Story highlights

It's a natural reaction to assume fires at black churches are borne of hatred, experts say

Humans gravitate toward causes that provide them scapegoats, professor says

Ohio and California church fires did not garner same level of media coverage

CNN  — 

It’s a visceral and involuntary reaction, perhaps even knee-jerk: A black church burns in the South and our minds race immediately to hatred.

It must be arson. It must be the handiwork of some despicable white supremacist.

That was the sentiment on display across social and traditional media these past two weeks. The NAACP, while acknowledging only three of the recent fires were suspected arsons, called for vigilance, saying the blazes require “our collective attention.”

“For centuries, African-American churches have served as the epicenter of survival for many in the African-American community. As a consequence, these houses of faith have historically been the targets of violence. We will use every tool in our advocacy arsenal to preserve these beloved institutions,” Cornell William Brooks, the group’s president, said in a statement.

Brooks also cited the recent church massacre in South Carolina.

On June 17, Dylann Roof allegedly killed nine members of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Four days later, black churches began burning across the South. To date, seven in five states have caught fire.

Are the events linked? It’s unclear, as investigators continue to gather details. Early indications are that most of the fires were not arson, let alone hate crimes.

But that doesn’t mean we haven’t connected the events in our minds, and that colors how we digest news that another African-American house of worship has gone up in flames, experts say.

“It isn’t unreasonable to speculate that at least some of the black churches are acts of arson, especially coming in the aftermath of the horrific massacre of nine people in a black church,” said Jack Levin, a professor emeritus at Northeastern University who has studied hate crimes for 30 years and serves as co-director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict.

Post 9/11 parallel

After 9/11, acts of hatred were high on America’s mind, and violence targeting Muslims and Sikhs, who were assaulted because they were mistaken for Muslims, made for major news.

Fast forward to the 2012 Sikh temple massacre in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, that left six people dead, and the story’s life was much shorter than it might have been 11 years earlier because it didn’t happen against a backdrop of terrorism and retaliatory violence against Muslims, Levin said.

“That episode never got the publicity that the black church in Charleston got. I don’t think it’s that three more people died,” said the sociologist who has written more than 30 books, including “Why We Hate.”

Mohamad Al-Hakim, an assistant professor of philosophy at Florida Gulf Coast University, said he, too, felt the firebombing of mosques and Sikh temples after 9/11 led people to jump to “the conclusion that these acts must not be random.”

He took Levin’s thought a step further and said we are so shaken by acts of terrorism, that every shooting or bombing conjures the possibility of a terrorist act, at least initially, before the facts start rolling in.

The reason is human nature, he said, explaining that our minds demand answers, and not just any answers. We like causal explanations. We seek to assign blame, even if it’s to something abstract like mental illness, greed or racism. Saying there is no agent that brought about an event – or that lightning caused a church fire – leaves us feeling rudderless, Al-Hakim said.

“We often feel more frustration when there’s no reason for an event,” he said. “An explanation always fills that void of having no answers.”

This is not the case solely with church fires or terrorism, he said. We look for reasons to explain anything, whether it’s why our friends aren’t talking to us or why we had a rough patch during our childhoods. The need for answers can often override reason, he said,

“Any explanation is better than no explanation,” Al-Hakim said, paraphrasing philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Where does evidence point?

In its search for scapegoats, the court of public opinion often jumps to assumptions based on experiences, emotions, bias or evidence – be it good, bad or misconstrued. With the church fires, Al-Hakim said, reason tells us the modus operandi for those trying to incite fear would be to take credit or make themselves known or at least leave some indication such as a swastika or racial pejorative to make their intentions clear – none of which has surfaced yet.

Still, we want to assign blame, and the recent streak of racial strife in the country serves only to make our assumptions that hatred sparked the church fires more plausible, he said.

History does not support the impulse to assume fires at black churches are acts of hate. For one, church and funeral property fires have been on the decline for decades, from about 3,500 in 1980 to about 1,700 in 2011, the latest figure available from the National Fire Protection Association. Of the average 1,780 fires annually between 2007 and 2011, 16% of those were ruled intentional, the NFPA reports.

