“It has happened again,” the media cried after a young white man picked up an assault rifle and waged war against his neighbors. This time, he took his gun to a shopping market in a historically Black neighborhood in Buffalo on a Saturday afternoon. There, he shot and killed 10 people.
Now, our racial violence-weary nation will wonder how long this bloodshed will continue. “How can we ever stop these tragedies from occurring?” pundits will ask. But already, as Chuck Todd from NBC’s Meet the Press made clear with his early coverage, our nation’s press will largely fail to meet this moment — just as they’ve done countless times before.
And that’s because we too often don’t focus on the most important fact: That the perpetrator is a white supremacist. He is a killer for a cause, and his cause is keeping white people in power.
In March 2020, the FBI found themselves in a shootout with a white supremacist who they believed was planning to blow up a local hospital at the height of the pandemic. The FBI had been tracking 36-year-old Timothy Wilson for months, and the agency was planning to arrest him before he had a chance to enact his murderous plot. But during the exchange of gunfire, Wilson turned his gun on himself and ended his life. The FBI had first stumbled across Wilson while surveilling a wholly different white suprmemacist who was also planning his own acts of domestic terror against non-white people. Jarrett Smith was an active duty Army soldier stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas who had talked about his plan to bomb a news network.
These cases, along with the most recent example in Buffalo — the shooter of which claimed to pull inspiration from the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019 — highlight how a vast, loosely affiliated international network of white supremacists are motivating each other and providing intel for mass violence in the name of defending whiteness.
Like the media and federal law enforcement, our political leaders have largely failed to grasp or adequately address the threat of these foot soldiers for white supremacy. But in a joint hearing in 2019, in the long wake of Charlottesville, Representative Jamie Raskin from Maryland pointed out just how much they’ve overlooked, calling violent white supremacy “the nation’s original sin.” Raskin then brought out a map of all recent acts of white supremacist violence — Charleston, Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and so on — and connected the national wave to an international trend of the same thing.
“The El Paso gunman’s manifesto exemplifies the intricate new web of global white supremacy,” Raskin explained. “The manifesto celebrated another infamous white supremacist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a gunman, loaded up on race hate, assassinated 51 people at two mosques earlier this year. The Christchurch killings inspired the murder in Poway. The Christchurch shooter himself took inspiration from racist mass murderers in Charleston, in London, in Quebec City and in Sweden.”
Since 2011, a third of white supremacist attacks have been modeled after an earlier attack somewhere else in the world. “The manifestos and tactics reveal that these are not isolated episodes,” Raksin continued. “To the contrary, these incidents of spectacular violence are committed by embittered men who self-radicalize online and see themselves as participating in the launch of a global race war.”
Kathleen Belew of the University of Chicago also explained at the hearing that white supremacists have long benefited from being described as “lone wolves.” According to Belew, the operational strategy is called leaderless resistance and dates back to the early 1980s. “This is most easily understood today as cell-style terrorism meant to bring about race war in which a network of small cells and activists could work in concert toward a commonly shared goal with no communication with one another and with no direct ties to movement leadership,” she testified. “Now, this was designed to foil prosecution, but leaderless resistance has had a much more catastrophic impact in clouding public understanding of white power as a social movement.”
This misunderstanding extends all the way to the FBI. As Raskin explained, the Bureau has been unwilling to confront the violent nature of white supremacist violence, preferring instead to pursue more familiar targets. In particular, 2018 FBI documents showed that the Bureau considered Black identity extremists to be as high a threat priority as white supremacists, which helps explain why over 70 percent of planned acts for white supremacist violence come to fruition — they’re not a priority for law enforcement.
So, how do we stop this white supremacist network of hate and its waves of violence? And how do we tear down belief in the Great Replacement Theory when our law enforcement fails to recognize its own racist brutality and when Americans are divided over whether to even teach racism in the classroom?
It can feel at times like racism is a persistent evil that will always be with us. But that’s not necessarily the case. As the author and scholar Barbara Smith wrote for the Boston Globe in 2020:
“What would happen if we began an honest national dialogue about the disaster of white supremacy? What if we consistently used the words ‘white supremacy’ so that everyone would have accurate language for conceptualizing what is actually going on? The way we describe this problem matters. For example, ‘systemic racism’ clearly conveys the pervasiveness of racial oppression, but white supremacy goes further, by indicating that there is a rigid nexus of power that protects and enforces it.
“What if we launched an initiative on the scale of the Marshall Plan or the space race to eradicate white supremacy? What if it were led by experts with the most detailed knowledge of how white supremacy, in tandem with racial capitalism, operates — that is, poor and working-class people of color? What if these experts partnered with researchers, advocates and practitioners to provide exhaustive documentation, analysis and comprehensive recommendations for ending the scourge of white supremacy once and for all? What if…?”
Of course, the “we” here isn’t Smith, me or other people of color. It’s white Americans. The tremendous violence will be allowed to continue unless they push for the kind of change Smith is talking about. After all, whiteness is a social construction — one that can be created and lived, and one that can be discarded. Every single life lost to another young white man with an assault gun — who works in concert with violent foot soldiers around the globe — should be a reminder for them.
White supremacists, whether you like it or not, are fighting for you, white people. Are you going to let them?