The time to stop equivocating about racism, specifically white supremacy, and the danger it poses to both our country and its residents, was years ago. I would settle for right now, decades too late. Not simply too late to address the problem, but too late to save the thousands of lives it has cost, as many of us pretended that racism is no longer an issue in this country.
Last weekend’s El Paso shooting claimed the lives of 22 people. This horrendous attack was motivated by a desire to target and eliminate Mexicans, based on racist fears and anger over immigration. The shooter could not have known whether the elderly people he killed were immigrants or Latinos. He could not have known the document status of Andre Anchondo, who died protecting his wife, Jordan, who died protecting their infant son.
This act of murder was not about legal or illegal immigration. It was about an indiscriminate rage against people our elected officials and talking media heads describe as “invaders” —\!q just the way this terrorist did. These are the actions of a person whose level of violence is statistically rare, but not nearly rare enough. Such terrorists are supported by an ideology of childish mythologizing about the history of the United States.
The notion is that white people — all the descendants of European immigrants — have some special claim to this land, this country and its culture or borders because of their brief history on its shores, or because of some unfounded cultural or biological merit. This is stupid, a kind of inanity made only more ironic by the fact that these people believe they inherited this claim from their ancestors while inheriting none of the debts incurred by the frightening, racist actions of those ancestors. Why would they think otherwise? They believe that these actions — slavery, internment, land theft, race riots, redlining — are natural and unobjectionable.
I write this not to make a list of grievances but to accomplish two objectives. First, to acknowledge the irony with which persons of color in the United States must live. Our president refers to some of us as invaders, equivocates about the sort of people who march with torches shouting “Jews will not replace us,” and trash-talks our communities and calls them “infested.”
Members of Congress such as Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, cannot wrap their minds around what’s wrong with the sick ideologies of white supremacy and white nationalism. Somehow, starker rebukes are reserved for those persons of color — Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., for instance — who make incisive and necessary critiques of flaws in this country than white supremacists and their sympathizers.
Second, I seek to put to bed the idea that racism is not really a problem in America, with specific regard to racist violence.
In 2017, a white supremacist killed a black man in New York City with a sword because he hoped to spark a nationwide race war. The citations of acts of racist violence nationwide are many, but I needn’t bother to go outside of my area code to find it. In 2015, a white woman in Columbia screamed racial slurs and spit at an older black woman in a shopping center parking lot; when another black women intervened, the white woman shot her in the stomach. The white woman told police that the black victim “deserved it.” In 2018, a white man named Chad Merrill was killed in York County after coming to the defense of his black friend who was being accosted by racial slurs.
Racism is real. Hate is real. And, according to the FBI, white supremacist hate crimes and white nationalist activity are on the rise.
These racists present a credible threat to our lives and security, but also to our public spaces — the threat of terrorism and mass violence adds worries to the lives of all Americans. My hope is that readers will understand that these acts of race-based terror, and the ideology and rhetoric that buttress this kind of violence, are particularly harrowing for people of color.
In the wake of the most recent act of terror, people of color offered a level of mercy and grace that is almost unreasonable. While some people shout “send her back” because a black woman hurt their feelings, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said this to white supremacists — people who would murder her for being Hispanic given the opportunity — at a vigil last week:
“There is a mother waiting for you. I know it. I know there’s a teacher waiting for you, saying, ‘What happened to my kid?’ ‘What happened to my friend?’ And we will always be here and hold space for you to come back. We will love you back. You are not too far gone.”
My challenge is not directed to violent white supremacists; it is to those reading this. The next time you are confronted with the chance to intervene against racism, the next time you hear language or rhetoric that dehumanizes people based on their race or nationality, will you do something? Or will you stand idly by while racists normalize hate crimes?
The time to choose is now.
Ismail Smith-Wade-El is a member of Lancaster City Council.