Insurance scams, vandalism and burglary coverups make up a large percentage of intentional fires, so the number of intentional fires that are arson – and then, the number that targeted only black churches – make up a fraction of that 16%, said Marty Ahrens, the NFPA’s senior manager for fire analysis services.

She also noted that roughly half those arrested for arson are younger than 18, leading her to believe the fires were more likely youthful indiscretion or stupidity than they were acts of hatred. Plus, someone might have other reasons for targeting a church aside from the race of its members.

“There’s a whole host of motivations for arson in any setting, but a place of worship does represent authority to some people, and it’s a powerful symbol in a community,” she said.

Indeed, churches report threats all the time, and Clarendon County, South Carolina, Sheriff Randy Garrett said that before and after the Charleston shooting, five African Methodist Episcopal churches received threatening letters because women headed their congregations. A suspect is in custody, he said.

‘The heart of black American life’

But while churches can be targeted for a variety of reasons, Philadelphia-based writer and activist David Love said he believes the black church provides a particularly alluring target for those desiring to strike fear in African-Americans.

Writing for the historically black newspaper Atlanta Blackstar last week, Love noted that since the days of slavery and through the civil rights movement, white supremacists have targeted black churches because of what they stand for: “a pillar of the black community, the center for leadership and institution building, education, social and political development and organizing to fight oppression. Strike at the black church, and you strike at the heart of black American life.”

So, it makes sense that even though only one in about six church fires is ruled intentional – and even fewer are hate crimes – suspicions would spike each time an African-American church is reduced to cinders. In that way, Love said during a phone interview, white supremacists have succeeded.

“That’s the goal, is to instill fear and to draw attention so that people don’t forget,” he said. “It may not be arson now, but people look at the cases where it actually did happen and feel, ‘It could happen again.’ “

It’s a natural reaction, he added, “because of the potent political message it sends when groups such as the Klan commit these acts. That explains the visceral reaction.”

There is also the matter of the church Dylann Roof victimized, which has a long history of activism, Love said. Not only was the church a popular spot for civil rights leaders during the 1960s – once hosting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. – but if you go back to antebellum times, it was burned to the ground in 1822 when a slave revolt was exposed.

Concurring with Levin’s point, Love said the recent police killings of black men and the heated debate over the Confederate flag have likely made people more vigilant – and quick to assume racism is at play – when they see a black church reduced to cinders, but America’s checkered history on race relations goes deeper.

It doesn’t help that the authorities investigating the church fires belong to some of the same governments that historically oppressed black people – whether it was failing to protect rights, turning a blind eye to Klan violence or actively spying on and infiltrating groups fighting for equality during the civil rights movement, he said.

“All of it is connected, and it speaks to a lack of trust between police and the community,” he said.

This church, that church

Levin agreed, saying, “Part of that history has to be discussed when we consider why a black church would be the focal point of so much angst.” After all, he said, it was the local law enforcement agencies who “brought the dogs to Selma and Montgomery.”

This isn’t the first time the public has been quick to assume bigots were burning churches. A rash of church fires in the 1990s – many of which were thought to be racially motivated by the National Council of Churches – spurred President Bill Clinton to create the National Church Arson Task Force.

It turned out that dozens of the fires had been set by Jay Scott Ballinger, a self-proclaimed “missionary of Lucifer” whose beef lay with Christianity in general, no matter a church’s demographics. The majority, Levin said, had been committed by teenagers “looking for a thrill,” and the incidence of church arson coincided with an across-the-board spike in crime committed by young people.

With the recent fires, geography is very much playing into people’s assumptions, Levin said. Seven black churches have burned across the South, and those churches have dominated media coverage of the issue.

Two other churches – College Heights Baptist Church in Elyria, Ohio, and the Forerunners for Christ Church in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles – have burned since June 21 as well, but drew far less media coverage. The Echo Park blaze is being investigated as an arson, according to CNN affiliate KABC.

Those churches just don’t fit the narrative, Levin said.

“The publicity was concentrated in a certain area of the country – the South. We’re talking about Southern black churches. It’s these three variables together that have created a strong reaction in the media and also among the public,” he said.

CNN’s Brian Todd contributed to this report.