Don’t get me wrong, I have zero compassion for Dylann Roof. I am not a pacifist nor am I even opposed to Dylann Roof losing his life. I am, however, 100% against the United States of America executing him.
If the jury that found Roof guilty in December of all 33 charges he faced for the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church decide that the appropriate consequence for Roof is execution they will not be facilitating justice, but rather impeding its progress.
The execution of Dylann Roof, while ostensibly being a repudiation of the white supremacist worldview which he espoused, actually furthers our avoidance of the reality of white supremacy which plagues the country. The execution would be held up as a shinning example of the Unites States’ commitment to colorblind justice. It would be fodder for the folks looking desperately for evidence of the “justice” in our criminal justice system. It would be just what too many of us whites need to feel better about having “faith” in a system which has proven itself undeserving of any such thing. In the era of Black Lives Matter it is exactly what too many of us would use to justify our inaction. Our collusion. Our Silence.
Before Dylann Roof there was Daniel Pantaleo. There was Sean Williams and David Darkow. There was Darren Willliams. Before Dylann Roof there was Timothy Loehmann, Theodore Wafer, Johannes Mehserle, and Michael Dunn. And before them there was George Wallace. And before him there was John Calhoun. And before him there was Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. White supremacy is the country’s DNA. Dylann Roof is not the anomaly. For most of our country’s history the type of hatred and violence that characterize Roof were nurtured and encouraged both in the culture of the country and the corridors of power. Lest us forget that our Constitution- that great document heralded by so many conservatives and liberals alike- reduced enslaved Africans to 3/5ths of a human being. It is only recently in our history that a Dylann Roof would have even been arrested for his crime, and even more recently that there was any possibility of guilt being assigned to him: Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam bragged about what they did to Emmet Till after escaping “justice.”
Even if us white folks didn’t participate directly, we embraced this history of violence. In her fantastic work White Rage Carol Anderson details just how resistant white folks have been to the prospect of Black humanity. Whether it was the Stars and Bars, “Segregation Now! Segregation Forever!”, Reaganomics and mass incarceration, or All Lives Matter and Making America Great Again by and large we have always been, at the very least, cosigners of what amounts to an extended campaign of genocide waged against people of color and Black people specifically.
Executing Dylann Roof would be the latest diversion from this reality. It would be the magicians sleight of hand keeping us from the truth of the trick. Roof is an easy scapegoat, the sacrifice at the altar of neo-liberal colorblindness which gives life to white supremacy. In a country where ethnic sounding names are 50% less likely to get a call back for a job. Where the police are killing people of color with impunity, once every 28 hours. In a country where private police forces, hired by oil companies, viciously attack people protecting our water. Where the poisoning of an entire city’s water is somehow an afterthought. Where within weeks of the Supreme Court gutting the Civil Rights Act states immediately implemented restrictive voting laws leading to a racist xenophobe being elected president, killing Dylann Roof would be theatre. In the eyes of American power his punishment would be more an indictment of his inability to be sophisticated in how he leveraged his whiteness. It would be more punishment for drawing attention to the man behind the curtain than it would be about justice, especially racial justice.
Instead of killing Dylann Roof we need to take seriously an analysis of what created him. We must feel an urgency around understanding the history of whiteness and how it impacts our own lives and worldview. We need to listen when people of color testify to their lived experience. We need to hold accountable the architects and inheritors of this violence and demand a new way of relating to creation. We need to invest in the things that demonstrate a commitment to humanity over money: the earth, healthcare, housing, and education.
When Richard Wright was asked about the “Negro problem” in America he responded: “There is no Negro problem in the United States, there is only a white problem.” Dylann Roof is not the disease, he is a symptom. Executing him does nothing to cure the disease.