The greatest rewards in my life have come from reflection, hard graft, and simply waiting out the clock. I learned how to be good on a stage, how to read my work to a room of people, how to sit so the microphone in the radio studio catches every nuance of my voice, how to walk into a room and gauge the potential danger from the men present, and how to navigate a space with unknown (or known) white people. The last one is a skill that comes with time and experience, especially when you are, by volume or sensibility, a member of a minority group.
This is not a lesson that you grasp by long-distance learning. Rather, it is a sort of tea that you are steeped in. You are a tea bag, only instead of being released into the surrounding liquid, you are absorbing ideas on how to be, how to act, and how to live. When do you need to engage with white people? How do you engage? What is, statistically speaking, the safest way to enter/exit an encounter with white people? What can you expect? What can’t you predict?
For just over a week in December, I stayed in Charleston, South Carolina. I was there to attend the trial of 22-year-old Dylann Roof. On June 17, 2015, Roof walked into the fellowship hall of Emanuel AME Church for a Wednesday evening Bible study class. After sitting with the gathered faithful for about an hour, Dylann Roof waited just a little longer, and then when those people closed their eyes to pray, he opened fire. He killed nine churchgoers that night, and left behind three survivors. After he had finished firing 77 shots into the bodies of those nine people, the ceiling, the floor, and the walls, he walked out of the church, slipped into his car, and drove out into the night (he expressed his surprise that there were no cops waiting for him as he exited the crime scene). The people in that room — all black, all Charleston folks — had let Dylann Roof — white, from neighboring Columbia — into their church. And after walking in and taking a seat among them, Dylann Roof killed them for their trouble. On Thursday, Roof was found guilty on 33 different counts, including hate crime and firearm charges.
Dylann Roof possessed, alongside his racist and murderous inclinations, ease. There was no forced entry into the AME church that night. Dylann Roof walked in, aware and confident that he would find no real resistance. He sat with congregants, and then, later that evening, he murdered them. Their deaths were unexpected if not exactly shocking — sudden, vicious terror unleashed on black bodies is a very old story — but what lingers for me, the hard kernel at the core of Dylann Roof’s behavior, both at the scene of the massacre and in every official glimpse we have been given of him since, is that ease.
At no point in the aftermath of killing nine black people in a church did it look like Dylann Roof was in fear for his life.
Several hours after Dylann Roof opened fire at Emanuel AME Church and killed those nine people, he was apprehended. Police officers from Shelby, North Carolina, found and detained him while he was driving down the highway. Upon arrival at the Shelby Police Department, he was deposited in “the library”: a sort of conference/interrogation room. In the taped conversation with two FBI agents that was played in court, Dylann Roof confessed that he was the killer. “I’m guilty,” he said, laughing. “We all know I’m guilty.” In the video, still wearing the clothes he had on while emptying a clip of 11 bullets into Susie Jackson, an 87-year-old woman who walked with a cane, Roof was at ease. He seemed, in the words of FBI agent Michael Stansbury, “eager to explain” his actions. In the two-hour video, Roof shifts in his seat a few times, leaning forward to elucidate a point, or leaning back in quieter moments. He talks with his hands; he chuckles. He is, to put it in internet parlance, chill as fuck.
A couple of months before Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, one black man, Walter Scott, assessed his own situation (in close quarters with a white police officer) and came to a conclusion: run. On April 4, 2015, that white police officer, Michael Slager, shot and killed Scott, whom he had pulled over for a broken brake light. Scott chose to run from his car, and a video of the killing, filmed by a bystander, shows Slager shooting him in the back as he was fleeing; the police report offers a somewhat different account. The decision to run — from the police, who in America come equipped with and emboldened by firearms — cannot have been taken lightly. But Walter Scott had done his own quick analysis and deemed it a prudent option. The one thing he decided he could not do was hang around.
I carried out a thought experiment as I sat in Courtroom VI at the Charleston County Courthouse, and allowed myself to imagine a slightly different scenario. I imagined a 21-year-old black man, perhaps named Darnell Roof. In this situation, the fictional and darker-skinned Roof was sitting in that room with two FBI agents, calmly detailing how he had exited a church and drove off in his car after killing nine white people (including the pastor of that church, who was a former state senator, just as Reverend Clementa Pinckney had been) in their church. I imagined Darnell saying, “I went to that church in Charleston, and, you know, I did it,” just as Dylann Roof said to the investigators in the recording. I imagined him saying that and surviving his interview. Then I took it even further: I thought of members of the Shelby Police Department pulling Roof over, as they had done hours earlier, then pushing his handcuffed body into the back of a squad car. I thought about him concluding both the traffic stop and the subsequent ride to the station (the officer driving the car said that Roof was “just looking out the window” for the duration of the trip) with his physical body intact and unbruised. Can you imagine, I asked myself, and a bitter laugh rose in my throat, right there in that courtroom.
