Updated: May 19
The African American Policy Forum sends our deepest condolences to the families of the ten Black Americans murdered in the racially motivated attack this past weekend in Buffalo, New York. Our prayers are with all the victims of this outrage. We honor the names of those slain:
Roberta A. Drury of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 32
Margus D. Morrison of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 52
Andre Mackneil of Auburn, N.Y. – age 53
Aaron Salter of Lockport, N.Y. – age 55
Geraldine Talley of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 62
Celestine Chaney of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 65
Heyward Patterson of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 67
Katherine Massey of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 72
Pearl Young of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 77
Ruth Whitfield of Buffalo, N.Y. – age 86
We also acknowledge the collective trauma that these murders have visited upon the Black community along with all marginalized populations. The Buffalo massacre drives home for millions of us the horrifying reality that we must once again live under the threat that racial terrorism can take our lives at any place, at any time.
It is a threat that many of this weekend’s victims were born into, lived through, and surely hoped was behind them.
In 1936, the year that 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield was born, the symbol of the NAACP’s nationwide campaign against racial terror was a banner hung from the window of its New York office every day a Black person was lynched. That year alone, eight Black people were lynched, and countless more lost their lives to other forms of racially motivated violence.
The passage of time has amplified the belief that the virulent racism of the past would eventually become a relic of it. As the twentieth century concluded, many believed that the formal repudiation of white supremacist values embodied in our law and our culture would support a truly multiracial democracy and that Black people could go about their daily lives without the worry that their lives could be taken in a fit of racist rage. Racial terrorism would die out with the generations weaned on it—or so the more hopeful among us believed.
But those hopes cannot survive in a world in which an American child, born just four years before the election of President Barack Obama, was so wholly indoctrinated into a lethal narrative of white victimhood that he became a weapon of Black destruction. That NAACP banner from the early 20th century has become unmoored from a distant and forsaken past in the nightmare now before us. No longer a historical marker of outgrown bigotries, hatreds, and terror, it flashes across our consciousness in this here-and-now moment of collective grief. This symbol of the past reminds us that if our nation cannot confront the imperative of dismantling white supremacy root and branch, the bloodletting will not end with the terror inflicted last weekend.
To label the white supremacist attack at Tops Friendly Market as a mass lynching might seem to be an inapt use of the term. After all, lynching is typically a mob activity, an act of brutal savagery that reflects the bloodlust of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people. Its gruesome images stand as an everlasting indictment of the nation, demonstrating in terrifying immediacy that the land of the free and home of the brave has never been that for the descendants of the enslaved.
At the same time, it bears noting that racial terrorism is and always has been a group activity. The elements of lynchings past—the mobs that once dragged Black people through the streets, the politicians who called for blood, the local newspapers that gleefully stirred the cauldron, the moderates, North and South, who dawdled and excused while men, women, and children posed in front of tortured and mutilated bodies—are not visible in the ways they were in the past. But in the 21st century, just as the rope has been replaced by new, more lethal weapons of choice, the agents of past lynchings—the crowds, the enabling politicians, and the willfully negligent referees of public discourse—have been supplanted by a new cohort of white-supremacist ideologues who amplify their message of fear-filled aggression across the airwaves and throughout the digital mediasphere.
Predictably, some in the mainstream media have sought to contain the magnitude of this lethal spasm of racist violence by defining the perpetrators as “lone wolves” or as psychologically unstable individuals. Do not be deceived. This terrorism is a byproduct of a calculated effort to enshrine the deadliest impulses from the past into a treasure trove of right-wing power across the political landscape. Grievances grounded in a mythic America—whitewashed and sanitized to the specifications of the likes of Tucker Carlson and a retinue of funders, enablers, and consumers—underwrite a racist call to arms. For some, this is not rhetorical.
