confederate flag

The Confederate Flag has recently been amplified as a symbol of the racial inequality that still permeates many facets of our culture. Image: Jim Surkamp via Flickr CC.

In light of the Charleston terrorist attack, where the perpetrator admitted in a manifesto that his attack was centered on “racial awareness,” why aren’t more Republicans speaking out against racism? Are they worried about gun control and other reactionary laws that could, in their minds, curtail their freedoms? Or are they concerned about having to own up to the “southern strategy”?

Started under Richard Nixon in 1968, the “southern strategy” is a catchall term for the Republican effort to use race as a way of appealing to southern voters—namely, by refusing to take a solid stance on racial issues to keep southern voters happy.

It’s not a strategy embraced by everyone in the party, however. Ken Mehlman, former Republican Committee chairman, flat out called it a wrong move: “By the 70s and into the 80s and 90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African American community,” he told the NAACP national convention in Milwaukee. “We Republicans did not effectively reach out. Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”

But the rest of Mehlman’s party doesn’t seem to be listening.

When a 21-year-old white man gunned down six black women and three black men in a church in Charleston, South Carolina last week, the evidence was pretty clear that the crime was racially motivated: he wore the white supremacist flags of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa; he told a friend he wanted “to start a civil war;” he reportedly told one of the victims that “you’ve raped our women, and you are taking over the country…I have to do what I have to do” before shooting him.

Still, Republican presidential candidates hesitate to address the inherent racial issues. Though they have all expressed support and concern about the incident, they tend to refer to it as an incomprehensible act of violence with nary a mention of the racial motivator…until much later, if at all.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said that he “doesn’t know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious acts,” though his communications director, Tim Miller, later said on Twitter that Bush believes the attack was racially motivated.

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina initially blamed the attack on anti-Christian hate, telling The View that “there are real people who are organized out there to kill people based on religion….There are people out there looking for Christians to kill them.” He minimized the racial element until later in the week, when he reversed his position and claimed that “the only reason these people are dead is because they are black.”

Policy.Mic’s Stefan Becket suggested that Republicans are trying to avoid or minimize the racial element at first because if they openly acknowledge it, they will have to admit that racism still exists in 2015. That would mean issues would have to be addressed, potentially curtailing some of the freedoms—like gun policies—that more conservative voters stand staunchly behind.