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The gunman who shot and killed at least 22 people in El Paso, Texas, on Aug. 3 had a motive for taking 20 innocent lives. It was white supremacy, and he made that clear in a manifesto he wrote before committing the heinous act.
In a four-page document titled “The Inconvenient Truth” and apparently uploaded by him to 8chan, he said the attack was a response to the proliferation of Hispanics in Texas. He said it was a defense against an invasion.
The similarities between the El Paso shooter’s written words and rhetoric so often used by President Donald Trump are glaring. “We must call the El Paso shooting what it is: Trump-inspired terrorism,” the Guardian contributor David Schanzer declared, drawing the connection between Trump’s inciteful, racist language and the ideology spewed by white terrorists like the El Paso shooter.
Others have pointed to the truth that Trump’s language resonates with white supremacists, citing the fact that there has been a drastic increase in hate crimes in counties that hosted 2016 Trump rallies.
Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border. Please go back, you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2018
Since Trump began his campaign, he relied on stoking fears and racism to win and gain power. Now that doing so has ignited a firestorm of violence, the president is distancing himself from the very deep-seated racism he exploited.
“In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy,” Trump said in a press conference on Monday. “These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America.”
Trump’s speech is a turning point for this country. Finally, it seems that at least ostensibly, there is a nearly unanimous declaration that racism and white supremacy must be eradicated. Politicians on the left and right (and even Ivanka Trump) have tweeted as much.
White supremacy, like all other forms of terrorism, is an evil that must be destroyed.— Ivanka Trump (@IvankaTrump) August 4, 2019
Yet it is very unclear how America and its politicians intend on addressing racism and white supremacy moving forward. After all, what is white supremacy? How should it be addressed and eventually eradicated?
What is white supremacy?
Racism is a social system wherein individuals are subjugated or elevated based on their race. In the U.S., that social system is founded on white supremacy, or the belief that white people are superior to other groups.
“How do we explain the persistence of racism in American society?” Dr. Ravi Perry, chair and professor of political science at Howard University, rhetorically asked the Daily Dot. “We point to the cacophony of ways in which whiteness was reinforced in American political institutions, beginning with the degradation of non-whites in the Constitution as less than human.”
From the moment Europeans arrived in the U.S., the ideology of white superiority was used to justify the European take over of the country (i.e., manifest destiny) as well as egregious abuses against other people of color, including the genocide of the Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. This ideology was the foundation upon which the nation was built, and it eventually became codified in the law in 1790 when the U.S. Congress limited citizenship to whites despite the Constitution declaring “all men are created equal.”
“White supremacist ideology, since its roots in chattel based slavery, has sought to ensure those rights extend only to those they have unilaterally chosen to believe are inherently better, more righteous, more American than all other races,” Perry explained.
Throughout history, American activists have fought hard to push against white supremacy with the abolitionist movement to end slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, and more recent movements like Black Lives Matter and the natural hair movement—among many.
But the ideology of white supremacy remains stubbornly omnipresent and powerful. It can be found at the roots of everything, from America’s beauty standards (which hold white beauty as the ideal and even go so far as to criminalize Black hair) to Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, redlining, the wealth gap, employment, housing and education discrimination, cultural appropriation and commodification, immigration law, and so much more.
“To this day, we live in a country whose foundation lies in racially based slavery,” Perry explained. “It is white supremacist ideology that dangerously works to ensure this discrimination maintains its grip on society.”
The inconvenient truth is that white supremacy is more than a fringe ideology. It is the very foundation of society. Eradicating it means America must take a good hard look at itself and its roots—and be willing to make radical changes. White America must be ready and willing to take a deep dive into its own collective psyche; it’s a fearful one, strife with angst reflected in the El Paso shooter’s own thoughts.
White fear, guilt, anger, hate, and xenophobia are all manifestations of America’s continued inability to reconcile its wrongs against people of color—wrongs done to maintain white power, dominance, and control at all cost, including the cost of unity and peace.
- Living with the constant threat of death as a Black American
- White feminism is fertile ground for white nationalism
- Beto can’t leverage his slave owner ancestry to gain Black voters’ trust
- We need to change the way we talk about police killing Black people
How can the U.S. eradicate white supremacy?
At the root of America’s system of white supremacy is its original sin: slavery. There is a very clear connection between America’s exceptional economic power, slavery, and the ideology of white supremacy used to justify it and codify it into the law. Upon arrival to America, enslaved Africans were not classified as humans but instead as animals with no rights. Despite having no individual rights, slaves empowered southern politics.
The three-fifths compromise counted slaves as three-fifths of a person when determining a state’s total population for legislative representation. In this way, southern states were able to gain more power and perpetuate the system. Enslaved Africans generated wealth for whites for centuries before being “freed” by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. But true freedom never came. In the century that followed, both Black Code and Jim Crow laws were established to maintain that power and control over the newly freed Black population. An underclass was established, and a division between “white” and “black”—the haves and the have-nots—was cemented. As more groups came to America, they sought assimilation into whiteness to escape the treacherous reality of what it means to be Black. The result was a system of racial stratification wherein all the wealth and power remain at the top, reserved for whites.
Today, that system has resulted in damning economic and social inequality. While families of color will soon comprise the majority of the population, they continue to lag behind white families in terms of wealth and political power. In 2014, the median net worth of non-Hispanic white households was $130,800. For Hispanic households, the median wealth was $17,530, and in Black households, $9,590. That gap between white and Black families continues to widen, exacerbated by the student loan crisis, homeownership loss, and continued employment discrimination. And despite making incredible political gains (and even making it into the White House), people of color remain underrepresented in politics.
America can begin on its long journey to eradicating white supremacy by atoning for its original sin of slavery and closing the wealth gap. While it is important to collectively condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy, this nation must take action to undo the many ways those ideologies have been woven into society. For this reason, scholars and activists have long been calling for reparations—an apology from America for its original sin of slavery and long history of racist discrimination—as well as legislation to address and close the wealth gap and protect voters and immigrants.
To defeat the ideologies of hate that have gripped this country for so long, Trump (and all others who hold political power) must fight to create the very America the El Paso shooter feared: an America where freedom, justice, and liberty finally prevails over white supremacy. And if he and others in seats of power refuse to do so, it is up to the American people to vote for candidates who are up for the difficult task.
“While we can not eradicate the causes of racist ideology and its persistence in our hearts, we can ensure our educational, religious, and government institutions reflect the fullness of that which is truly American,” Perry said. “The fundamentally best way to ensure this happens is to use voting rights earned through protest and struggle to cast ballots of justice, not ballots of bigotry.”
This post has been updated.
Tiffanie Drayton is a geek culture and lifestyle reporter whose work covers everything from gender and race to anime and Xbox. Her work has appeared in Complex, Salon, Marie Claire, Playboy, and elsewhere.