It is well known that the 18-year-old terrorist posted a hate-filled manifesto online that professed allegiance to the fascist doctrine known as the great replacement theory. White nationalist demagogues have seized upon the long-standing fable that white people are under imminent threat from an orchestrated campaign of demographic replacement by non-white people. While the name of the theory might have been imported from France, the sentiments and actions undertaken under its influence are all-American. In the U.S., the us-versus-them narrative at the root of this so-called theory has long justified racism, disenfranchisement, terrorism, and even treason as white self-defense.
This murderous brand of white supremacy has spurred mass killings of Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand, Jews praying in synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Latinos shopping in El Paso, Texas, Black Americans in church in Charleston, South Carolina, Asian Americans in Atlanta, Georgia, and across our country —and now again, Black Americans, this time at a community grocery store in Buffalo.
White supremacy is now a mainstream article of faith in today’s Republican party. Polls show that nearly half of GOP-aligned voters endorse replacement theory, and roughly one-third of all Americans agree with a replacement-theory analysis. The normalization of white supremacy has been facilitated not only by politicians spouting white endangerment rhetoric and by the social-media platforming of white nationalism, but by mainstream media’s stolid commitment to both-sidesism and whataboutism—together with its failures to critically engage the moral panics rooted in white grievance.
In the coming days, many of those who have been silent in the face of this cynical use of racism will urge calm and understanding. They will call for the nation to engage in prayerful compassion while embracing a narrative that we are still on the way to a promised land of racial justice. Mainstream media will attend, for a short time, to the white supremacist juggernaut that has become just another political formation on the national landscape.
These sentiments will be understandable, and even welcomed. But as a people reeling now from the growing rapid recentering of white supremacist politics, we must question what they will offer beyond sympathizing gestures? How will action meet prayers for the nation’s future?
In urging us to resist racial hatred and recrimination, will they acknowledge the impossibility of overcoming a problem deeply rooted in our soil if we cannot name it, learn its history, and understand its contemporary consequences? Will they confront head-on the challenge of fighting back if the tools, techniques, and imperatives to excavate the racial foundations on which we stand have been demonized and targeted by the same provocateurs promoting replacement theory?
Will the agendas emerging from this moment acknowledge the need to do away with the gag laws which forbid teaching our children the truth about racism in American history, its embedded inequalities, its violence, and other uncomfortable subjects? If we are to uproot this ugliness, how will the laws that have grown out of the same soil of white replacement theory be addressed?
In their focus on Tucker Carlson and Fox News, will they connect the more than 400 episodes that featured replacement theory on his show to his relentless crusade against critical race theory and the campaigns to eliminate an honest reckoning with America’s racial past and present in American public schools and workplaces?
Will they go beyond denouncing the easily visible dimensions of racism to address its ongoing structural dimensions? Will they acknowledge that white supremacy not only whetted the killer’s appetite to murder Black people but corralled them into segregated and under-resourced spaces, making their homes and neighborhoods easy hunting grounds for individual and institutional predators alike?
Anti-racism requires much more than repudiating murderous intentions or embracing proclamations of colorblindness. Dismantling the many legacies of white supremacy requires an educated and clear-eyed public, which is precisely what the purveyors of white panic are attempting to bully out of existence.
The United States can neither know nor heal itself if its self-narrative is dictated by the white nationalist right, its political and deep-pocket enablers, and those who stand aside as the march toward racialized violence and authoritarianism passes by. We cannot recover if the decision-makers, opinion leaders, elected officials, editors, and others remain silent and uninvolved in the face of the right’s effort to make anti-racism yet another casualty in their one-sided cultural war.
Racial terrorism has never existed apart from the ideologies that justified it, even if white supremacy’s more genteel advocates seek to distance themselves from it. We cannot shake our heads and hope that the emerging white supremacist juggernaut will go away without investing in the complete and accurate history of these United States that reflects our antiracist values.
This is not a feel-good luxury. Where white supremacy prevails, American democracy cannot. #TruthBeTold, we have to fight like our lives depend on it because there is no safety in a society that protects access to unlimited arms while tolerating the suppression of its inconvenient truths.