Charleston Shooting Suspect: A Symptom, Not an Anomaly

"No wonder mama didn’t want me driving home at night."

— -- The quickest route between Atlanta and Greenwood, Mississippi, is I-20 West to US-82. It takes a little over five hours, depending on traffic. I know this because when I worked in Georgia I would drive over to visit my mother, who at the time had left Detroit and returned to her childhood home along the outskirts of the Mississippi Delta.

It’s not a particularly scenic trip. Still, my mother made sure I would only drive during the day --never at night. What those roads lacked in topography it more than made up for in history.

Birmingham, Alabama, was home to the 16th Street Baptist Church where four girls were killed by a bomb detonated by the Ku Klux Klan. The Tallahatchie River is where they found Emmett Till’s 14-year-old body after he had been beaten and shot. Civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in his own driveway, was born right down the road from where my mother was born.

And when I would suggest things are different now she would respond: “Yes…but the south is still the south.”

Of course she was right -- mamas usually are.

All of the effort that has gone into lifting this nation out of the cesspool of racism in which it was founded is slowly being undermined by the ineffectiveness of wishful thinking. We want to be post-racial America, we just don’t have the stomach for the work it requires. So we say racism is dead and accuse those who point out the socio-economic disparity between blacks and whites of being race-hustlers. We embrace the false narrative that the absence of burning crosses and slurs means peace. That men like Dylann Roof are anomalies in today’s South.

Some GOP presidential hopefuls quickly suggested the alleged gunman was targeting Christians -- not blacks -- as a way to steer the conversation away from the embarrassing possibility that maybe all of the criticism directed toward the country’s first black president isn’t policy driven after all. Rick Perry called the shooting an accident -- an aide later said he intended to say the word "incident" -- stemming from drugs. Jeb Bush said "I don't know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes," in the face of all of the information about what was on Roof's mind and heart.

I was reminded of my mother’s warning in 2011 after then 18-year-old Deryl Dedmond allegedly suggested that he and his buddies jump in their cars to “go f--- with some n------” before killing James Craig Anderson in a Mississippi parking lot. I was reminded of her words when it was discovered that two Florida police officers were members of the KKK in 2014. And I was painfully reminded this week after Dylann Roof opened fire inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing nine.

As disturbing as a terrorist attack in a place of worship is, there are indications that Roof was perhaps first targeting the Columbiana Centre shopping mall. This man wanted to kill black people and the location didn’t seem to matter.

Sen. Lindsey Graham is correct in saying the massacre is not a “window into the soul” of South Carolina. The soul of South Carolina was on display in the aftermath of the tragedy where mourners of every color came together in prayer. The soul could be heard between the sobs of the victims’ family members who came to the Roof’s bond hearing to speak on behalf of the deceased.

A relative of Ethel Lance told Roof “you took something very precious… but I forgive you.” Felicia Sanders, mother of the youngest victim, 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders, said “may God have mercy on you.” That was a window into the state’s soul.

However Graham is incorrect to try to characterize Roof as a lone wolf, especially when the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified four white nationalist groups and two branches of the KKK in the state. When the KKK decided to host a fundraiser for Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, it was the New Empire Knights who stated “All money will go to the cop who did his job against the Negro criminal.” The Knights are reportedly based in Graham’s home state.

The South is still the South. No amount of romanticizing about the true meaning of the Confederate flag can whitewash the past nor wishful thinking can sugarcoat the present.

Three members of the KKK, and employees of Florida’s Department of Corrections, were arrested for plotting to kill a black inmate after he was released this year. Two Missouri police officers were forced to resign this year after the Department of Justice investigation revealed racist and violent emails. Two Anniston, Alabama police officers were suspended for belonging to a white supremacy group—this week.

Where is Anniston, you ask? Oh, about 90 miles west of Atlanta, right off of I-20.

No wonder mama didn’t want me driving home at night.

“Hate won’t win,” was another phrase heard often during the Roof’s bond hearing. A sentiment I agree with. But I also know it is not a victory that is handed over to the willfully blind but rather those who are courageous enough to look at its community and make honest assessments. Avoiding the topic of race does not mean we’re cured of racism but rather we’re allowing the disease to spread unchecked.

Roof isn’t an anomaly. He’s a symptom.

LZ Granderson is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not reflect the views of ABC News.