Police are investigating the fatal shooting of nine African Americans at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., as a hate crime committed by a white man. Unfortunately, it’s not a unique event in American history. Black churches have long been targets of white supremacists who burned and bombed them in an effort to terrorize the black communities those churches anchored. One of the most egregious terrorist acts in U.S. history was committed against a black church in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. Four girls were killed when members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church, a tragedy that ignited the civil rights movement.
But listen to major media outlets, and you won’t hear the word “terrorism” used in coverage of Wednesday’s shooting. You haven’t heard the white, male suspect, 21-year-old Dylann Roof, described as “a possible terrorist” by mainstream news organizations (though some, including The Washington Post, have covered the growing debate about this discrepancy). And if coverage of other recent shootings by white men is any indication, he never will be. Instead, the go-to explanation for his alleged actions will be mental illness. He will be humanized and called sick, a victim of mistreatment or inadequate mental health resources.