In the video, transcribed faithfully by Agent Stansbury, Roof confirmed where he had bought the gun on the occasion of his 21st birthday, and when asked how many people he thought he had killed after that Bible study meeting, he answered: “If I was going to guess, five? Maybe? I’m really not sure.” He kept on offering tidbits, further insights into the well-oiled thought process behind his choice of location and the time of his attack. “I had went there before,” he said, clarifying his knowledge of Mother Emanuel Church. He was referring to driving by the church previously, and asking a church member about the timing of services. Later, he called the place of worship “historic.” Emanuel AME is not just a church; it is also, notably, a singularly black space. Black churches in America did not spring up unaided. They exist as a reaction; white Christians forced their hand. But as other terrorists have shown, even the history of the black church as a refuge from white supremacy was not a deterrent to Dylann Roof. He knew that he would not be questioned any further for seeking information and eventual entry.
On the tape, Roof admits that the people at Bible study that evening seemed a little bemused by his presence. According to Roof, when they saw him enter, one of the congregants said, “Oh, Pastor, I think someone’s here to see you.” The FBI agent pressed Roof: The church members didn’t throw him out; they didn’t question his presence beyond their initial surprise. He was not interrogated on his motivations for attending this Bible study meeting. These black people saw him, a skinny and pale young white man, arrive in a space that had been bloodily claimed generations ago and so was historically theirs, and asked no further questions. As Felicia Sanders, a survivor of Roof’s killing spree, said in her testimony, he was just “someone we thought was looking for the Lord.”
On the confession tape, the FBI agent says the church members had welcomed him. Roof interrupts and says he wouldn’t exactly call it “a welcome.” It wasn’t enough that they had not questioned his presence: He seemed to want even more kindness from them. Yet Reverend Pinckney, the first person Roof shot, actually pulled out a chair next to him for Roof to sit on. “They gave me a sheet,” he said, almost sulkily. In fact, he was handed a sheet like in any other Bible study meeting; that night's subject of study, the Parable of the Sower, came from the Book of Mark. What happened that June evening is exactly what Roof knew would happen: He would seek access into a black sanctuary, and he would be given permission to enter. Nothing in his experience, despite the stream of racist bilge scrawled in his journal, had suggested to him that he would not be successful at gaining entry.
And following the murders, he was still in possession of that ease. That’s why he could sit in the interrogation room and laugh as he mentioned the murder weapon, his Glock .45. It’s why, when the agents told him he had in fact killed nine people, not the “four or five” he had initially reported, he replied with a joking incredulity, “Are you guys lying to me?” It’s why, when the FBI agent sought consent so they could search his vehicle, Roof asked if he had to give it (in the end, he declined to sign the consent form). It’s why, when the agents said they were going to take a photo of him, Roof mussed up his hair self-consciously and said, “I don’t look too good right now,” and moments later added, “I sure wish I could take a shower.” He was not afraid. He had not been worried, while walking into that church or while walking out after firing 77 shots. He had not been bothered, driving down back roads until he was out of state, moseying down the highway, idly wondering about heading to Nashville since he’d never been there before. He had not been especially worried he might die while in police custody.
Of course, not every killer is going to show remorse for what they’ve done. And as Agent Stansbury said in court, Roof’s demeanor that day suggested to him a man who was unwilling to engage in small talk, but was itching to discuss his crimes. But even under the severe circumstances, it was striking to see what white privilege could afford him. It brought to mind Claudia Rankine’s line on what happened in Charleston, during an interview she gave last August: “even in this extreme positioning, white privilege is still at work, in service of his white body.”
On television in my hotel room after the Dylann Roof guilty verdicts, I watched footage of two men, one black, one white, in a loose hug in a courtroom in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The white man was John McGraw, a 79-year-old who had punched the black man, Rakeem Jones, at a North Carolina Trump rally back in March 2016. McGraw was jubilant on camera at the time of the assault: “The next time we see him, we might have to kill him.” Months later, with his candidate elected as the next president of the United States, McGraw pleaded no contest and was fined $180 plus court costs. “You and me have to heal our country,” McGraw said, before the men shook hands and embraced. That is to say: A man who punched another man, unprovoked, was advising on healing.
Navigating white people is a lesson that keeps on being learned.
Dylann Roof walked into the fellowship hall of Emanuel AME Church for a Wednesday evening Bible study class. An earlier version of this article stated he had walked into the sanctuary.