Gayatri Devi |
Perhaps the most disconcerting outcome of the fatal mass shooting at the Tops grocery store in Buffalo, New York on Saturday, May 14th that killed ten people and injured three is the fact that the media discourse is slowly but surely shifting the crux of the white attack in a black neighborhood into a generalized right-wing white supremacist malaise euphemistically described as the “Great Replacement Theory.”
Based on a manifesto allegedly written by the 18-year-old gunman, Payton Gendron, this framing argues that the shooter was a radicalized white supremacist who shared the belief with other extreme right-wing groups that people of color, immigrants, and Jews are replacing the white, Christian population of the United States. The shooting, this argument conveys, was to preserve the “dwindling white race.” Some discussions connect the Buffalo shooting to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the Christ Church Mosque shooting, the Pulse nightclub shooting, the January 6th Capitol insurrection, and even Fox News and other conservative and right-wing channels and ideologues. The racially motivated attack is framed as the outcome of a a sort of racialized white, Christian cultural anxiety.
While the Buffalo shooting is a racially motivated hate crime like the other hate crimes listed above, framing these shootings in the broader context of the Great Replacement Theory dangerously elides the concrete fact that Payton Gendron meticulously planned to kill African Americans in a predominantly Black neighborhood.
The Buffalo murders are more than one more pattern on the wall of right-wing extremism in America. These murders belong to the history of targeted murders of black people in this country from the time of the founding of this nation.
Eleven of the thirteen people shot were African Americans. The grocery store where the shootings took place was on the East Side of Buffalo, a predominantly African American neighborhood in a zip code with the highest percentage of Black population in the state of New York. The gunman had the N-word slur written on his gun. So, no, this shooting should not be cut to fit other hate crimes in Pittsburgh, Christ Church, or Washington D.C.
The Buffalo mass shooting is not a fascist, anti-semitic, Islamophobic, anti-LGBTQ killing. This mass murder is in line, most recently, with Dylann Roof’s 2015 racist killing of nine members of a black congregation during their prayer service at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Most importantly, it is in line with the murders of numerous black children, men and women shot and killed in America, most conspicuously by police officers, of whom some are convicted, while most are acquitted.
The Buffalo shooting should not “shock” the conscience of the nation, because American justice system has more frequently than not ignored the state-sanctioned murderous violence against African Americans. It is not right-wing ideology that created Payton Gendron. It is American history, past and present. It is a “national disdain for African Americans,” as historian Carol Anderson described it in her piercing analysis of the racial divide in the US, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (2017).
In a fundamental sense, it is a historical sleight of hand to ascribe racially motivated white homicidal violence against African Americans to “white supremacy” in the United States. Such an ascription makes white violence against African Americans—both historical and contemporary—into a more or less well-defined agenda of a specific club or group of people — aka, the white supremacists. It leaves the rest of American institutions off the hook. White supremacist attacks do not happen in a historical vacuum. White supremacy is an outcome of American policies, historical and current; policies that do not punish white violence against African Americans. White supremacy is an effect, not a cause.
Thus, targeted large scale white homicidal attacks on black communities are better understood as an unpunished American policy, rather than a white supremacist conspiracy. Seen in this light, the Buffalo attacks fit in with other large scale white attacks on black communities. The Red Summer of 1919 and the Tulsa massacre of 1921 are two concrete examples of white violence against black communities whose intent was to terrorize African American communities and destroy their social, cultural and economic autonomy; their black agency.
The Red Summer of 1919, so named by the African American poet and teacher James Weldon Johnson, saw widespread attacks against black veterans, black homes, schools, and businesses destroyed, and hundreds of African Americans murdered all across the nation by white rioters. Writing in the Crisis magazine for the NAACP, Johnson wrote about indifference at the highest level to violence against black communities in DC:
“I knew it to be true, but it was almost an impossibility for me to realize as a truth that men and women of my race were being mobbed, chased, dragged from street cars, beaten and killed within the shadow of the dome of the Capitol, at the very front door of the White House.”
