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Dylann Roof's Defense of White Rule in Africa Has Roots in American Conservatism

Dylann Roof is not an original thinker. Based on a manifesto on the, apparently written by the alleged Charleston killer, Roof has a shallow mind that credulously absorbed whatever he read on racist websites. But one particular strand of his thinking has roots beyond white supremacy proper, in mainstream conservatism: Roof repeatedly links his racial separatism with support for colonial regimes that once ruled large swaths of Africa. In one photo, he’s shown wearing patches bearing the flags of apartheid South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia. The manifesto upholds apartheid as a model for how a minority of whites could dominate a black majority: “Look at South Africa, and how such a small minority held the black in apartheid for years and years.”

The idea that whites in America have a natural affinity with white colonialists in Africa did not spring from the neo-Nazi far-right, but rather the conservative movement that coalesced around National Review in the 1950s. If Roof saw himself as “the last Rhodesian,” then the magazine's conservatives of were the first American Rhodesians.

In 1957, National Review published an infamous editorial supporting Jim Crow segregation. What’s rarely remembered is the editorial explicitly justified white supremacy in the American South with a defense of British colonial rule in Africa, both allegedly being cases where the “superior” race has a right to dominate. It is worth quoting at length:

The central question that emerges–and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal–is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage. The British believe they do, and acted accordingly, in Kenya, where the choice was dramatically one between civilization and barbarism, and elsewhere; the South, where the conflict is by no means dramatic, as in Kenya, nevertheless perceives important qualitative differences between its culture and the Negroes’, and intends to assert its own.

Of course, these colonial regimes were being challenged no less than Jim Crow segregation. South Africa codified apartheid law in 1948, and immediately faced international criticism and a fierce resistance movement. In 1965, in order to insure continued rule by the white minority, the colonial government in Rhodesia issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence and set up a state where whites had overwhelming political power. The white supremacist regime in Rhodesia was almost immediately subject to sanctions and isolation, led by Britain but including the larger international community.

Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia had very few allies abroad, so they found themselves turning to National Review, which was emerging as a major voice of the American right. The magazine's justification of white rule in Africa is often defense as an outgrowth of the Cold War, with South Africa and Rhodesia being bulwarks against Soviet expansion in Africa. But this explanation ignores the true emotional depth of the magazine’s ties with white minority rule.

It is true that Cold War policymakers in Washington were reluctant to sever ties with apartheid South Africa. But they saw this alliance as an ugly necessary evil and pushed for changes within the regime. To be sure, there were figures like George Kennan who once said, "I have a soft spot in my mind for apartheid—not as practiced in South Africa but as a concept." But Kennan was the exception, with both moderate Republicans like Dwight Eisenhower and Democrats like Lyndon Johnson believing that it was not in America’s interest to be seen as a defender of dying colonial regimes. Torn between a desire to placate European imperial allies such as Portugal and the goal of not being tarred with the brush of colonialism, Washington policymakers haphazardly pushed for decolonization as the ultimate goal. No such complexity can be seen in National Review, where white rule over Africans was seen not as a necessary evil but as a positive good, sometimes even a model to emulate.

National Review editors took junkets to Africa paid for by the governments of South Africa and Rhodesia, and wrote reports that verged on public relations when they returned. As John Judis noted in his excellent 1988 biography William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, Buckley’s ties with the South African Information Ministry were so close they compromised the writer’s journalistic integrity.

After a 1962 visit to South Africa, Judis notes, Buckley “wrote of his trip in a manner calculated to win over liberals. In describing his visit to a Bantustan, he dwelt upon the weaknesses of apartheid before justifying its necessity.” But as Judis makes clear, the concessions Buckley made about the problems with apartheid were simply a rhetorical gesture to hide his deeper allegiance to the South African regime. "When the South African Minister of Information complained of the article’s ‘peppery parts,’ Buckley assured him that he was merely trying to win over potentially hostile audiences. Buckley told him that he had ‘a knowledge of how to reach Americans,’” Judis writes. “Buckley did not seem concerned that he might be violating his readers’ trust in the way he wrote about those regimes… [H]e placed politics about the imperatives of journalistic objectivity.”

