When White Killers Are Treated Better Than Black Victims

Indrani Sengupta
Why do we say "tragedy" sometimes and "terrorism" at other times? Why do we treat a white gunman different from one of color?

Dylann Roof massacred 9 innocent people who had welcomed him into their most intimate space—their church—a space that should have been safe for them.

But so many among us are still calling the Charleston church shooting “a tragedy” rather than an act of terrorism.

And then others are already meandering into apologetics, painting, even romanticizing, Dylann Roof as unstable, mentally ill. "Troubled." "Withdrawn." "Drifting." "Quiet, soft-spoken." 

Because if it's mental illness, then it's not racism. If it's mental illness, then it's one man at fault, and not a society steeped in injustice and indifference.

The shooting was undeniably tragic, but the label of “tragedy” puts less emphasis on the killer’s volition than the word “terrorism” does. It erases his culpability. After all, a tragedy can be a natural disaster, a terminal illness, a horrific accident, all things that had no deliberate human hand in them.

The Charleston church shooting had a deliberate human hand in its execution. Several human hands, if you consider how the wider culture of racial violence contributes to each individual tragedy.

We’re not afraid to call the Boston Marathon bombing an act of terrorism, as well as a tragedy. Why? Because it was perpetrated by persons of color, by foreigners? Because there were white men and women among its victims?

It’s not just our language that suggests racial preference. You only have to look at pictures of the way the police treated Roof to see how language translates into conduct. 

Charleston church shooting

Why was the murderer of 9 innocents handled so respectfully—handed a bullet-proof vest—when a 15 year old Black girl can't attend a pool party without being manhandled?

Texas pool party

Black people, and Black men in particular, are disproportionately targeted—by the police, by violence. And so often, those two things are one and the same.

And it’s not an isolated incident. It’s not “one bad cop” several times over. Black Americans in the US are killed at 12 times the rate of people in other developed countries.

List of countries by intentional homicide rate

That should fill us with a profound sense of shame. And then that shame should be ministered into action, into change.

Read more: Confederate Flag At Capitol Is Symbol Of Race, Violence Problem in US