Media

Why Are Media Organizations So Reluctant to Call Dylann Roof a Terrorist?

Who gets labeled a terrorist is usually a product of race, theirs and white-dominated newsrooms.

So far, we know that Dylan Roof, a 21-year-old white man, is in custody in connection with the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Charleston, S.C., where nine people were killed. Images of Roof circulating on social media show him wearing a black jacket bearing the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia, both known for their histories of state-sanctioned racism and terror against black majorities.

The Daily Beast reports that a high school classmate of Roof’s said he “made a lot of racist jokes.” Sylvia Johnson, cousin of the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (who was one of the dead), says a survivor told her Roof said, "You rape our women and you’re taking over the country. You have to go." 

For many black people, it is clear that Roof’s alleged actions are an act of terror, making him a “terror suspect,” not a “shooting suspect.” But so far most media outlets have referred to Roof as the latter.

Anthea Butler, associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania wrote for the Washington Post, media outlets have already found ways to legitimize his alleged crimes, a courtesy that is seldom extended to suspects of color.

“[T]he go-to explanation for his actions will be mental illness,” she wrote. “He will be humanized and called sick, a victim of mistreatment or inadequate mental health resources. Activist Deray McKesson noted this morning that, while discussing Roof’s motivations, an MSNBC anchor said ‘we don’t know his mental condition.’ That is the power of whiteness in America.”

After the Boston Marathon bombings, experts were called on to qualify what had happened as terrorism. There was no discussion of whether the Tsarnaev brothers could have had psychological difficulties. It leaves us with the question of whether or not there is a disconnect between how black and white people view violence against black bodies. Vox embedded a tweet from Jelani Cobb, associate professor of history at the University of Connecticut, who said that the first anti-terrorism law in U.S. history was the Klan Control Act and that the Charleston shooting clearly fits the definition of terror.

It is also key to mention that Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has a very long history of fighting racism. Denmark Vesey, an abolitionist who was formerly enslaved, helped to found Emanuel in the early 1880s. In that same church, he plotted a slave rebellion, in 1822, but some other enslaved black people leaked the plan to their plantation owners and Vesey was consequently hanged along with more than 30 others.

Just last year, local activists unveiled a life-sized statue of Vesey in Charleston to honor him. Several local bloggers and radio hosts criticized the project because they believed Vesey targeted innocent white people during his slave rebellion plot. Jack Hunter of the Charleston City Paper wrote at the time, “Erecting a statue to honor Vesey is admitting that terrorism is sometimes justified, depending on the cause. But for civilized people, terrorism should never be justified — and neither should Denmark Vesey.”

Yes, Hunter actually used the words “civilized people” to rationalize why Vesey’s actions weren’t justified. During slavery. Such thinking may inform how some in the white establishment may view (or excuse) violence against black bodies.

Shay Stewart-Bouley, executive director of Community Change, Inc., a Boston-based organization dedicated to anti-racism work, told AlterNet that it’s hard for white people to see acts of violence against black people as acts of terror because it’s not personal for them. She added that unless it happens to a black person they know personally, like a family member or friend, it is hard for them to see violence like the Charleston shootings as terror.  

“It’s abstract [for white people] in part because we still live in a very segregated society,” said Stewart-Bouley, who has led workshops in anti-racism since 2002. “By and large, we don’t interact on deep levels, so we don’t see the humanity in each other. More specifically, white people don’t see the humanity in people of color.”

This is a harsh reality, given that nearly 90 percent of newsrooms in America are staffed by white reporters.

Breea Willingham, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh who worked as a news reporter for 10 years, shares Stewart-Bouley's views. She told AlterNet that newsroom editors are simply uncomfortable labeling people who look like them as terrorists.

“When it comes to other white people, they are hesitant to do that because they don’t want to ruffle the feathers of their own race,” said Willingham, whose research focuses on crime and punishment. “But when it comes to attaching those labels to non-white people, then it’s, Oh, that’s the norm. There is no surprise there that this black person or this Arab person is like this because that’s what they are. So it’s only natural for us to assign those labels to them. But when it comes to white people? Um, we need to be a little more careful because we don’t want to piss off white America."

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Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.