My grandmother used to speak of Klansmen riding through Louisiana at night, how she could see their white robes shimmering in the dark, how black people hid in bayous to escape them. Before her time, during Reconstruction, Ku Klux Klan members believed they could scare superstitious black people out of their newly won freedom. They wore terrifying costumes but were not exactly hiding — many former slaves recognized bosses and neighbors under their white sheets. They were haunting in masks, a seen yet unseen terror. In addition to killing and beating black people, they often claimed to be the ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers.
You could argue, of course, that there are no ghosts of the Confederacy, because the Confederacy is not yet dead. The stars and bars live on, proudly emblazoned on T-shirts and license plates; the pre-eminent symbol of slavery, the flag itself, still flies on the grounds of South Carolina’s Capitol. The killing has not stopped either, as shown by the deaths of nine black people in a church in Charleston this week. The suspected gunman, who is white and was charged with nine counts of murder on Friday, is said to have told their Bible-study group: “You rape our women, and you are taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Media outlets have been reluctant to classify the Charleston shooting as terrorism, despite how eerily it echoes our country’s history of terrorism. American-bred terrorism originated in order to restrict the movement and freedom of newly liberated black Americans who, for the first time, began to gain an element of political power. The Ku Klux Klan Act, which would in part, lawmakers hoped, suppress the Klan through the use of military force, was one of America’s first pieces of antiterrorism legislation. When it became federal law in 1871, nine South Carolina counties were placed under martial law, and scores of people were arrested. The Charleston gunman’s fears — of black men raping white women, of black people taking over the country — are the same fears that were felt by Klansmen, who used violence and intimidation to control communities of freed blacks.
Even with these parallels, we still hear endless speculation about the Charleston shooter’s motives. Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina wrote in a Facebook post that “while we do not yet know all of the details, 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.” Despite reports of the killer declaring his racial hatred before shooting members of the prayer group, his motives are inscrutable. Even after photos surfaced of the suspected shooter wearing a jacket decorated with the flags of Rhodesia and apartheid-era South Africa and leaning against a car with Confederate-flag plates, tangible proof of his alignment with violent, segregationist ideology, his actions remained supposedly indecipherable. A Seattle Times tweet (now deleted) asked if the gunman was “concentrated evil or a sweet kid,” The Wall Street Journal termed him a “loner” and Charleston’s mayor called him a “scoundrel,” yet the seemingly obvious designations — murderer, thug, terrorist, killer, racist — are nowhere to be found.
This is the privilege of whiteness: While a terrorist may be white, his violence is never based in his whiteness. A white terrorist has unique, complicated motives that we will never comprehend. He can be a disturbed loner or a monster. He is either mentally ill or pure evil. The white terrorist exists solely as a dyad of extremes: Either he is humanized to the point of sympathy or he is so monstrous that he almost becomes mythological. Either way, he is never indicative of anything larger about whiteness, nor is he ever a garden-variety racist. He represents nothing but himself. A white terrorist is anything that frames him as an anomaly and separates him from the long, storied history of white terrorism.
I’m always struck by this hesitance not only to name white terrorism but to name whiteness itself during acts of racial violence. In a recent New York Times article on the history of lynching, the victims are repeatedly described as black. Not once, however, are the violent actors described as they are: white. Instead, the white lynch mobs are simply described as “a group of men” or “a mob.” In an article about racial violence, this erasure of whiteness is absurd. The race of the victims is relevant, but somehow the race of the killers is incidental. If we’re willing to admit that race is a reason blacks were lynched, why are we unwilling to admit that race is a reason whites lynched them? In his remarks following the Charleston shooting, President Obama mentioned whiteness only once — in a quotation from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. intended to encourage interracial harmony. Obama vaguely acknowledged that “this is not the first time that black churches have been attacked” but declined to state who has attacked these churches. His passive language echoes this strange vagueness, a reluctance to even name white terrorism, as if black churches have been attacked by some disembodied force, not real people motivated by a racist ideology whose roots stretch past the founding of this country.
I understand the comfort of this silence. If white violence is unspoken and unacknowledged, if white terrorists are either saints or demons, we don’t have to grapple with the much more complicated reality of racial violence. In our time, racialized terror no longer announces itself in white hoods and robes. You can be a 21-year-old who has many black Facebook friends and tells harmless racist jokes and still commit an act of horrifying racial violence. We cannot separate ourselves from the monsters because the monsters don’t exist. The monsters have been human all along.
In America’s contemporary imagination, terrorism is foreign and brown. Those terrorists do not have complex motivations. We do not urge one another to reserve judgment until we search through their Facebook histories or interview their friends. We do not trot out psychologists to analyze their mental states. We know immediately why they kill. But a white terrorist is an enigma. A white terrorist has no history, no context, no origin. He is forever unknowable. His very existence is unspeakable. We see him, but we pretend we cannot. He is a ghost floating in the night.
Correction: June 23, 2015
An earlier version of this article described incorrectly the location of the Confederate flag in relation to South Carolina’s Capitol building. It flies on the Capitol grounds, not above the Capitol building.