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The shooting in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, that left 10 grocery shoppers dead wasn’t anomalous. It was consistent with a long US history of violence produced by anxiety over supposedly dwindling White control.
A 180-page diatribe has been attributed to the White 18-year-old suspect. In it, he describes not only his preparations for the massacre but his reasons for wanting to kill in the first place.
Oozing utter contempt for his fellow citizens, he writes that Black Americans “are the most privileged race in the US” but “say they are the most oppressed,” that they “actively destroy their communities” and that they – along with Jews and immigrants, two groups whose claim on Whiteness is frequently challenged and easily revoked – have a desire to “replace” White Americans.
Nothing about this thinking is original.
In the document, the alleged gunman idolizes other mass shooters who were propelled by racist ideology, including Dylann Roof, who in 2015 gunned down nine Black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
Like the Buffalo suspect, Roof was spurred by racial grievance, by his conviction that White Americans’ allegedly imperiled position atop the social order must be protected, whatever the cost.
Or as Seyward Darby, the author of the 2020 book, “Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism,” put it to CNN, “This all comes from the same seed – this fear that Whiteness is under threat.”
President Joe Biden condemned the Buffalo shooting during a visit to the city on Tuesday.
“White supremacy is a poison,” he said in an emotional speech. “It’s a poison … running through our body politic. The evil did come to Buffalo, and it’s come to all too many places, manifested in gunmen who massacred innocent people in the name of hateful and perverse ideology – rooted in fear and racism.”
The Buffalo massacre illustrated an enduring pattern in the US of weaponizing White fear of supposed racial dispossession. And more and more, this hate appears to be incubated online, on forums where young White men can nourish their rage.
To understand the above genealogy, let’s return to the middle of the 19th century.
Many White Americans responded to the end of the Civil War in 1865 with racist fearmongering about the perceived perils of demographic change and the threats that various groups were said to pose to White dominance.
In a 2018 thread on Twitter, the Princeton University historian Kevin Kruse laid out some examples of this fearmongering.
“Consider Madison Grant’s ‘The Passing of the Great Race’ (1916),” Kruse wrote. “Older Americans from the ‘Nordic race,’ Grant warned, were increasingly being displaced by newer immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Grant complained, weren’t reproducing at rates fast enough to keep up with ‘the Slovak, the Italian, the Syrian and the Jew.’”
Kruse noted further that, “in ‘The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World Supremacy’ (1920), Lothrop Stoddard warned that white races were being engulfed by the more fertile colored races,” and that, ‘in the Saturday Evening Post, Kenneth Roberts warned about arrivals of Polish Jews, who were ‘human parasites.’”
In the early decades of the 20th century, members of the Ku Klux Klan, which was experiencing a national revival, fed on this anxiety and used it as a weapon.
“From the late 1910s through the 1920s, Klansmen carried out hundreds of beatings and whippings, and dozens of murders,” the University of Alabama historian Joshua Rothman wrote for The Atlantic in 2016. “They threatened bootleggers, flogged Mexicans, tarred and feathered doctors who performed abortions, and strong-armed politicians. They lynched Black people, showed up on night rides to terrify prostitutes, bullied Jews and lashed young women found riding in cars with men.”
The widespread belief in the superiority and sanctity of Whiteness did more than just inflame violence. It shaped policy and social institutions throughout the rest of the century.
“There’s a reason that it took so long for interracial marriage to become legal in the US. And there’s a reason that it took so long to desegregate schools, both from a de jure standpoint and from a de facto standpoint, and we still struggle to deal with that today,” Darby told CNN.
The fear that Whiteness might be diluted that Darby spoke about is analogous to the racial anxiety that animated the alleged Buffalo shooter.
Spurred by the false belief that there’s a conspiracy to replace White Americans, he traveled from another New York county hours away to reach a Black neighborhood and open fire at Tops Friendly Markets, according to an official familiar with the investigation. He intended on killing more Black people, authorities said on Monday.
“He knew what he was doing when he came for us,” Raqueal “RaRa” Watson, who was born and raised nearby, told my CNN colleague Alaa Elassar. “All we did was be Black. White people take everything from us. Even the only grocery store in our community.”
‘It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation’
Since the attack, observers have directed their attention at how the alleged gunman was radicalized.
In his screed, he says that he grew into his ideology “after extreme boredom” during the Covid-19 pandemic, and that he began combing through the “politically incorrect” discussion boards on 4chan, analysts with the New York Police Department wrote in an internal memo obtained by CNN on Tuesday.
The analysts also pointed out that platforms such as Discord and the streaming outlet Twitch probably played a role in the suspect’s radicalization, explaining that these enjoy popularity not only with gamers but with the far right.
Crucially, the alleged shooter’s diatribe isn’t merely a collection of sophomoric writings about racial politics. It’s a signal to like-minded people: You, too, can do this.
“This isn’t sending a bomb and then not being found. This is making clear what you’re trying to do and why you’re trying to do it,” Darby said.
She explained further that the instructional dimension of the attack shines a light on the dangers of sharing things such as a gunman’s racist text or livestream.
“The White nationalist movement has always been very much about blueprints, putting them out there,” Darby said. “What we’re seeing now is people who are doing it and then showing others how they can do it, too: Here’s where I bought my gear. Here’s how I altered my assault rifle. It’s a way of being a violent influencer.”
Ben Decker, the CEO of Memetica, a threat analysis company, echoed some of these sentiments, and in particular noted the parallels between the Buffalo shooting and the 2019 shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 51 people dead.
“This (the Buffalo shooting) is a step-by-step copycat attack of Christchurch in both the real-world attack; planning and selecting the target, and online; coordinating the livestream; and manifesto dissemination across fringe message boards,” Decker told my CNN colleague Donie O’Sullivan.
We can begin to combat the hate movement by using frank language that doesn’t allow people, and especially White Americans, to distance themselves from what’s going on, according to Darby.
“This wasn’t an anomaly. And (the alleged gunman) wasn’t a ‘lone wolf.’ There’s no such thing,” she said. “The attack was a logical product of the world that (US society) has allowed people in positions of privilege – racial privilege, social privilege – to build. … Every time one of these things happens, other people and I have to say things like, ‘Of course this happened. It was incredibly predictable.’”
But embracing direct language is just a starting point.
“It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Darby said. “There’s a default to, ‘Well, this is a law enforcement problem. How are we going to hold him accountable?’ But we also should think about tech companies and government institutions and educational settings.”
She added, “We need to ask, ‘How do we lay the groundwork for a healthier society?’ And that work must come from every possible actor.”
The lives of innocent people – including those simply shopping for groceries – depend on it.