There's a routine we follow after every gun massacre.
It goes like this: Reports of a gunman opening fire on innocent people in an unsuspecting place flood the news, and we are horrified. In shock and disbelief, we grieve collectively. We begin to ask questions. How, and why does this continue to happen? We scramble for every scrap of information about the perpetrator, looking for clues, trying to find that one distinct detail that will make sense of the carnage -- that will give us something or someone to blame.
So who should we blame for Dylann Roof? We should blame ourselves.
Dylann Roof grew up in a society that subtly upholds racist ideals, breeds toxic masculinity, and continues to debate whether guns kill people, or people kill people. Collectively, we created that society, and we're simultaneously obsessed with and terrified of addressing racism in a real way.
This has never been more clear than in the days since Dylann Roof's arrest. There's been debate about whether it was racism, mental illness, or gun culture that fueled his terrorist act -- as if these things are mutually exclusive.
There have been numerous attempts to to paint Roof's actions as an isolated, freak event. Fox News suggested that the massacre was an attack on Christianity, Rick Perry claimed it was drug-influenced, and online commentators questioned not only whether Roof's racist Facebook pictures were doctored, but if he was actually even white at all.
Why all these mental gymnastics? Because it's easier to consider something blatantly illogical than accept the truth. Because to admit that racism played a role in this attack is to admit that it is alive and well.
In his racist manifesto, discovered last week, Roof wrote that he was not "raised in a racist home or environment." He owes his racist awakening to Trayvon Martin. After George Zimmerman's trial, Roof read about the numerous "black on white" crimes in the past several years, as detailed on the Council of Conservative Citizens (a hate group) website.
Roof's manifesto is sad, and ridiculous, and disturbing. But what's perhaps more disturbing than his words is this idea that his racist thinking sprang up -- fully-formed -- in 2012. That up until discovering the Council of Conservative Citizens, he harbored no racist opinions whatsoever. Doubtful.
To his family and friends, Roof's actions and extreme racism now seem incomprehensible. His uncle, Carson Cowles (who gave Roof the .45-caliber gun he used in the massacre), has publicly condemned him as a monster. But he also insisted in an interview with The New York Daily News that Roof was quiet, shy, and had never seemed to actively display hatred for blacks.
“My family is nothing like this,” Cowles said. “We could’ve never seen anything like this -- no way, shape or form.”
A former classmate, John Mullins, told The Daily Beast that in high school, Roof would crack racist jokes, but they were viewed only as "strong Conservative beliefs" and "Southern Pride." Mullins realizes now, though, “the things [Roof] said were kind of not joking.”
It's hard to believe that Roof's family and friends were totally unaware of his white supremacist leanings, and ignorant to think that, on some level, they weren't complicit in fostering them. This is not an accusation or a suggestion that someone told him to become a terrorist. But it is imperative to understand that this kind of act does not spring up out of nowhere, and it does not exclusively arise from psychosis.
We don't know if Roof is a sociopath, a psychopath, depressed, and so forth. We do know that racism is a social construct, and it is indoctrinated from a young age. Roof's story serves as a perfect, if extreme, example of the insidiousness and harmfulness of the kind of casual racism that persists in this country. Roof owned racist paraphernalia, allegedly threatened a black woman in public, and even told a friend about his plans to spark a race war while waving a gun around -- and yet none of these behaviors were enough to spark real concern amongst the people in his life.
Why? Because all of them were considered -- at least on some level -- harmless, the norm. Roof's casual racism, his so-called "Southern Pride," was allowed to ferment for years -- thanks to the passivity of those around him. That, coupled with poverty, a sense of entitlement, and easy access to a firearm, resulted in a tragic and senseless act. As extreme as Roof's actions were, they serve as a reminder that racism is as pervasive now -- and perhaps even as expected -- as it was 40 years ago. It need only be fostered or, worse, ignored, in order to thrive.
Whenever confronted with extreme racism, stark and clear as day, the nation's collective reaction is to distance itself from it. To deny the existence of racism as so many did in the wake of Charleston is as absurd as the suggestion that more guns will stop gun violence or the inane adage, "Guns don't kill people, people do."
Blame mental illness, blame drugs, blame everything and anything else that will thicken the line between the ordinary, everyday citizen and the person who could bring themselves to kill in the name of an ideology. But unlike those with mental illness, racists learn to look at the world the way they do. It must be acknowledged that there are more Dylann Roofs out there, and they exist because we let them.