The Rhetoric of Racism in a “Post-Racial” Society: An Analysis of Dylann Roof’s Manifesto

TL;DR: Through rhetorical theory and analysis, everyday post-racial rhetoric is revealed to hold many salient qualities of Charleston shooter’s Dylann Roof’s Neo-Nazi manifesto, which can be read here.

My original essay is in standard format below; additional commentary and parts that were edited out in the final copy for length purposes will be block-quoted.

Note: it was really difficult to write this essay due to the nature of the text I was analyzing. Sincerest apologies to anybody that may be/are offended by this text, or if I overstepped any boundaries I should not have in my final conclusions.

Final note: contrary to my CC BY-NC 4.0 licensing on the side of my blog, this piece is specifically copyright Melissa Teo, 2015. Please cite accordingly if using any ideas presented by this piece. Thanks!


We lead ourselves, as citizens living in a post-colonial society, to believe that negative race relations are ‘a thing of the past’. On June 17, 2015, a twenty-one year old white man named Dylann Roof barged into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina and murdered nine black church members. Prior to this incident, Roof wrote a manifesto (untitled, but will be referred to as Manifesto for the purposes of this essay) on a personal website (lastrhodesian.com; a site that has since been removed from the Internet but its text preserved in a word file online) outlining his views of the Black, Jewish, Hispanic, and East Asian communities.

According to Kenneth Burke in A Rhetoric of Motives, every act always has a primary motive behind it, some of which are more apparent than others (xiii). In Roof’s manifesto, it is clear that he believes that white people “are in fact superior” to their other racial counterparts. These can be seen throughout his text as he claims that “[black people are] the biggest problem for Americans” (1), alongside Hispanics, and that he wishes to “destroy [the J]ewish identity” so they won’t “cause…problem[s]” (3). In writing his manifesto and carrying out the shooting, I believe that his primary motivation was/is to ignite a war against the multitude of races, and to strive towards and create a white-dominated Earth. Of course, the creation of a completely and overtly white-dominated Earth may seem far-fetched even to those who yearn for its existence, but it doesn’t stop Roof, or those likeminded, from producing rhetoric that is used to continue the pervasive power hierarchy that currently exists in our society. Through the application of unification devices in Kenneth Burke’s analysis of “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle”, and his theories of terminology and courtship in his book, A Rhetoric of Motives, deflection tactics in Jaqueline Nelson’s article “Denial of racism and its implications for local action”, and comparison between his manifesto and the post-racial rhetoric featured in Eric Garrett’s article “The Rhetoric of Antiblack Racism”, we are able to observe how the rhetoric of Roof’s manifesto maintains white supremacist/neo-Nazi ideology in a way that seems justified, and proves that racism is not ‘a thing of the past’, but rather an institutional and systemic effort to subordinate people based on race through the use of language.

Commentary: Roof literally says he wants a white dominated world (I actually forgot to add this part, yikes):

“I believe that even if [white people] made up only 30 percent of the population we could take [America and Europe] back completely. But by no means should we wait any longer to take drastic action.” (2)

The first question we must ask is: how would one even begin to achieve a white-dominated Earth? Hitler himself could have asked a similar question: with all of the proof in the world that the Jewish were not singlehandedly accountable for Germany’s economic downfall, how can I convince the German population that Jews are the ones to blame? While the general contexts of Roof’s manifesto (which is geared mostly against black people) and Hitler’s Nazi regime (which was geared against Jewish people) are different, they possess the same primary motivation and employ unification devices to initiate the identification and division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. In “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle”, Burke lists four unification devices that Hitler used in order to divide the Aryans from the Jews that can be observed in Roof’s manifesto (202-204):

  1. Inborn dignity: the “‘natural born’ dignity” that every person possesses, which Hitler twisted to mean that naturally, Aryans were “elevated above all races by the innate endowment of his blood, while other ‘races’, in particular Jews and Negroes, are innately inferior” (202). Roof makes this case about innate difference due to genetic endowment in his manifesto, claiming that “[n]iggers are stupid and violent” (1) because they have “lower I[Q]s, lower impulse control, and higher testosterone levels” , and that “[Northeast Asians] are by nature very racist” (2-3). Roof also capitalizes the “W” in ‘white’ without fail, while always leaving the “B” in ‘black’ lowercase. The capitalization of words implies that it is a proper/formal title by which to call someone of importance, which could be another subtler manifestation of his belief of inborn dignity through this action.

