White Racism Is The Greatest Threat to American Democracy


There is no greater threat to the safety of the American people or to the construction of a free society in the United States than white racism. It has always been this way. White racism fueled the slave society that devoured the bodies of human beings like so much kindling for the fire. White racism threw the country into the abyss of civil war, leaving 750,000 people dead. White racism powered the largest, deadliest, and most enduring terrorist organization in American history.

White racism closed ballot boxes in pursuit of power and split bodies open for sport. White racism built walls of concrete and imagination, bordering minds and communities, closing off opportunity, condemning the Einstein you never heard of to die in a dank prison cell.

White racism gives to Americans the most tangible knowledge we have of the reality of human depravity. It is the purest evil we know. White Americans, especially, live constantly in the intimate paradox of familiarity and denial of this knowledge. The manifestation of this intimate paradox is seen in our defensiveness, in our rote insistence that racism is both awful and, somehow, powerless in the face of our good intentions.

In recent days we’ve seen a Trump-loving man espousing white supremacy mail pipe bombs to Democratic politicians; a white man attempt to break into a predominantly black church before murdering two black people in a grocery store and allegedly declaring, “Whites don’t kill whites”; and now, today, an attack on a Jewish synagogue by a man reportedly enraged at Jewish efforts to welcome refugees.

Next Tuesday Republican voters in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District will vote for Steve King, all the while imagining that they oppose the violent racism we’ve witnessed this week. I wish they did. But that would require aligning their actions with their professed intentions. It is sobering to realize that the vast majority of these people are entirely sincere. Indeed, it is through reckoning with their sincerity that we can glimpse how whiteness works.

White Americans learn from an early age to lie to ourselves. We acquire this skill alongside language and basic motor functions as a necessary part of being able to move through the world at ease with ourselves. Because we’ve learned that racism is Very Bad™ we must insist that it does not stain us. Yet because we are actually quite familiar with its rhythms and logic—learned as we navigated the built environment itself, went to school and home and church, taken in through jokes and side remarks, understood in what was unsaid— we must insist that racism is something like being impolite.

Racism is too bad to attach itself to us; it is too familiar to be that bad. And so white racism in the white American imagination is imagined as rudeness or mean-spiritedness, rather than a deadly evil that destroys lives by the thousands.

So while Steve King talks about his white supremacist convictions with all the subtlety of a blaring fire alarm, Republican voters will support him. And while Donald Trump spews toxic mixtures of racism, violence, and conspiracy theory, those who share his views take it to heart and are emboldened to murder people. We saw it last year in Charlottesville. We’re seeing it again this week.

Meanwhile, ordinary white people in places like rural Iowa, people who wouldn’t hurt a fly, will go on lying to themselves, imagining that that they don’t bear responsibility for this week’s events. They’ll go on saying they support Trump’s policies but not some of his rhetoric, as if racist incitement to violence is a minor matter of etiquette. They’ll go on playing roulette with other people’s lives, never having to face the lies that let them live in peace. More people must die, they have decided, so that we white Americans can live comfortably in our own skin.

Was Las Vegas the Deadliest Mass Shooting in Modern American History?

Greenwood burns as white Tulsans attack, June 1, 1921.

All over the media today it’s being reported that last night’s horrific shooting in Las Vegas is the deadliest in modern American history. Is this true? It depends on your criteria. If we’re speaking specifically of a lone actor using guns to attack civilians, it does indeed appear to be so. If we’re speaking more broadly of groups of people using guns to attack other Americans, it definitely is not.

There have been several incidents of non-military civilian attacks on fellow American citizens that have produced higher death tolls. I’m not sure how many. Among them are:

The attacks in Elaine, Arkansas in 1919.

The Colfax Massacre during Reconstruction.

The invasion of Greenwood in 1921.

In all of these cases, white citizens used mass firepower to attack black citizens and murder dozens or hundreds.

Why does this matter? The place of yesterday’s awful violence in the sweep of American history is not merely a matter of historical trivia. There are substantive questions involved in how we label it. While it seems to be the deadliest single-shooter event, it is important that we speak and think about it in ways that do not erase our longer inheritance of mass violence.

This is so not only because it is important to remember what we have overcome, but so that we might think historically and morally about the violence of our own time. The massacres in Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Arkansas—together with the broader ritualized murder and terrorist violence of which they were a part—often seemed to contemporaries to be forces of nature.  Defenders of white murderers could imagine them as mere cogs in the inevitable and eternal struggle between the races. Instead of personal and social responsibility, there was only natural enmity between black and white. Massacres might be unfortunate, but weren’t they bound to happen?

Even those who wanted to eradicate the scourge of white supremacist violence found it difficult to imagine how it could come to an end. I’m reminded of the great anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells’ agonized cry: “Oh God, when will these massacres stop?”

But they did stop. The kind of mass violence that was a routine feature of American life from the 1870s to the 1920s doesn’t really happen anymore. The bloodletting was not, after all, inexorable. It wasn’t a force of nature. It reflected power relations. And its solutions were political. Black people moved to the North and gained some political leverage. They organized across the country and raised the economic costs of white supremacy. They formed coalitions and eventually broke the back of the white supremacist caucus in Congress. The violence receded.

In our time, mass shootings by lone actors are not forces of nature. They reflect contemporary power relations—most obviously the obscene influence of the gun lobby in Republican politics. The solutions are not beyond us. They only require political courage.