Saturday’s massacre of ten people at a supermarket in a Black neighborhood in Buffalo is not an anomaly. The rhetoric and hate that informed the murderous rage of 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron is not an anomaly. Gendron is the product of generations of hate and fear. He is the product of a country that would prioritize civility and fake gestures on important days of reflection.
A mistake that continues to be made is treating white supremacy as only a fringe ideology or something disconnected from mainstream American life. It’s built into the American fabric in varying degrees. And is reflected in the misguided belief that people “on both sides” should receive equal time and access without pushback or correction.
Gendron choosing to drive hours from his hometown to a Black community in Buffalo is connected to the violence in Charlottesville, Va, nearly five years ago. It’s seen in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol just last year or the brutal murder of people worshipping in Pittsburgh, Christchurch, New Zealand and Charleston, SC.
Gendron’s behavior is indicative of a broader issue within American society that won’t go away with thoughts and prayers. We won’t prevent new Gendrons, Dylan Roofs or Kyle Rittenhouses by proclaiming their behavior as not being reflective of the real America. The real America is ugly and racist and demands a commitment to dismantling white supremacy, not tinkering around the edges while pretending it doesn’t exist.
White Supremacist Violence Isn’t New
White supremacist violence inflicted upon Black communities is not new. Neither is the hate-filled rhetoric and disinformation that is pumped into the minds of people like Gendron.
America is not only infested with white terrorism; it was created by it. As journalist Monique Judge wrote earlier this month, White vigilante terror is a part of American history. It’s a part of American history that Republicans have tried very hard to ban students from learning about.
Damon Hewitt, president and executive director for the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, put the Buffalo supermarket massacre in the historical context of white supremacy in America.
“This tragedy was not an anomaly, but the latest instance in a long, painful history of white supremacist violence in America,” Hewitt said. “The same ideology that fueled this shooter is the same that killed Ahmad Arbery, James Byrd, Jr., Lt. Richard W. Collins III, and Emmett Till. It is the same evil that took the lives of Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015; attacked Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama exactly 61 years to the date; and lynched thousands of men, women, and children for centuries.”
And while labeling white supremacist violence as domestic terrorism may feel right, such calls need to balance the potential implementation of such policies with the impact on marginalized communities. In the aftermath of the January 6 Capitol attack, prominent civil rights organizations urged the Biden administration to pursue existing federal statutes and available tools to combat the threat.
“Violence perpetrated by white supremacist groups has been allowed to increase because federal law enforcement officials have chosen not to enforce the investigatory and prosecutorial statutes already in place,” explained Sherilynn Ifill in a prior statement. “What we do not need is for Congress to undertake an unnecessary expansion of federal domestic terrorism statutes that will inevitably threaten the civil rights of Black communities and other communities of color.”
Despite white nationalist violence being declared a major domestic threat, the FBI has embraced the terminology racially-motivated violent extremists, which lumps in all other groups alongside white nationalists. Whitewashing the problem will never address the real threat.
Reflection Not Deflection Is Needed In This Moment
The fact that an 18-year-old drove hours away from his home, armed and dressed for war, requires a pause from the punditry and directly fanning the flames of racist violence. Words do matter, as do the actions we take in the aftermath of the Tops supermarket massacre.
Rushing to point to the possibility of mental illness or finding examples of non-white mass shooters all take away from a genuine problem that should not be ignored in favor of ratings or appearances of civility. Outliers like the New York Subway shooter and the D.C. sniper, both Black, do not change the overwhelming evidence of encounters involving law enforcement killing people first and reflecting later. Otherwise routine situations, like a traffic stop, are turned into Black people’s final moments but violent white people are often taken alive without issue.
Another example of deflection is shouting about “Black-on-Black” crime. Dr. Bernice King made an excellent point when she admonished those who would point to the false narrative of “Black-on-Black” crime. The conditions that give rise to crime in Black and other communities of color are directly related to white supremacy and policies that have systemically disinvested, and some cases, destroyed opportunity.
Social Media Platforms Need to “Fix the Feed”
Social media and other tech platforms provide an excellent opportunity to communicate and engage with each other across long distances. The rapid delivery of information can be powerful. As of Sunday morning, reports indicated that a video of the massacre circulated on Facebook after being live-streamed on the gaming platform Twitch.
Social media platforms have a role to play in making sure the sites are not used to further hate or broadcast murder.
“Tech and media corporations who enable and profit from hate online and on the airwaves must do more to prevent hate groups from using their platforms to organize and mobilize,” Hewitt said. “Every elected official must speak out against racist hate and disavow white supremacists and hate groups. No more soft-pedaling and apologizing for hatred. No more excusing bigotry in the halls of government under the rhetoric of free speech. This is no time to sit on the fence. The time to act is now.”
Groups working at the intersection of technology and social justice want social media platforms to take greater steps. Recently the Change the Terms coalition challenged social media platforms to “fix the feed.” The group has three major demands:
– Fix the Algorithm: Stop promoting the most incendiary, hateful content
– Protect People Equally: Staff up to protect democracy for all, across all languages
– Show Us the Receipts: Disclose your business models and moderation practices
American Media Must Also Step Up
While many rush to point out how Fox News, and outlets like Newsmax and OAN, have provided fertile ground for the conspiracy theories and disinformation that cultivated Gendron’s hate, so-called liberal outlets also bear some responsibility. Refusing to call things racist or even pushing back on blatantly false comments provided a platform to normalize wild claims.
CNN, the New York times, the Washington Post, and various high-paid writers and pundits have allowed the conservative and right-wing guests to make outlandish claims and unfounded assertions. Dan Rather noted that the division and hate spewed need to be challenged, not given a platform to explain itself.
During the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Trevor Noah correctly pointed out the media’s role in democracy. The fabled fourth estate, American media cannot continue playing footsie with white supremacy under the guise of being “fair.” While major outlets wring their hands about how to win back conservative readers and audiences, there is a real need
If your profit model is dependent on allowing hate and disinformation to create chaos in society, it’s time for a value realignment. Allowing people from diverse groups to feel seen or heard should not come at the expense of the safety of others.
“Mainstream media has not simply been complicit in the mythologizing of this nation, but co-authors in creating a narrative that allows white supremacy to persist,” journalist Kirsten West Savali, iOne Digital’s vice president of content, expressed in a prior interview. “It has platformed, facilitated, and insulated white violence in this country. Black journalists had to push back against the sanitization of our truth-telling, who have had to fight every step of the way to expose a nation that has always lied about the depth and caliber of its character.”