Communication Currents

Communication Currents

How the Anti-Blackness of the Internet Led White Nationalist Dylann Roof to Mass Murder

March 13, 2020
Critical and Cultural Studies

Dylann Roof is a white nationalist mass murderer from South Carolina, who was radicalized by white nationalist ideology online. In 2015, Roof murdered nine people at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church, a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. In 2017, Roof was sentenced to death for the hate crime; Roof is currently in federal prison.

In a new article published in NCA’s Review of Communication, Rishi Chebrolu considers how “racial awareness” functions as part of white nationalist ideology by examining Dylann Roof’s manifesto “rtf88.” Chebrolu examines three moments in the manifesto: discovery, mapping, and mobilization. These three moments are how Dylann Roof tells the story becoming “racially aware.”

Chebrolu analyzes these three stages in becoming a white nationalist as driven by the collective feeling of white racial anxiety. To make this argument, Chebrolu draws from the psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon, a decolonial revolutionary who argued that the collective unconscious of European civilization relied on anti-Blackness. Fanon essentially argued that from the racist processes of slavery, colonialism, and genocide that made the modern world came an implicit, unconscious value system that assigns the symbol of whiteness positive values (beauty, intelligence, civility) and the symbol of blackness negative values (stupidity, aggression, degeneracy). Fanon showed how blackness was a “phobogenic” object – blackness caused anxiety in non-black people who defined their sense of self by rejecting blackness. Fanon and other scholars who draw from psychoanalysis in black studies, such as Hortense Spillers and David Marriott, show how the stories and narratives about what it means to be human in legal and cultural texts help maintain this implicit symbolic relationship between blackness and violence.

Chebrolu brings Fanon’s analysis to the contemporary forms of “post-racial” media, or media representations that pretend that racism has been overcome through progress and America is now post-racial. Chebrolu uses the work of digital media scholars like Jessie Daniels and Safiya Noble to argue that the Internet is driven by the same forms of anti-Blackness. Chebrolu’s central argument is that white nationalism is a political identity that takes the everyday white racial anxiety that white Americans experience and amplifies it through fantasies of white victimization by black people. Dylann Roof’s violence isn’t exceptional or unprecedented in American history – Roof is a product of the anti-Blackness that makes the modern world run.

Discovery

In Roof’s introduction to “rtf88,” the formation of a white nationalist identity is chronicled. Roof was radicalized by the Trayvon Martin case, in which an unarmed 17 year old was killed by George Zimmerman, a white neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida.

Roof Googled the case and concluded that Zimmerman was justified in killing Martin; ultimately, this search led Roof down a “rabbit hole” to white nationalist sites. This process led Roof to a self-described racial awareness and a belief in “truth” of “black-on-white crimes.” Chebrolu argues that this fantasy of white victimization offers white supremacists a narrative that supports their interpretation of current events.

Mapping

Chebrolu writes that after laying the foundation of “racial awareness,” Roof then mapped out the relations that he sees between different groups of people. Although focusing primarily on the relationship between black and white people, Roof also included sections titled “Jews,” “Hispanics,” and “East Asians” to explain how those groups related to white and black people as enemies or allies.

Roof argued that while black people are “racially aware” because they see everything in terms of race, many white people do not see things in terms of race. Thus, Roof concluded that white people are the victims of “reverse racism.” Roof used this narrative of victimization to recast desegregation as a threat to white people.

Mobilization

The end of “rtf88” focused on how Roof was mobilized as a white nationalist. Using a self-proclaimed “racial awareness,” Roof argued that “white flight” from the suburbs is white people fleeing black people in the city, and that participation in this flight is “weak,” compared to more violent confrontations. Roof similarly rejected tactics by a white nationalist group that advocates for an independent white state in the Pacific Northwest. Roof also rejected the modern American flag in favor of the flag of the Confederacy. Chebrolu argues that although Roof identified the document as a “manifesto,” it is not focused on the future as is typical of manifestos. Instead, Roof was fixated on recreating the Confederacy.

Roof used this fixation on the Confederacy to justify mass murder. Roof was convinced that committing an act of violence would launch a return to the Confederate past. Chebrolu argues that the manifesto distinguishes Roof’s act from the racial violence committed by some other white people, such as Darren Wilson, the white police officer who killed Michael Brown. By writing a manifesto, Roof defined the Charleston shooting symbolically as part of a “race war” to bring other white people to “racial awareness” and inspire other white nationalists to act similarly. Chebrolu writes, “From the litany of white nationalist shooters who have cited Roof as an inspiration since this essay was initially written in 2016, it seems as though the symbolic motivation of Roof’s action has significant material effects.”

Conclusion

Chebrolu argues that Roof’s radicalization is “a testament to the distributed, leaderless, and amorphous nature of white nationalism as a political identity that can effect political change.” According to Chebrolu, communication theory has not yet caught up to practices on social media, particularly the ways that white nationalists propagate their beliefs. Roof’s manifesto is one example out of many media products that have been produced by white nationalists. Chebrolu calls for future study of similar artifacts through the lens of anti-Blackness, so that “communication and rhetoric scholars will have a grasp on the mechanisms of contemporary racial terror.”

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Rishi Chebrolu (2020) The racial lens of Dylann Roof: racial anxiety and white nationalist rhetoric on new media, Review of Communication, 20:1, 47-68, DOI: 10.1080/15358593.2019.1708441

About the author (s)

Rishi Chebrolu

University of Pittsburgh

Graduate Student, Department of Communication