Zip Code 14208
In May 14, a young white supremacist armed with a semi–automatic assault rifle traveled over 200 miles to the zip code 14208, which seemed an ideal place for implementing his plan to kill black people. Within driving distance from his hometown, the neighborhood has the highest percentage black population of any ZIP code in upstate New York—78%.
Tragically, his plan “worked” and by the end of the day, he had killed ten people and wounded three more. The murderous assault in zip code 14208 has created the most recent place in the US to be stained in blood by deliberate and premediated violence by white people against black people. The events in Buffalo attracted national attention, galvanizing the media and the two traditional political parties, each offers a different explanation for these killings.
The Republican posture
On one hand, Republicans and rightwing news fabricators such as Fox broadcaster Tucker Carlson quickly tried to distance themselves from the fact that the shooter framed his actions in a written manifesto evoking the so–called Great Replacement Theory. (This is a set of concepts that sees the existence of all non–white people as a threat to white people’s wellbeing).
In the last decade, replacement theory has openly nourished the soul and intellect of Republican conservatives like Carlson who—on TV screens and political soap boxes, and behind religious pulpits—have disseminated the theory’s concepts. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pointed out repeated references to the theory, noting that replacement rhetoric has been used in Carlson’s show over 400 times.
A key element of Trump’s 2016 campaign was to promote the politics of fear and resentment among white audiences against immigrants and “bad hombres”.
In the face of the murders in Buffalo, these same individuals, crippled by hypocrisy, seek to remove themselves from ideological concurrence with the shooter. Carlson piously rushed to wash his hands in the baptismal font of Fox News, conveniently characterizing the events in Buffalo as the solitary expression of a mentally ill person.
As if the mental health condition of an individual can be understood in isolation from the mode in which a society is organized and operates. Carlson and other conservatives portray the motive for the murders in Buffalo as purely psychological, outside the cultural conditions of social reality.
Many Republicans appear to hope that by replacing the label attached to the motives for violence against black people, we will forget how these actions came to be and who needs to be held responsible.
Tragically, in another violent episode, nineteen elementary school children and two teachers were killed in Texas. In an attempt to deflect attention from research on how to prevent school shootings, Republican politicians pointed to the psychological instability of the individual shooter—even as they took the floor at the NRA conference.
Despite their claims, Democrats and the liberal press also don’t seem to understand how to address the systemic problem of violence against black people. Yes, some members of Congress and President Biden have condemned the killings. They’ve linked the ideology of white supremacy and the Great Replacement to the murders in Buffalo. But in terms of addressing the violence, Democrats have limited their response to characterizing replacement theory as “a lie.” In Biden’s words:
“The internet has radicalized angry, alienated, lost and isolated individuals into falsely believing that they will be replaced. I and all of you reject the lie. I call on all Americans to reject the lie. And I condemn those who spread the lie for power, political gain and profit.”
Exhortations condemning replacement theory are not enough. By itself, oral disapproval carries the same weight as the countless thoughts, flowers and prayers offered by politicians in reaction to violence and its victims. American history shows that the thoughts prove inconsistent, the flowers lose their color and the prayers never seem to reach the ears of an imperturbable and tone–deaf god.
The problem with “replacement theory”
The problem is not the fact that replacement theory is a big lie fabricated and sustained by the feverish brains of conservatives and racists. The problem is that it offers an incomplete, a–historical, and obfuscatory explanation of the causal driver of violence against black people.
The theory has its origins in early 1900s French nationalism and anti–Jewish positions. It wasn’t until 2011 with the publication of Renaud Camus’ Le Grand Replacement that the theory acquired its current status among rightwing movements around the world. At that point it began to play a role in racial hate crimes of which the Buffalo massacre is an example.
The roots of systemic violence by whites against blacks lie in the brutalizing atrocities of slavery. In 1619, twenty black people were the first human beings forced into slavery in the colony of Jamestown, Virginia. By 1865, around 10 million black people had lived as slaves in the US. Four million black people were living as slaves at the outbreak of the Civil War.
The National Museum of African American History in Washington DC helps make visible the overwhelming violence and brutality that assumed multiple forms in the system of slavery in which this country originated. Besides being an instrument of forced labor that underlies the development of American capitalism and American capitalists, centuries of slavery created an indelible culturally–induced disorder in the mind and behavior of white Americans.
Most white people have not deliberately sought out opportunities to murder black people. We nonetheless must recognize that violent behaviors directed against black people in the US have managed to morph and survive for four hundred years.
After the formal end of slavery in 1865, violence against black people did not come to a halt. Violence was pursued and implemented by other means. Jim Crow segregation laws established a system of ‘debt peonage’—the involuntary servitude of black laborers. That system was violently reinforced by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations who regularly engaged in lynching, beatings, and burnings.
It wasn’t until 1964 that the US Senate passed the Civil Rights Act, in spite of violent acts meant to repress the Civil Rights Movement. White Republican Senators who opposed the bill were forced to witness their colleagues formally acknowledging ending discrimination in the work place, public accommodations and facilities, federal funding and in schools. Along with making discrimination in voter registration illegal, in the words of Senator Dirksen, it was “an idea whose time has come.” Soon after, the leadership of the black movement was beheaded: Malcom X in 1965, and M. L. King in 1968.
The time is yet to come when the US eliminates race–thinking and violence against black people. The election of Barak Obama in 2009 and 2013 provided an important change in the racial symbol operating from the White House (a term borrowed from Cornel West).
And yet systemic violence against black people continues, as evidenced by the US criminal justice system and incidents of police brutality. Today, 38% of the people in prison are black, yet black people account for only 12.4 % of the US population. According to a study quoted by Black intellectual Keenga–Yamatha Taylor, between 2010 and 2012, young black men ages fifteen to nineteen were twenty–one times more likely than their white peers to be killed by police.
In the civil arena, there are more than thirty white nationalist organizations currently operating in the US. Two years ago, massive protests over the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer formed a “splinter in the eye” that magnified the continuity of violence against black people.
A white American cultural habit?
If we define a habit as “a settled or regular practice that is hard to give up,” then from the historical glimpse provided above, we can conclude that there is an established, traceable, practice of white people using violence against black people.
In many instances this violence has been reinforced, ignored or denied by state institutions. Just as we cannot attribute this behavior to individual white people, we cannot deny the evidence that such practices exist and are closely related to the ideology of white supremacy.
Thoughts, flowers, and prayers are insufficient. Serious political change is required; change that. sustains political engagement even when it seems hopeless. We must give “replacement” theory a new meaning, one that replaces systemic exploitation, racism and inequality with one based on social equity, justice, and human solidarity. Those should be our national habits.
Enrique Quintero is a member of the WIP Publishing Committee