Why Is Dylann Roof So Worried About Europe?

Echoes of an international conspiracy theory in Charleston

An African migrant sits atop a border fence between Morocco and Spain's North African enclave of Melilla. (Jesus Blasco de Avellaneda / Reuters)

The racist manifesto attributed to Dylann Roof, the alleged Charleston killer, made a surprising concession to multiculturalism. “As an American we are taught to accept living in the melting pot, and black and other minorities have just as much right to be here as we do, since we are all immigrants,” it said. But the author wrote that learning what was happening in Europe—“the homeland of White people”—was a key step in his racial awakening. “I saw that the same things were happening in England and France, and in all the other Western European countries. … [I]n many ways the situation is even worse there.”

He never makes clear what “the situation” is, but the language echoes a worry shared by white supremacists in the United States and overseas. As Morris Dees and J. Richard Cohen of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which tracks hate groups, wrote in The New York Times on Monday, the author’s apparent concern with the loss of white dominance in America and Europe is a sign of “the growing globalization of white nationalism.” They continued:

When, according to survivors, Mr. Roof told the victims at the prayer meeting that black people were “taking over the country,” he was expressing sentiments that unite white nationalists from the United States and Canada to Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Unlike those of the civil rights era, whose main goal was to maintain Jim Crow in the American South, today’s white supremacists don’t see borders; they see a white tribe under attack by people of color across the globe.

Heidi Beirich, who runs the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, told me she has observed an increase in international contacts among white-supremacist groups in the past few years, as well as a “rising cohesion” in the language they use to express their grievances.

“It’s no longer OK to be an open racist and an anti-Semite,” she said. Instead, many members of these groups have adopted a claim popularized by, among other people, Robert Whitaker, an elderly segregationist from South Carolina, who in 2006 posted on his website a warning about “the third world pour[ing] into EVERY white country and ONLY into white countries.” The tract, known as The Mantra, helped promote the term “White Genocide,” which has since become a watchword among white supremacists for immigration and fertility trends that could lead to whites losing their majority status in U.S. and European populations in the coming decades. Beirich said it’s less that there is a coordinated global white-supremacist movement than that the rhetoric its adherents use has congealed around an issue that many “white countries” are perceived to be facing.

And that rhetoric is distinctly international in scope. Whitaker’s mantra suggests the existence of a double standard, in which whites are denied privileges that others enjoy—“ASIA FOR THE ASIANS, AFRICA FOR THE AFRICANS, WHITE COUNTRIES FOR EVERYBODY.” It claims that only whites are being forced to accept “multiculturalism.” A petition to the White House posted last month, calling on the Obama administration to “stop White Genocide in our country!”, encourages the president to turn to Liberia, of all places, for lessons on racial purity. It quotes approvingly from the Liberian constitution of 1986, which says that “in order to preserve, foster and maintain the positive Liberian culture, values and character, only persons who are Negro or of Negro descent shall qualify by birth or by naturalization to be citizens of Liberia.”

A group called the White Genocide Project, which drew notice earlier this year for posting billboards in Alabama displaying Mantra quotes such as “Anti-racist is a code word for anti-White,” cites international law to establish the existence of white genocide, specifically Article II, subsection (c) of the United Nations Genocide Convention. The definition of genocide offered there includes “deliberately inflicting on the group”—which can be a “national, ethnical, racial or religious group”—“conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.” Under that definition, the White Genocide Project’s website states that a “combination of mass immigration (of different groups of people) plus forced assimilation would qualify as genocide.” The authors compare the trend to Han Chinese migration into Tibet—which Tibetans have complained dilutes their culture—with the only difference being that “White Genocide is taking place across many countries, and it is being done to the majority, rather than a minority.”

The manifesto attributed to Roof never invokes the phrase “white genocide” in connection with “the situation” in Europe that concerns the author, though it addresses many of the themes associated with the term. There is also a parallel, but distinct, narrative of “white genocide” surrounding Rhodesia, the former white-supremacist state that is now Zimbabwe, and South Africa. A widely circulated Facebook photo shows Roof wearing a jacket decorated with flags of those countries, in each of which a black majority brought an end to white-minority rule. The website registered in Roof’s name, where the manifesto appears, is lastrhodesian.com. Beirich told me that invoking the plight of the white minorities in those countries is “another sort of meme on the radical right that’s becoming very common,” offering a vision of the apocalyptic future that could befall whites who lose power.

But Roof’s purported manifesto doesn’t concern itself with violence against whites in South Africa, citing the country only as evidence that “it is far from being too late for America or Europe. I believe that even if we made up only 30 percent of the population we could take it back completely.” He doesn’t mention Rhodesia or Zimbabwe at all, instead focusing on black-on-white violence in America.

The manifesto also doesn’t mention the economic desperation and actual persecution that tend to motivate migration from poor countries to wealthier ones. It doesn’t mention that the UN’s Genocide Convention clearly defines the act of genocide as involving the intent to destroy a population. It doesn’t mention that ethnic and racial wealth disparities overwhelmingly favor whites in the United States and Europe, or the crimes perpetrated against millions of black people by white rulers in Rhodesia and South Africa.

What’s notable about the manifesto’s meditation on white victimhood, and the spread of the paradigm and its vocabulary of self-defense, is their power to motivate violence, even as white-nationalist leaders insist they condone nothing of the kind. Roughly half of the “lone-wolf” terrorist attacks in the United States since 1970 have been carried out by white supremacists, often by individuals operating at the fringe of the movement, according to a recent study by Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League. It’s a phenomenon that’s not confined to South Carolina, where The Mantra originated. Similar language appears in the manifesto of Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik, who repeatedly referred to Islam’s “genocidal” campaign against European civilization by way of explaining why he killed 77 people during a 2011 rampage. Such ideas are transcending borders, yet their interpretation is often atomized. Increasing contacts among white supremacists in Europe and the United States hardly constitute a unified international movement of white resistance. But as both the European and U.S. experience demonstrates, lone wolves can wreak enormous destruction all by themselves.