[On September 10th, 1897, striking coal miners at the Lattimer mine near Hazleton, PA, were attacked by a sheriff’s posse, killing at least 19 and wounding many more. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied historical massacres, leading up to this special weekend post on contemporary hate crimes.]
On the contemporary crime that most echoes historical massacres, and its connection to an even more troubling broader trend.
If I had to identify one 21st century act of violence that most clearly extends the legacy of the kinds of massacres about which I’ve written this week, it would be Dylann Roof’s June 17th, 2015 killing of nine African American parishioners (including Senior Pastor Clementa Pinckney) and wounding of another at Charleston (SC)’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episocal Church. Roof overtly targeted members of a particular racial and ethnic culture, and for just as overt white supremacist reasons (he said to the victims “I have to do this because you are raping our women and taking over the world” before opening fire), and did so at a site of crucial cultural and historical significance for that community. While he was a single shooter, compared to a rampaging mob or a military force or the other large-scale perpetrators of the week’s historic massacres, Roof was part of extremist online communities that to my mind represent 21st century equivalents of those historic mobs, and in his ugly manifesto entirely defined his violent actions and their purposes as part of those broader, communal efforts. So for all those and other reasons I would call Roof’s shooting a 21st century massacre (not just a mass shooting, which of course it certainly was but tragically only one of so many in recent years), and as a result an extension of these dark and horrific historical legacies into our own moment.
At the same time, Roof’s shooting could just as easily and with just as much accuracy be described as an early example of one of the last few years’ most horrific trends: white supremacist hate crimes against Americans of color. Of course such racial/ethnic hate crimes have never been absent from American history and culture, and African Americans in particular have been subject to them in increasing numbers for many years now (even if we leave police shootings aside, killings such as George Zimmerman’s February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin or Michael David Dunn’s November 2012 shooting of Jordan Davis embody such 21st century anti-African American hate crimes). But even those anti-African American hate crimes have become more blatantly white supremacist in the last couple years (I write this not long after the horrific stabbing murder of teenager Nia Wilson in Oakland by a racist killer), and have been paralleled by other racist hate crimes committed against members of so many different American cultures (Sikh Americans, Indian Americans, Muslim Americans, Mexican and other Latinx Americans, and many many more). Indeed, I’m not sure any single awful trend has been more consistent in the age of Trump than these hate crimes against Americans of color—perhaps ridiculous Trump Tweets, but those have overtly been linked to said crimes so I’ll go ahead and lump them in as part of the same trend.
Obviously (I hope) I would never in any way downplay the horrors of large-scale massacres, but to my mind there’s something uniquely and perhaps especially horrible about these seemingly constant 21st century hate crimes: their everyday, almost ordinary nature. Almost by definition a massacre is such a striking event that it stops communities, and even the nation, in their tracks; President Obama traveled to Charleston to deliver the eulogy at the funeral of the Emanuel AME victims, for example. Whereas in 2018, racial and ethnic hate crimes, big or small, barely register as news at all; it’s on the small end of the spectrum to be sure, but when “Fuck n[-words]” was written on the walls of two bathrooms at my sons’ elementary school in Needham, MA this past academic year, the event was noted as terrible but wasn’t the subject of extensive school meetings or even multiple emails or the like. I’m not suggesting that we are at a point where a hate crime on the level of Dylann Roof’s would barely make a ripple in our news cycle—but I think it would be possible for us to get there, and there’s no doubt that the general ubiquity of racist hate and violence is at the very least a troubling trend.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?
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