Why White Americans Don’t Think The Charleston Massacre Counts As Terrorism

Tyler Francis, right, and Shondrey Dear pray together, Thursday, June 18, 2015 at a makeshift memorial near the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. CREDIT: AP
Tyler Francis, right, and Shondrey Dear pray together, Thursday, June 18, 2015 at a makeshift memorial near the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday night in Charleston, S.C. CREDIT: AP

Only 41 percent of American adults believe the shooter at Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charleston, S.C. should be charged with terrorism, according to a CNN and ORC International poll.

The shooter, Dylann Roof, killed nine African-American church goers last month in an attack that targeted a community based on their race. Roof’s wrote in his manifesto before committing the crime:

I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.

Despite his motivations, the majority of Americans polled said that the act should not be considered terrorism. Another picture emerges however if the poll is broken down by race, with 55 percent of black Americans believing that Roof’s actions deserve the terrorism label as opposed to just 37 percent of white Americans.

The fact that black Americans were the subject of the attacks and that the attacker was white will have resonated strongly with those respective communities. “People of color felt more affected and victimized by it. To them it was an act of terror which can then be seen as terrorism, where as white people saw it as an act of racial discrimination,” Dr. Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, Chair of the International Psychology program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in Washington, D.C. and an adjunct at Georgetown University, told ThinkProgress by phone.


In fact, 87 percent of Americans agreed it should be considered a hate crime and opinions between white and black Americans were more unanimous according to the poll.

Terrorism is difficult to authoritatively define. The UN General Assembly defines terrorism as, “Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable, whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.”

The FBI defines domestic terrorism as follows:

Last week, six senators wrote a letter calling for hearings on domestic terrorism citing the incident at Charleston as motivation.


“If this same act had been perpetrated by someone claiming a desire to harm Americans in the service of Islamist principles, it would immediately be labeled an act of terror,” the senators wrote in the letter. “A violent act motivated by a racist desire to intimidate a civilian population falls squarely within the definition of domestic terrorism.”

So, what explains the differing point of view between white and black Americans when deciding whether the Charleston attack was an act of terror? Dass-Brailsford said it relates to roles of power and oppression in American society. “When you look at oppression, people’s opinions are based on how powerful they feel,” she said. “People in power here are white, middle and upper middle class. [One] group feels more powerful and that power is derived from race in this situation and in many other situations.”

And that power is evident throughout society. Take the example of former congressional candidate Robert Rankin Doggart, who was recently set free by a judge despite admitting to “plotting the annihilation” of a Muslim community in New York.

Meanwhile, three of the Duka brothers were sentenced to life in prison on charges of conspiring to kill U.S. military personnel even though the FBI informant who assisted in their arrest said they are innocent.

“[Acts of] discrimination are so common, it’s just part of our everyday life,” Dass-Brailsford said. “If you want to draw attention to something putting it in the area of terrorism draws much more attention.”