Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century,” in addition to “Stokely: A Life” and “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The racist mass shooting at the Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York, that left 10 Black people dead and three others injured at the hands of a teenager who labeled himself a White supremacist reflects the latest chapter of a deepening moral and political crisis within the United States.
Racist ideas that seemed to be relegated to history’s dustbin after watershed civil rights, legal and legislative victories have returned with a vengeance. Headlines characterizing the Buffalo massacre as “racially motivated” do the entire nation a disservice. The benign description does not begin to cover the depth and breadth of the crisis we are facing. White supremacy almost destroyed the nation during antebellum slavery, triggered secession, treason and a catastrophic Civil War where over 600,000 Americans perished.
The alleged Buffalo shooter, 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron, has been charged with first degree murder and pleaded not guilty. He livestreamed his attack on Twitch and posted a document, since removed, expressing his belief in “replacement theory,” a racist belief that Jews, Blacks, immigrants and persons of color are plotting to eliminate native born Whites from the US. It’s a set of ideas and a worldview that has, in the past, and still does, fuel White supremacy.
Authorities have said Gendron’s motivation was hate; Erie County Sheriff John C. Garcia described the attack “a straight up racially motivated hate crime” and the Justice Department is investigating it as such.
Buffalo is heartbreaking precisely because this did not have to happen. An America true to its ideals would not be engaged in a Cold Civil War marked by a Supreme Court hostile to the rights of women and an influential right-wing hostile to people of color and underdogs of all stripes. Voter suppression would be impossible if we cared as much about the rights of citizenship as we did guns. Gun control, in a healthy democracy, should be a bipartisan issue, not one used to partisan political advantage. Right-wing extremism in our politics, media, and religious and democratic institutions provides oxygen for online hate communities that have now turned one time rhetorical fantasies into blood-soaked nightmares that harm us all.
Black people, according to the FBI’s data, are the most likely targets of racist hate crimes in America. 2020, the year of the largest social justice movements in American history, saw the largest increase in hate crimes since 2008, with over 15,000 reported incidents.
While Black people are the most likely targets of such violence, assaults on Jewish, LGBTQ, Latinx, and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have proliferated over the past several years. The attack in Buffalo serves as a gruesome bookend to an unfortunate seven-year period, beginning with the shooting at Emanuel AME church that left nine Black parishioners dead in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015. In between we have witnessed scores of hate crimes against other groups including the June 12, 2016, anti-LGBTQ massacre in Orlando, Florida that left 49 dead and 53 injured; the October 27, 2018, anti-Semitic massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that left 11 dead and six injured; the August 3, 2019, mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, that killed 23 and expressly targeted the city’s Latinx community; the March 16, 2021, spa shootings in Atlanta that killed eight, including six people of Asian descent.
Buffalo marks the continuation of an unfolding American tragedy. Anti-Black racism, gun violence, hate groups amplified by social media and domestic White terrorism have all combined to produce waves of violence, death, and suffering. The political flames of White nationalism, fanned by former President Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again adherents and cable TV personalities at Fox News such as Tucker Carlson threaten our very democracy.
The New York Times’ recent investigative report on Carlson and Fox News revealed, in over 15,000 words and after watching more than one thousand hours of his program, how Tucker Carlson’s support for “replacement theory” and other White supremacist fantasies raised his popularity, helped spread misinformation, and made him the king of cable news and Donald Trump’s cultural heir.
Donald Trump’s assertion that Barack Obama was not born in America and was thus an illegitimate President offered a proof of concept that helped galvanize the most extremist parts of the Republican Party and its base. The “Birther Movement” lie gained enough traction to allow Trump to successfully win the Republican nomination and the presidency. In Trump White nationalists and White supremacists found a politician they considered an ally in their quest to restore America back to its pre-1965 immigration reform ethnic and racial makeup.
The misinformation, lies and racism being spread across a right-wing media echo chamber is working. One in three Americans believe in the “Great Replacement” – the fear-driven and utterly false theory that Black Lives Matter activists, queer folk, immigrants, Muslims and supposedly racially suspect others are conspiring to displace hardworking (read: White) Americans with an undeserving group of interlopers. Part of this theory dovetails into partisan politics, through persistent, yet unfounded, rumors that Democrats are plotting to steal future elections with ineligible voters.
Appeals to racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and queer phobia have reached new partisan heights in our current age of White nationalism. Legislation banning the teaching of Black history, which has passed in multiple states, is designed to perpetuate racist myths about America that threaten to unravel our almost 250-year-old experiment in democracy. So too voter suppression efforts masked as election security to protect the nation from almost non-existent voter fraud.
Florida, as one example, is a state that makes it difficult for Black people to vote or receive fair treatment in the criminal justice system – and punishes those who teach parts of America’s racial history that could make any White person uncomfortable. The state has broken new ground in ratcheting up partisan divides and weaponizing against difference and has gone so far as to try and pass legislation against the Disney Corporation for daring to speak out against the state’s “don’t say gay” law.
The agonizing scenes of suffering emanating from Buffalo, where bewildered residents wondered what could inspire a teenager to travel three hours to methodically kill Black people based on racial hatred are not isolated from the rest of America. ,For Black Americans, this is the latest chapter in a long history that has forced too many families into mourning for dead loved ones, friends and neighbors.
Events in Buffalo require a response that goes far beyond allyship, the term that became popular in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the demonstrations and soul-searching that followed. All people of goodwill, whatever their political and religious affiliation, or circumstances, must stand in solidarity with Buffalo’s African American community. Almost two years after George Floyd’s death seemed to signal that the nation would turn a corner on racial divisions, the politics of White backlash, violence and terror have, as witnessed in Buffalo and elsewhere, seemed to have upended these hopes.
And yet, belief in a future where all things are possible is the bedrock of humanity’s faith in itself and in a higher power. The discipline that animates such faith, both religious and secular, is a core feature of the Black freedom struggle. The hopes that remain in the wake of death. The faith that endures after tragedy. The belief that, despite this mean season of suffering, brighter days lie ahead.