    Commentary: I hadn’t noticed the capitalization pattern until I started writing my essay because I had to edit out the capital “W” in “white” in the quotes I used. The only time Roof capitalized “black” was when the word started a sentence. But his chosen capitalization of the word “white” means a lot, even if it’s a small action in the grand scheme of things. I’m not sure if it has any meaning beyond my above analysis of it being a subtle manifestation of inborn dignity, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

  2. Projection: “purification by dissociation” (202). Also known as blame shifting in psychology, projection involves “hand[ing] over [one’s] infirmities to a…‘cause’ outside the self [and] battle an external enemy instead of battling an enemy within” (203). In this sense, a group that is deemed superior that has had the ‘misfortune’ of intermingling with an inferior group is able to purge themselves – to purify themselves – by dissociating themselves from their problems. Roof also mentions this, saying that “[racial] integration” brought “[w]hites down to the level of brute animals” (2) – implying that had white people not been exposed to other racial minorities, they would have remained the purest race. He takes the faults of white individuals and projects them onto black people.
  3. Symbolic rebirth: the product of inborn dignity and projection. It provides the experiencer a clean slate, or rebirth, by which he or she can move towards their newfound primary motivation (203). Roof says that he experienced a rebirth after looking into the Trayvon Martin case, claiming that he was “truly awakened” after he came across one too many “black on White” crimes that he found on Google (1).

    Commentary: There are going to be people of every race who are criminals – that’s a given. But the fact of the matter is that given the idea of black on white crime/white on black crime, it suggests that the crimes were committed due solely on a basis of race. If that is so, we can see that while black on white crime may exist, white on black crime has been used as an exertion of power. It is performed so that the ones in power stay in power. Within the realm of black/white race relations, black people do not have institutional power over white people.

    Furthermore, Roof justifying Zimmerman comes with a bit of a fault. As I read the same Wiki article and concluded for myself that it is not okay to shoot someone over whims of suspicion, I couldn’t find grounded support/proof of Zimmerman’s faultlessness. Roof doesn’t provide much justification either, only that he was simply “in the right”.

    Black on white murders aren’t ignored because the majority of the population wrongfully paints all black people as ‘gangsters” and “thugs”, which the media has painted worse than white on black crimes. This fuels a societally instilled fear of black people. White people will ignore white on black crimes because for some reason, the black people “deserved it”. It is only until black people start standing up for themselves and questioning why the white on black crime rate is so disproportionately high do white people start to feel the need to speak out about it (either for or against).

  4. Commercial use: the attack against an ‘inferior group’ for commercial/economic gain. While I don’t believe that Roof had anything to sell in particular, we are able to discern that he wants to reap the benefits that he apparently ‘deserves’ that come along with the dehumanization of black people. In turn, we could potentially see this yearning for exploited benefits turn into a commercial endeavour should industries ever be allowed to openly choose to profit off the dehumanization of black people as it had been less than 150 years ago.

The four devices above are the backing of Roof’s message and allow him to act as a prophet or saviour of the white supremacists. White Christians are naturally superior and good, and only stray from the path of naturally pure because they interact with those who are not pure, as they are trying to overrule the laws of nature by identifying with everything that White Christians do not and should be punished as such by prophets like Roof himself. He was the most dangerous at this point because not only did he convince himself to do it, he also convinced himself that it was the right thing to do – an “irrational” act “carried under the slogan of ‘Reason’” (The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle 199). Through using these tactics to divide himself from the black community and simultaneously identifying himself in what he believes to be pure, Roof not only justified his act of killing the members of the Charleston church because he believed that he had “no choice” but to do so, he also subliminally invites others who are on the same path of conquest to do the same because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do (Manifesto 4).

