America knows who has been burning black churches, but it refuses to say

After several suspicious fires in just one week, many have been tweeting #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches, but we all know the answer

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Across just one week, starting late last month, eight black churches across America became a different shade of black, each of them charred by flames. Their denominations may be different, but perimeters of police tape temporarily unite them. In Georgia a roof makes way for the sky, in North Carolina a piano sits unrecognisable, and in South Carolina a white cross gleams atop a pile of soot. Among all the ruins, the only thing that remain are unanswered questions.

Rebuilding is the easy part, but when it comes to understanding what really caused the fire, it's much harder.

Something that has risen from the series of attacks is #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches. The trending topic first caught the attention of social justice activists in the wake of the Charleston massacre. The first church to burn was in Tennessee. Then Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, South Carolina. Authorities have ruled out foul play in only one of the eight church fires, because it was an act of shoddy electrical wiring. Three of the seven churches have been ruled arson, and the others are still being investigated.

Black churches have always been the favoured targets of lone wolf actors or organised hate groups in America. Historically, African-Americans have used their churches for religious purposes, but also to advance political goals like escaping to freedom. This has been done in the past via the Underground Railroad and later, organizing the overthrow of Jim Crow laws in the American South. In the 21st century, the black church’s role as political actor became hyper visible with electoral aims like “souls to the polls,” an endeavour that encouraged churchgoers to vote after Sunday service.

It is for this reason that the recent fires should send alarm bells ringing. Yet it's almost inevitable that the authorities or media will refuse to call these church fires what they are: terrorism. The narrative emerging currently is a retread of the black church burnings in the American South during the mid Nineties, when there were 37 suspicious fires at black churches across 18 months. As William Booth wrote at the time for the Washington Post,: "The people burning down black churches in the South are generally white, male and young, usually economically marginalized or poorly educated, frequently drunk or high on drugs, rarely affiliated with hate groups, but often deeply driven by racism," later adding "[Yet there is] little evidence has emerged to suggest a national or regional conspiracy, according to investigators" (my italics).

Skip forward 20 years, and the ATF – the government organization tasked with investigating the fires – has preemptively sectioned off the political motives and scope of the investigation. In a Facebook post, they said: “ATF has special agents and certified fire investigators from several field divisions investigating the fires to determine cause and origin. We are in the early stages of these investigations, but at this time we have no reason to believe these fires are racially motivated or related.”

In the coming days authorities will continue to investigate the church fires, and the media will finally take note of this growing problem. Yet the story has already been written by history. The unwillingness to connect the dots, just like in 1996, says more about how little America has changed, and how much more work needs to be done if we are going to be the “Shining city on the hill” that politicians often offer when discussing American exceptionalism.