By Preston Hogue
When people say or do horrific things—as seems to keep happening in our current election cycle—it’s easy to want to put distance between ourselves and those who seem to be acting outrageously. I think back to a moment a couple of years ago where I saw this happening in my home state of South Carolina. On June 17, 2015, a white man entered an historic black church during a prayer meeting and murdered nine people in attendance.
I remember that, as the reactions poured out on social media, I became increasingly uncomfortable as people entered into an almost ritualistic process of putting distance between themselves and the perpetrator, Dylann Roof.
I saw the same thing happen when white police officer Michael Slager killed Walter Scott, a black man, in North Charleston earlier that year. Then I couldn’t quite put my finger on what made me uncomfortable, but now I understand—my fellow South Carolinians are unwilling to accept that we have created a culture where this sort of tragedy happens. We make them out to be ‘one bad cop’ or ‘one troubled youth’ instead of sons of South Carolina who really aren’t that different from us.
Take, for example, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who defiantly declared at a prayer vigil on Thursday, “What happened in that church is not the people of South Carolina… We are a state of faith, we are a state of prayer, we are a state of love.”
But I’d like to take a moment to say that in fact, Governor Haley, we are a state that raised a white supremacist who entered the prayer service of an historic black church and murdered nine black people.
…we are a state that raised a white supremacist who entered the prayer service of an historic black church and murdered nine black people.
Most people immediately proclaimed how different this killer was from them, but as I took in the story, I was struck by how much we have in common. I fit the initial description released by the police: “white male, early 20s, clean shaven, slight build.” (I think I have a better haircut than Dylann, but I’ll let you decide.)
Kind of a strange reaction, right? Of all South Carolinians that look like Dylann and me, I probably have the most right to distance myself from him. I completed high school. I went away to a fancy, liberal college. I moved to Philadelphia (Yankee territory!) and then Chicago. At the time of the massacre, I was a member of a black church, lived in a black neighborhood, and worked at an organization that serves a largely poor black community.
Indeed, there is great distance between the path that Dylann took and the one I’ve followed. But still, I couldn’t help but feel like we weren’t all that different.
For starters, Dylann and I were educated according to the same state standards, which include SC history. I love history, so I soaked it in. I would have remembered if we ever learned about the black freedom struggle in South Carolina, for instance, about the Denmark Vesey slave revolt and the burning of Mother Emanuel AME Church. It wasn’t until college that I had the opportunity to explore the South Carolina Civil Rights movement. Black history wasn’t taught in my SC classrooms.
And I grew up misunderstanding black culture that was all around me. Each week we drove past an AME church on the way to our (almost exclusively white) church. And every so often I would say, “I just don’t understand their name. How can you be Methodist and Episcopal?” Dylann Roof would probably have agreed when I rolled my eyes at such an ignorant name that I thought only black people would come up with. (If you know the history of the AME Church, you recognize the irony of my thinking: the AME Church took its name from the white denomination they left—the Methodist Episcopal Church, now United Methodist Church—because of discrimination against blacks.)
And finally, I confess that as a kid I was kind of obsessed with Confederate war history. I had books about Confederate history, a replica CSA soldier’s cap, and once for an elementary school art project I used paper pulp to create a Confederate flag. Like Dylann, I grew up celebrating that flag as a symbol of the glory days of the South. And why shouldn’t I? When I was a kid it still flew high above the state capitol building.
On June 17, 2015, the flag still flew on the grounds of the state capitol, even after a long fight to have it removed from atop the building. (It was eventually removed from statehouse grounds on July 10, 2015.)
White South Carolina, we have rushed to put distance between ourselves and Dylann Roof, to say that his actions don’t represent what we stand for. I’m not afraid to say that Dylann Roof and Preston Hogue sound pretty similar; we were raised in the same white South Carolina culture! We may want distance from Dylann, but if we’re honest we can see a little bit of Dylann Roof in all of us.
We must confess that Dylann Roof is a white South Carolinian. And we must confess that South Carolina is a state where we would rather celebrate the glory days of the South than admit they were purchased with black lives.
We must confess that South Carolina is a state where we would rather celebrate the glory days of the South than admit they were purchased with black lives.
We must confess that South Carolina:
…is a state where our children only learn the white side of our state’s history.
…is a state where we would really prefer our kids to not have interracial relationships.
…is a state where we ignore and misunderstand black culture.
…is a state where we would rather everyone have a gun than everyone have healthcare.
…is a state where symbols of hatred are revered, defended, and celebrated—even if they’re taken off the statehouse grounds.
We must confess that South Carolina is a state that raised a white supremacist that entered the prayer service of an historic black church and murdered nine black people.
White people of South Carolina, let this tragedy be a wake-up call so that we can truly become the state Governor Haley and all decent people long for, “a state of love.” But let’s not deny where we are right now as we work toward that goal:
We are a state that raised a racist mass murderer. Until we own that fact, we will raise another one and risk facing this tragedy again.
Preston Hogue is in the the Masters of Divinity program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the Chicago area. He’s an alum of Emory University, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and Mission Year. He loves cities, running, and trying new food.