Commentary: While reading Burke’s analysis of Mein Kampf, I came across one of Hitler’s quotes re: Jewish people (translated):

“One did not know what to admire more: their glibness of tongue or their skill in lying. I gradually began to hate them.” (197)

A similar quote existed in Roof’s manifesto:

“Niggers are stupid and violent. At the same time they have the capacity to be very slick.” (1)

We also see that Roof works with a particular hierarchy that can be organized through the application of four types of terms: a god term, power; an ultimate term, purity; a dialectical term, race; and a positive term, skin colour. Burke, in A Rhetoric of Motives, talks about these four types of terms as the building blocks of hierarchies that can influence how we categorize ourselves and/or other things in society. Skin colour acts as a positive term in Roof’s manifesto, a basis for differentiation of ‘worthiness’ among humans. Burke says that positive terms are things that have a “visible, tangible existence” (183). It appears to be that according to Roof, those who have darker skin are less worthy than those with white skin. However, he also acknowledges that A) he believes that the “problem” with Jews is that they “look [w]hite”, yet have a distinct identity from ‘purer’ white people, B) though Hispanic people “have respect for [w]hite beauty” and that “[w]hite Hispanics are make up the elite of most Hispanics countries [sic]”, they are “still [the] enemies”, and C) he is “not opposed…to…Northeast Asian races”, whom he believes to be naturally racist and are simultaneously (usually) lighter-skinned (3). These lead me to believe that the dialectical term race (which Burke defines as any word that describes an “action [or] idea”, rather than something tangible [A Rhetoric of Motives 184]) is capable of ordering the positive term within the greater hierarchy. In this sense, it doesn’t matter how light skinned you are – white-passing Hispanic individuals are still deemed an enemy because they are, by nature and bloodline, Hispanic.

At this stage, the concept of purity is applied. This is an ultimate term that is a “‘guiding idea’ or ‘unitary principle’” that places races into a hierarchy from most to least pure (A Rhetoric of Motives 187). Purity is simultaneously a eulogistic, or “laudatory” and/or ideal, term which one would want to strive towards (92). In Roof’s mind, those who are deemed white, or allies of white people are pure, and those who achieve purity attain, maintain, and (Roof believes) deserve power. Power is the god term by which Roof’s hierarchy works. It is a term that “reduces a whole complexity of terms to one apparently simple term” (110). With this racial power hierarchy in mind, it becomes clearer to point out exactly how Roof would think about any given racial group: they should/should not have power because they are/are not pure, and they are/are not pure because they are part of x racial group, but perhaps they are worth more than dark-skinned people in the x racial group. This is his tiered justification system – this is his ‘natural proof’ that white people should dominate others, and this system has been institutionally and systemically instilled into society in such a way that the socially constructed idea of race now serves the higher purpose of categorization rather than solely being a form of identity. The definitions of worthiness and purity shape the way we think; the way we think shapes how we categorize and act towards those who are worthy and pure, and towards those who are not, as they are manifestations of our internal struggle to progress towards power over one another. And since a person’s race never changes, the hierarchy is successfully maintained and always benefits the ones who are situated at the top.

Post-racial rhetoric is built upon this hierarchy because it fails to acknowledge that racism is still an ongoing problem for anybody who is not white or white-passing. Roof does this by justifying the maltreatment of other races based on purity, and by “downplaying the extent of racism” in the experiences of black and Jewish individuals in particular (Nelson 90). Nelson outlines four ways in which people (including Roof) deflect and/or justify racist rhetoric (93):

  1. Temporal deflection: minorities experience less racism today than they did in the past. Roof states that “[o]nly a fourth to a third of people in the South owned even one slave”, assuming that the end of slavery was undoubtedly the diminishment/end of anti-black racism (2). However, the fault in this statement is that racism continues to prosper long after slavery ended.

