Hate violence and the tragedy of the Charleston shootings

‘Do you believe us now?’ Brian Snyder/Reuters

The Charleston shooting at the Emanuel AME church is another tragic case of violence targeting black Americans. According to law enforcement officials, the shooter said he was aiming for nothing less than “starting a race war.”

As a psychologist, I’ve been studying hate violence for the past 20 years. In addition, as a clinician I have treated and evaluated hate crime offenders – of both violent and nonviolent crimes – for the past 20 years.

While the Charleston shooting strikes most of us as unusually horrifying, many of the themes of this tragedy are symptomatic of the nature of hate violence in our country.

Patterns of violence

Police reports of hate crimes and detailed analyses of their perpetrators’ criminal histories reveal several common themes that also exist in the Charleston shooting.

In each case, planning and goal-directed intentions loom large. In this case, it seems clear that the goal was to create terror among the black community of Charleston.

There is also the fact that the victims are usually completely strangers to the offender. Our society has, in the past, been witness to hate violence motivated by anti-Islamic bias but directed at Sikhs –- seemingly due to the Sikh tradition of wearing a turban. This mismatch has also occurred with victims of gender violence being “gay-bashed” regardless of their sexual lifestyles. These acts of violence are examples of how some hate crime perpetrators are confused by social and cultural diversity.

Just as hate crimes can be recognized by certain themes, so can the individuals who perpetrate them be identified by certain characteristics, or “signifiers of bias.”

Tell-tale signs

In the research I have conducted, what I refer to as signifiers of bias include:

  • articulation of a bias or hate ideology at time of the infraction (direct statements of race/ethnic superiority, explicitly derogatory terms about the victim’s groups, the wearing of symbols or group/gang tattoos)
  • association with others in hate-based groups. (white supremacy groups like the KKK, Confederate Hammerskins)
  • use of iconic symbols of a hate ideology (in the shooter’s case, his use of apartheid badges)
  • and aggression motivated by prior bias.

When more of these bias signifiers cluster together in a specific offense, the crime tends to be more violent, the offender targets someone more likely to be unknown and they travel farther from their community to seek out their victim.

While it is never a good idea to diagnose an individual from afar, the shooter strikes me as being another unsocial “lone wolf” offender who acts out his violence as a manifestation of a belief system that is by turns idiosyncratic, obsessional, malevolent and at odds with prevailing current cultural norms.

While he may turn out to mentally ill, assigning the cause of these brutal killings to psychopathology alone would be simplistic.

The southern context

The shooter did not act in a vacuum.

Senator Graham pays his respects. Brian Snyder/Reuters

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said, “this guy’s just whacked out,” and attributed the shootings to a desire to kill Christians, but he remained silent on the issue of race.

Ambivalence about the causes of racial violence in the US remains widespread.

At the end of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War, historian Barbara Fields says,

“I think what we need to remember, most of all, is that the Civil War is not over until we, today, have done our part in fighting it, as well as understanding what happened when the Civil War generation fought it.”

It is significant that, as my (soon to be published) research reveals, reporting of hate crimes in the old Confederate states is far below that in former Union and aligned states.

Similarly, my research shows that the singularly powerful predictor of low base rates of official hate crime reporting was the number of black lynchings by state that occurred from the late 19th century into the middle of the 20th century.

What could have been

Another heartbreaking aspect of this story is the fact that the shooter sat among the Bible study members for an hour before unleashing his lethal anger.

I have known of would-be hate offenders who, in situations such as the Charleston case, desisted from carrying out their intentions of violence when they experienced their victims as being real people.

A lesbian psychotherapist colleague of mine recounts how a patient had used the excuse of seeking treatment with her to shoot her for her activism with LGBT hate crime victims.

The patient/offender, in a state of remorse and great lability (his mind unstable), confessed his intentions and revealed the gun he had brought with him to the session.

He spared her, not as a cured hater but rather as a conflicted and distressed individual who lost the sense that violence could be a solution to his hostility toward sexual minorities.

How to discuss hate violence

This brings me to another serious concern, and that is the way we discuss hate violence and prejudice in this country.

How we discuss these issues has tangible effects. I have been witness to hate crime offenders stating they felt it was acceptable to kill a minority because the government would not really mind.

This sentiment is clearly on display in Arthur Dong’s powerful documentary film “Licensed to Kill” in which he interviews killers convicted of homophobic murders. One of these murderers tells Dong that he “knows” the police don’t mind.

The media, too, contributes to this culture by excessive coverage of violence (“if it bleeds, it leads”) and by failing to clearly condemn hate crimes.

All too often, from what I have heard and continue to hear, law enforcement agencies report racial violence as “not clearly being a hate crime.”

My concern, based upon the volatile and vulnerable offenders I have worked with, is that our social discourse about hate violence further destabilizes individuals who are at risk of committing these sensational and senseless crimes.

Our mental health systems, media stakeholders and political leadership need to take into account the at once fragile and explosive nature of potential hate crime offenders. Or else we run the risk of learning to live with more Charlestons.