Why Can’t Republicans Admit Dylann Roof Was Racist?

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Jeb Bush: I'm not a criminologist, man.Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The mysteriousness of Dylann Roof’s motivations for allegedly murdering a room full of African-Americans, rated on a scale of 1 through 10, is zero. Roof has been described by people who knew him as obsessed with racial hatred, has been photographed with racist symbolism, told his victims he planned to murder them because of their race, and even let one live specifically so that she could let the world know the reason for his crime. It is entirely possible that some form of mental illness or adverse life event caused Roof to embrace violent racism, but there is zero doubt that racism directly motivated his actions.

Bizarrely, a number of conservative figures have treated Roof’s motives as unknowable. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley wrote, “we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.The Wall Street Journal editorializes today, “What causes young men such as Dylann Roof to erupt in homicidal rage, whatever their motivation, is a problem that defies explanation beyond the reality that evil still stalks humanity.

Jeb Bush, appearing at the Faith & Freedom Coalition Conference, said, “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” When pressed for a follow-up by the Huffington Post, Bush continued to equivocate:

It was a horrific act and I don’t know what the background of it is, but it was an act of hatred,” Bush said.

Asked again whether the shooting was because of race, Bush added, “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. Nine people lost their lives, and they were African-American. You can judge what it is.”

What’s genuinely mysterious is not just why conservatives believe such nonsense but why they feel obliged to say it. After all, the Republican Party may be in general denial about the persistence of racism as a continuing force in American life, and openly racist whites may be a part of their constituency (just as they have long been part of the Democratic Party’s constituency).

In 2000, George W. Bush gave a speech at Bob Jones University, which banned interracial dating. But Bush was competing in a Republican primary in South Carolina and really needed the votes of whites who opposed interracial dating. Neither Jeb Bush nor other Republicans need the votes of racist murderers to win an election. It would be very easy to identify a confessed white-supremacist murderer without doing violence to the overall conservative worldview. It is not like admitting the persistence of racial discrimination by police or employers or school administrators or courts, all of which put pressure on conservative policies. Just say there are still a small number of racist murderers in America!

Roof’s actions are a completely sensible expression of his twisted worldview. It’s the failure to admit it that’s senseless.