Why can’t Republicans talk about racism?

On Wednesday the US was hit by yet another mass shooting. Dylann Roof, who was only 21 years old, joined a prayer meeting in Emanuel Church in Charleston, before opening fire and killing nine people – all African American. The church is one of the oldest African American churches in the US, and has long been involved in the civil rights movement. The killer, driven by racism, apparently believed in segregation, had been photographed with the flags of apartheid era South Africa and Rhodesia, and shouted racist rhetoric and slurs during the shooting. The government is treating the attack as a hate crime and as domestic terrorism. There aren’t many more clear-cut example of vicious racism ending in murder. Unless though, you’re a Republican candidate for President. Let’s see what they had to say:

Jeb Bush – [First statement] “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes”… [When asked if it was racially motivated] ““I don’t know. Looks like to me it was, but we’ll find out all the information. It’s clear it was an act of raw hatred, for sure.”

Ted Cruz – [First statement] “A sick and deranged man went and prayed for an hour with the congregants in an historically black church and then, for reasons that we don’t fully understand murdered nine innocent souls,” [When asked if it was racially motivated] “It appears to be racially driven from what was reported that this deranged man said and a racial hate crime is horrific. And any murder is horrific. I don’t think we should be using this question to try to divide people and to try to seek partisan advantage.”

Rand Paul“There’s a sickness in our country…it’s people not understanding where salvation comes from.”

Rick Santorum – [First statement] “We’re now seeing assaults on our religious liberty we’ve never seen before” [When pressed later] “It was clearly racially motivated“.

Rick Perry“It seems to me – again, without having all the details about this one – that these individuals have been medicated. And there may be a real issue in this country, from the standpoint of these drugs, and how they’re used”

Marco Rubio – [Twitter] “Saddened by the news from Charleston”

So what on earth is going on? Why are these candidates (and some of their backers in the media) trying so hard to avoid saying that this is racism?

It’s a hard question to answer, but I believe that at the heart of it is their idea that American society isn’t prejudiced against African Americans. These candidates are fixated on the principle of personal responsibility, that America is a free society where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. This is what leads them to oppose high tax rates or significant help for the poor, the idea that if you don’t succeed, then it isn’t anyone else’s fault but your own.

However, if they acknowledge that their society is systematically racist towards African Americans, then that automatically means that they (white men) have had an advantage in life. That not everything is up to personal effort, there isn’t equal opportunity, and that they might have to start to wonder about how the system has worked for them. The idea that this attack is a symptom of a wider issue of oppression clashes with the ideals they hold dear. It simply doesn’t fit in their world view.

What does fit in their world view though is that this is an attack on Christians, as these people on Fox News also seem to believe. This works for the candidates, because they are all white Christians, and looking at the attack in that way fits the view that Christianity is under attack in the US. It also means that their ‘group’ is the real victim here, and that’s a lot better than acknowledging that your ‘group’ is the one who is privileged and responsible for the whole rotten mess of racism in the US.

When you take these factors into account, it becomes clear that talking about the racial nature of the Charleston shootings doesn’t fit with the political goals of the Republican party, and it doesn’t fit their worldview of an equal society where if anything Christians are the ones under threat.

There’s so much more to say here on racism, guns and politics, none of it encouraging. However, I’ll leave off with a clip of Jon Stewart, whose words have never rung more true.

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