    Commentary: Furthermore, segregation only ended 51 years ago. Out society has changed in the last fifty years, no doubt, but we are far from a post-racial reality, especially since society, and in particular those who are at the top tiers of the power hierarchy, as well as those who are white-passing, is still reaping the benefits of colonialism.

  2. Spatial deflection: racism is worse in other countries, including the countries from which minorities came from. Roof mentions that although “Europe is the homeland of [w]hite people…the [black] situation is even worse there” than it is in America, implying that racism should not be as bad in America because the ‘problem’ is not as bad as it is in Europe (1). This information is unattested and the idea that racism is better/worse somewhere else shouldn’t justify the existence of racism.

    Commentary: I feel that this tactic is especially salient in Canada. We often point fingers at our southern neighbours, claiming that we’re the “all-inclusive, multicultural wonderland”, which apparently means that Canada is racism-free? This isn’t the case, obviously; even following our last election, we are able to see that a strong percentage of the population fell for Harper’s distraction tactic by talking about the niqab. Many of that percentage also believes that inviting Syrians as refugees into the country puts all Canadians at risk.

    However, I think the most salient example I can think of is the treatment of the First Nations and the lack of support we are devoting to them after all the years of blatant racism against them. We are quick to point fingers at how the white people treated black people in the south, but fail to remember that we stole this land from the Natives who occupied this land before any of us did.

  3. Deflection from the Mainstream: racism is only an overwhelming problem for a small number of individuals (keyword: overwhelming). Roof believes that “the reason [why black/Jewish people] get offended so easily” is because they are too “racially aware”, therefore concluding that if they stopped thinking about race all the time, racism wouldn’t be so overwhelming and less of a problem (1). This is also an unattested statement, and seems like an unsolicited comment regarding races other than his own; it seems obvious that a person of colour is entitled to thinking about their own race because it is an integral part of their identity.

    Cut out: Roof goes to great lengths to maintain the fact that he believes he is also “racially aware”. This struck me as odd because he claims that white people should be more racially aware, but condemns black people for the same thing. I am unsure what to make of this given his definition of racial awareness is vague.

    Commentary: I don’t think that racism affects only a small portion of people. I think it affects everybody whether it seems like it or not. There are those who openly stand against racism, those who take it but know how it affects them and those around them, and those who submit to racism as self-rejection of race and to climb higher on the power hierarchy (internal racism).

  4. Absence Discourse: denial of racism. Roof uses this the most in the guise of justifications:
    1. “[B]lacks are subconsciously viewed by [w]hite people [as] lower beings…This is why they are able to get away with things like obnoxious behaviour in public…Because it is expected of them.” (1; my italics)

      Commentary: This quote doesn’t click with me simply because black people are still incarcerated more than white people are for the same crimes. If they are “expected” to act a certain way, why be so diligent about their incarcerations?

    2. “I wish with a passion that niggers were treated terribly throughout history by Whites, that every White person had an ancestor who owned slaves, that segregation was an evil an oppressive institution, and so on. Because if it was all it true, it would make it so much easier for me to accept our current situation. But it isnt true. None of it is. We are told to accept what is happening to us because of ancestors wrong doing, but it is all based on historical lies, exaggerations and myths [sic].” (1; my italics)
    3. “Segregation was not a bad thing. It was a defensive measure…to protect us from them…from being brought down to their level.” (2; my italics)

      Cut out: “Say you were to witness a dog being beat by a man. You are almost surely going to feel very sorry for that dog. But then say you were to witness a dog biting a man. You will most likely not feel the same pity you felt for the dog for the man. Why? Because dogs are lower than men.” (2; my italics)

      Commentary: This was one of the hardest quotes to digest during my first read of this manifesto. It can’t logically be justified solely on the basis that humans and animals are different creatures (however, Roof believes black and white people are biologically different). I also noticed that Roof changes between active and passive voice (“a dog being beat by a man” vs. “a dog biting a man”) and wondered if that had any significance at all. Thoughts?

