Though only 21, Dylann Roof has an old soul — that of a 19th-century white supremacist with 21st-century tools.
The alleged shooter who killed nine people Wednesday at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, reportedly told his victims, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”
Those words marked Roof as an ideological descendant of earlier racists who, after the Civil War, justified their reign of terror with precisely these claims: that supposedly hypersexual black men were always on the prowl to rape white women, and that African-Americans’ fights for citizenship and civil rights were not just about equality, but about black domination. In South Carolina — where the shots that started the Civil War were fired, where whites held tenuous and brutal control over black majorities, and where enslaved people helped launch the war by literally stealing themselves and fleeing from bondage — black domination came to be known as “Negro rule.”
Dylann Roof may have changed the words (“taking over”), and it may be true that racism has in part succeeded by shape-shifting through the ages. But make no mistake: Roof’s contemporary violence has everything to do with the violent vision of men who built modern South Carolina. Roof is neither lone wolf nor innovator. Whatever, if any, connection he has to hate groups, he had hundreds of years of anti-black race talk behind him when he walked into one of America’s oldest black places of worship, in what is known as the Holy City (likely for its abundance of churches), and prayed with black congregants before gunning them down.