaven, white suspect in his early 20s – American racial logic establishes that his specific identity may ultimately not matter.
Black or Latino actors are summarily branded thugs. In these instances, the members of the Arab or Muslim, Latino or black culprit’s race or religion are collectively and collaterally vilified. Deemed guilty as a consequence of shared faith or phenotype.
Whiteness, however, is the perpetual and principal exception. White gunmen and assailants, driven by xenophobia, Islamophobia, or what seems to be the motive behind Emanuel AME attack, anti-black racism, are time and again deemed “lone wolves”. A characterisation that brands the culprit a rogue, and in turn, frees whites or even a subset of whites that share the culprit’s racist ideology from collective guilt.
Definitive powers and privileges
This, indeed, ranks as one of whiteness’ definitive powers and privileges, and contrarily, a burden that plagues blacks, Muslims, and other marginalised Americans.
Therefore, although the identity of the shooter is still unknown, white Americans can breathe easy, not having to fear the imminent backlash Muslim or black Americans face after a member of their community has committed an atrocity.
Well before the abolition of slavery, black churches and mosques stood as sepulchres of solace and escapism: Centres that were far more than merely places of worship, but safe havens from de jure segregation and the discontents of slavery and second-class citizenship. Perhaps no other institution offered that space more than the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Therefore, Wednesday’s shooting is discursively perceived as an attack on that sacred history and narrative of black empowerment, during an impasse in American history when black bodies are gunned down at an alarming rate, begging the question: If black America’s most sacred and esteemed spaces have been desecrated, who or what is off limits?
Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.