When I first read Roof’s manifesto, I felt disgusted and angry. How could anybody believe such claims that are clearly falsely attested and biased? Yet the rhetoric of his manifesto is really only an extreme version of everyday post-racial rhetoric; if we water down his arguments, we are able to see that the way our discourse regarding race is structured is based on denials of racism and deflection of anti-racism efforts. Namely, while some may believe that Roof’s manifesto is a revival of a once-active racial power hierarchy, I believe that the power hierarchy still exists and is still deeply ingrained into how our society functions; Roof maintains and complements the current hierarchy that continues to affect everybody within it. In “The Rhetoric of Antiblack Racism”, Garrett outlines the gist of post-racial rhetoric (12):

  1. Society has changed a lot over the past 150, and 50 years.
  2. The condition of minorities has improved a great deal with the end of slavery and legal 
segregation, effectively ending racism in America. 
(my italics)
  3. The achievement of individual minorities reaching the highest positions in the academy, 
business, and politics is “evidence” that we have entered an era of equality and post-racial 
identities in the United States.
  4. Those minorities that are unable to achieve high levels of success must be deficient or 
to blame for their failures, as they obviously had the “opportunity” to earn equal status.
  5. Continued discussions about race and racial politics only further perpetuate the conditions 
of racism by pointing out and emphasizing differences.(my italics)
  6. Therefore, we need to stop talking, writing, or even thinking about race as a way to 
combat racism.

This is exactly how those at the top of the hierarchy want those lower in the hierarchy to think. The italicized above show that this type of post-racial rhetoric is contradictory and is most likely an excuse to keep the hierarchy as is without questioning the foundations it is built upon. The bolded above are directly resonant in Roof’s manifesto, which I have outlined previously in this essay. Participation in the hierarchy is mandatory for everybody and the courtship that exists within the hierarchy maintains it (A Rhetoric of Motives 147-149). However, if a group disrupts the courtship by not being devoted to the ‘God-figure’ of the hierarchy, the hierarchy becomes threatened by subversion (148).

Roof’s manifesto makes it clear that racism is not simply ‘a thing of the past’. Roof is a vehement racist, and it shouldn’t take essays, such as my own, to point out why racism is wrong and should never be justified. But analyzing his manifesto is only the start of a long-winded process to try and change the institutional and systemically enforced efforts to oppress black people and people of colour; perhaps, in the process of this analysis, we may also collectively begin to analyze how our own actions affect the hierarchy which we want to abolish but simultaneously perpetuate, even if that is not our intent. If we are able to train ourselves to look at how Hitler used unification devices, how terminology and definitions create and affect hierarchies, how we deflect anti-racism efforts, and how our post-racial rhetoric can be mirrored as a subtler version of Roof’s words, perhaps it will be easier to strive towards a world and hierarchy dominated not by power, but by empathy and acceptance.

Works Cited

  1. Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: U of California, 1969. Print.
  2. Burke, Kenneth. The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle. UBC Connect. Web. 13 Dec. 2015.
  1. Garrett, Erik A. The Rhetoric of Antiblack Racism: Lewis R. Gordon’s Radical Phenomenology of Embodiment. Pittsburgh: Taylor & Francis Group. 2011. Atlantic Journal of Communication. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
  2. Nelson, Jaqueline K. Denial of Racism and Its Implications for Local Action. London: 2013. Discourse & Society. Australian Research Council. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Featured Image: Bullying by succo is licensed under CC0.

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Self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades. Intersectional feminist. Educator/linguist in training. Fashionista, food-lover, and fairly poor hand-eye coordination.

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