Charleston - South Carolina - June 20, 2015
Before he started shooting, white terrorist Dylann Roof told the congragation in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church: “You rape our women and are takng over our country”. These are two distinct paranoias – sexuality and power – harking to different historical times and yet connected by an undercurrent of meaning. The image of the “black rapist” has deep roots in history, so much so that it sounds even slightly anachronistic today. Of course, it never disappeared from American (and Italian) imagination: we still remember the use of Willie Horton in Bush’s 1988 campaign. Yet, it harks back mostly to the years of mass lynching between Reconstruction and the 1930s, and has not been as visible recently. The fact that Dylann Roof mentioned it first is a sign of the deep atavistic pathologies he was swimming. On the other hand, the belief that black people are taking over America is closely linked to the present moment. The election of Barack Obama, far from being a sign of the erosion of racial barrier, has unleashed fears of black domination, with African Americans on top and white people reduced to the status of second-class citizens. Whether intentional or not, even the recent wave of police killings of black people is part of this paranoid context. The white suprematist vision of the world cannot countenance coexistence, equality, multiplicity. Either we are on top, or them. So, each time white power appears to have been checked in the slightest manner, it is perceived as an apocalyptic change. Likewise, a few thousand migrants represent an “invasion” to paranoid white Europe. What keeps these two historically distinct paranoias together is the obsession with purity. The obsession with rape evokes the terror of “miscegenation”: in racial ideology, one sixteenth or less of black “blood” makes a person entirely black. Likewise, even the slightest fragment of power by back in society is perceived as a contamination that makes the whole public sphere dirty and impure. An anthropological definition of “dirt” is “matter out of place”: nothing is more out of place than black Trevor Martin in a white neighborhood, or black Barack Obama in the White House. This is why I think that the question whether Dylann Roof acted alone or not is irrelevant. Even if he turns out to have acted alone, his action s not an isolated event. We may have forgotten the white terrorist who broke into a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012 and killed six people: he hated Muslims and Arabs, and the fact that Sikhs are neither was irrelevant, they were out of place anyway, like all immigrants, like this week’s migrants perched on the shoals at the French border or camping around the stations in Rome or Milan (and our peculiar obsession with purity and dirt has invented the paranoia of migrants as bearers of scabies). Dylann’s is not an isolated case: have we forgotten the black church burnings of the mid-90s? ,or the four children killed in Church in Birmngham in 1963? We ought to investigated the relationship between the obsession with the dirt and the aggression to the sacred in all these cases. Charleston is a special place. In slavery times, South Carolina used to be the one state with a blck majority population. Here, in 1821, the ex-slave Denmark Vesey and his comrades organized the most important black revolt in slavery’s history – important not for what they did (they were discovered and killed before they could act) but for what they thought. Charleston is connected to the Caribbeans, and Denmark Vesey had heard from the Haitian sailors in Charleston harbor the story of their revolution and the ideas of the French revolution. In elegant reactionary Charleston, black slaves were the bearers of the ideas of freedom and modernity. Today, it is their descendants who help us salvage some traces f a progressively eroding sense of humanity.