The Equal Justice Institute’s extensive research on white attacks against black veterans and black soldiers demonstrates that black soldiers were disproportionately at risk for getting killed in the United States military. Just a year ago, in 2021, Fort Benning military base in Alabama dedicated a memorial to Private Felix Hall, a 19 year old African American soldier who was tortured and lynched inside the grounds of the base in 1941. Though FBI investigation at the time categorically declared his death to be a racially motivated murder, Maj. Gen. L. R. Fredenhall, the commander of Fort Benning in 1941 dismissed the finding, arguing instead that “colored soldiers receive exactly the same treatment here as whites.” In what has never been proved, Fredenhall contended that Hall’s death was a “sex murder rather than the result of any race feeling.” No one has ever been charged with Pvt. Hall’s murder.
It is too facile to say that the attacks on black veterans is the work of white supremacists. The fact that these murders are seldom brought to justice indicates that US military itself is racially antagonistic to black Americans. It is symptomatic of the refusal to share the power, prestige and position of a military uniform with a population still deemed “enslaved.”
Similarly, the 1921 Tulsa massacre was a direct attack on “black prosperity.” The riots, triggered by an unfounded rumor about a black teenage boy, a white teenage girl, and an elevator resulted in the looting and burning of black homes and businesses over 35 blocks of the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa known as the “Black Wall Street.” It resulted in the death of scores of African Americans. Like the 1919 massacres, the 1921 attacks were against black autonomy, black agency, and black economic competition. “White supremacy” is a vapid descriptor for such a concerted, coordinated, unpunished crime.
Finally, the 2022 Buffalo grocery store shooting is not the first white attempt to unleash massive, large-scale murder and destruction on an African American community in the state of New York. In the1863 New York City Draft Riots white men protesting the draft turned from demonstrating in front of the recruiting office to attack the African American neighborhoods in the city. White rioters shot, burned and hanged African Americans in different parts of New York city. They set fire to the colored orphan asylum. The estimated number of the dead in this deadly riot range from 150-600; the exact number is unknown.
White men in the north who did not want to fight in a war to liberate the enslaved African Americans in the south unleashed the full force of their rage on African Americans who had moved north in an evident display of their utter lack of concern for the freedom and rights of the enslaved people. This is ironic in the least, and criminal at the most, since the prosperity of the United States, and New York state, in particular, as the financial capital of the US, was completely built on the labor of the enslaved people. This was not white supremacy or the Ku Klux Klan against the abolitionists or the enslaved; this was white American rage directed at the possibility of African American freedom resulting in black autonomy in the fullest sense. Carol Anderson quotes from Leslie Harris’s extensive discussion of a white mob attack on an African American sailor during the draft riots:
“A group of white men and boys mortally attacked black sailor William Williams—jumping on his chest, plunging a knife into him, smashing his body with stones—while a crowd of men, women, and children watched. None intervened, and when the mob was done with Williams, they cheered, pledging “vengeance on every n—— in New York.”
In 1919, in the midst of the Red Summer riots, James Weldon Johnson noted that the riots ended only because African Americans “saved themselves and saved Washington by their determination not to run, but to fight—fight in defense of their lives and their homes.” This spirit lives on today in the Black Lives Matter movement. In March 2022, President Joe Biden and the 117th Congress signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law. In April 2022, the first African American female Judge was confirmed to the United States Supreme Court.
These are necessary steps to redress historical evils and to reward merit. But these are also acts of black agency, and, black recognition. As such, it is prudent to anticipate that each and any of these acts would precipitate more instances of deluded white rage against black communities.
This is the pedigree of Peyton Gendron. It is not white supremacy, or the Great Replacement Theory of a “dwindling white race.” It is not a culture war. It is historical white American rage at black autonomy.
Gayatri Devi is Professor of English at Savannah College of Art and Design. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.