In 1965, James Burnham, a founding editor at National Review and second only to Buckley in setting the magazine’s editorial line, praised the “plain courage and sweat and colonizing vision” of white settlers in Rhodesia. He compared Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence with the American revolution. William Buckley would take up the same comparison in a fawning 1974 interview he did with Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith for the program "Firing Line."

Burnham even upheld South African apartheid as a model for America. In 1971, he noted with approval that “the Bantustans are beginning to take on reality within the boundaries of South Africa” and suggested that they—along with other examples of nations “composed of noncontiguous territories”—might provide a “more promising” model for American blacks than the supposedly failed policy of integration.

For Burnham, supporting regimes like apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia wasn’t a matter of realpolitik, but based on abiding moral commitments. Although he styled himself as a cold-blooded Machiavellian, Burnham became hotly emotional when it came to defending these regimes. In the late 1970s, the Carter administration withdrew recognition for Rhodesia. Talking to his fellow editor Joseph Sobran, Burnham bitterly complained, “Sometimes you have to throw your friends to the wolves. But you don’t have to talk a lot of shit about democracy while you do it.”

The word “friends” is key here. The minority whites who govern those countries were seen not just as allies of necessity but people who deserved empathy because they shared the same problems as white Americans: how to maintain white rule in a world where people of color were struggling for political autonomy. Burnham claimed that the people of Africa and Asia had been “historically inert” but had now “moved historically on stage.” Burnham’s fear was that in order to placate the newly independent nations and “to save its own neck,” the American policy elite was willing to abandon white settlers in Rhodesia and South Africa.

National Review stopped explicitly supporting Jim Crow by the late 1960s but it continued to apply the same racial analysis to Africa, maintaining the necessity of apartheid until the twilight of Afrikaner rule in South Africa. As the website Africa Is a Country noted, American conservatives' defense of the racist regime became increasingly shrill and fused with domestic politics during the bitter last days of apartheid in the 1970s and 1980s. Buckley did scandalize some of his fellow conservatives in 1986 by suggesting that if he were a black South African he might join the African National Congress to fight apartheid, but this hypothetical opposition had no bearing on his real politics, which consisted of vociferously opposing the movement to challenge South Africa with sanctions. Burnham’s own mode of analysis was taken over by his intellectual disciple Samuel T. Francis, an occasional National Review contributor who also worked for a time as editor of the Washington Times. Francis wrote two books celebrating Burnham as a seminal conservative intellectual.

In one of the last articles he wrote before his death in 2005, Francis warned that “white genocide” might loom in South Africa. The “white genocide” trope has become increasingly popular with white nationalists in the United States since it cast whites as victims who need to arm themselves in self-defense, and possibly launch pre-emptive attacks against non-whites. There's even a Twitter hashtag: #whitegenocide.

Early in his career, Francis worked as an editor for Citizens Informer, the house organ of the Council of Conservative Citizens—a hate group that peddles the "white genocide" trope, and which Dylann Roof explicitly cited in his manifesto. Roof explains that he typed "black on White crime" into Google, adding, "The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?"

Roof's massacre has prompted renewed scrutiny of the group, to which a number of current and former Republican politicians have ties. The CCC has hosted former Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has flirted with the group. Three other GOP candidates—Senator Ted Cruz, former Senator Rick Santorum, and Senator Rand Paul—recently announced they would return or give away campaign donations from Earl Holt III, president of the CC.

Holt, meanwhile, issued a statement that read, “In his manifesto, Roof outlines other grievances felt by many whites. Again, we utterly condemn Roof’s despicable killings, but they do not detract in the slightest from the legitimacy of some of the positions he has expressed.”

In the beginning of the twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois realized that racism wasn’t just an American problem and that the color line divided the world. Starting from the opposite point of view, the early National Review conservatives realized that a defense of racial hierarchy in America went hand in hand with supporting white rule of Africa. Dylann Roof is far from being an intellectual, but the genealogy of his thinking about Africa runs in line with those formative issues of National Review.