In the wake of the horrific mass shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, there has been a distinct call for the media to report the violence as an act of terrorism rather than a hate crime. These calls, while well meaning, demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of hate crime; specifically, that acts categorized as hate crimes are fundamentally acts of terrorism.
The general public has a strange misconception about hate crimes because they are understood as individual violations of the law rather than acts that occur in a larger social context. We tend to see hate crimes as one-on-one events where an individual or group of individuals commit an act motivated by hatred based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender, (dis)ability status, and other historically marginalized identities. In fact, this is how hate crime laws are written. Hate crimes, however unlike other types of crime, are not a limited act involving a perpetrator and victim; they are acts designed specifically to send a message to the members of the targeted group. In this sense, all hate crimes are acts of terrorism from the smallest “thrill” act of vandalism to the “mission” type of mass shooting that occurred in Charleston.
As suspect Dylann Storm Roof was identified and apprehended, evidence of his racism is being made public. A photo of the young man wearing a jacket with the flags of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) is circulating online, and he is reported as having stated that he “had to do it” because “You [African Americans] rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” This is more than the individual prejudice most people understand as motivation for hate crime, but it is typical of the thinking of perpetrators of such crimes. Like so many others before him, Roof is motivated by a growing anger and resentment at the perceived loss of his social power. He sees a world where his power and entitlement as a straight, white, male is being challenged and reacts with violent frustration at the perceived challengers to that power. He may have killed 9 people, but his target was the African American community as a whole.
What we are seeing in Charleston is the real “Ferguson/Baltimore Effect” – the increasing fear and resentment by white people of the challenges to their power and authority in the wake of Black resistance and uprising. This individual act of violence can only be understood in the social and historical context of events around it. The Southern Poverty Law Center indicates that hate groups have increased 30% since 2000. However, the organized movement is merely the tip of the iceberg because a pattern of “leaderless resistance” ensures that ideas of racial superiority and genocidal violence proliferate without a central leadership and organization. These are just the most extreme examples in a culture where mass media outlets channel white rage and fear into racial hatred. This type of social context is the ideal climate for individual actions to translate into collective messages of hate.
As we begin to make sense of the bigotry and violence of the Charleston shootings, let us come to an understanding about the nature of individual acts of bigotry. Hate crimes are not simply isolated acts of prejudice, they are social acts designed to intimidate and control entire segments of a population. In the domestic American context hate crimes are acts of terrorism and should always be understood as such. When we are talking about the former, we are always talking about the latter.
Sociology, Criminology & Anthropology Department
University of Wisconsin – Whitewater