Despite clear and mounting evidence that the mass shooting at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina. was racially motivated, several Republican presidential candidates on Friday refused to acknowledge the role race played in the attacks.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a top-tier 2016 hopeful who announced his candidacy just this week, went as far as to say “I don’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes,” during a speech at the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual Road to Majority conference in Washington, D.C.
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Afterward, Bush spokesman Tim Miller took to Twitter to say “of course” the Republican believes the shooting was racially motivated. But when a Huffington Post reporter asked Bush the role of race in the attacks, Bush said “I don’t know what the background of it is.”
Asked later, Bush again said “I don’t know” but added, “Looks like to me it was, but we’ll find out all the information. It’s clear it was an act of raw hatred, for sure. Nine people lost their lives and they were African-American. You can judge what it is.”
There is little doubt that Dylann Roof, the 21-year old white man who has confessed to carrying out the attacks, harbored racist views. A friend of Roof's, Joseph Meek Jr., told NBC News that Roof "believed in segregation ... he didn't believe in what the black race was doing to the white race." On social media, Roof appeared in a photo on the roof of a car with a Confederate flag on its license plate. And in another photo he is seen wearing the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and of Rhodesia -- now Zimbabwe -- another majority black African country ruled by white separatists until 1979. The flags are popular symbols among white supremicists today.
A cousin of one of the victims has recounted a survivor saying before the began shooting that Roof told the group at the church, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go."
Democratic 2016 hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have both mentioned race as a contributing factor to the Charleston attack, as did President Obama in remarks from the White House on Thursday. Republicans, on the other hand, have expressed sorrow and shock about the shooting but have largely avoided discussing the shooting in the framework of targeted racial violence.
Several GOP hopefuls at the conference argued that such attacks cannot be solved by government.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called the shooting the act of a “pretty depraved person,” but said “laws can’t change this.” He added, “Only the goodwill and the love of the American people can let those folks know that that act was unacceptable, disgraceful and we need to do more to show that we love each other.”
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said, “What kind of person goes into a church and shots nine people?” He added, “There’s a sickness in our country. There’s something terribly wrong, but it isn’t going to fixed by your government.”
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And others have focused on the religious setting of the massacre, with some even suggesting it was an attack on Christianity.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum did not address the shootings in Charleston during his appearance at the conference. But during a radio interview on Thursday he linked the shooting to “assaults on our religious liberty.” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal led a prayer at the conference for victims of the shootings, saying, "We just grieve deeply for our brothers and sisters who lost their lives studying your holy Scripture in a sanctuary, in a church and a house of God."
One exception is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the only black candidate in the GOP field. At the conference, he asked for a moment of silence for the victims, adding, “You know these things hit so close to home. And if we don’t pay close attention to the hatred and the division that’s going on in our nation, this is just a harbinger of what we can expect.”
On Thursday, Carson released a statement saying the shooting demonstrated “racial based hate is still very much alive,” while also suggesting ideological intolerance was a bigger problem.”
Former New York Gov. George Pataki, at the conference on Friday, did mention race while speaking about the shooting – but he lumped it in with “bigotry of any form.” He said, “What happened in South Carolina was not just wrong, it was hideous, and we have to stand up whenever racism, anti-Semitism, bigotry of any form roars its ugly head.”
“We’re all Americans," he added. "We’re all God’s children. We’re in this together and we cannot let bigotry and racism be tolerated in this country.”