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Malignant ideas must be forced underground by an empowered citizenry

When those among us who embrace racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sexism, and homophobia are empowered, their forces grow and become stronger.

El Paso memorial
People gathered on Tuesday to pay their respects at a growing memorial of the mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas.
REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

The recent mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, was so clearly a hate crime that it will be prosecuted as an act of domestic terrorism. The killer, brought to justice without the use of force, wrote a racist and xenophobic public letter that began, “In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

A Hispanic invasion of Texas. How ironic. Between 1846 and 1848, the U.S. fought an aggressive war with Mexico; when our troops occupied Mexico City, our Congress debated taking all of Mexico (not just the northern regions), and we claimed one-third of our current continental land mass. At the conclusion of this war, we made citizens of the Mexicans who lived in the newly won territories.

Among the many changes needed to ensure that our current scourge of racist violence ends is to begin teaching our young people U.S. history in a way that dispenses with mythology while explaining our sordid legacy of racism and expansionism and our positive legacy as a beacon democracy and liberty — because we are both.

A climate of fear

The shooter in El Paso was motived by reading the Great Replacement, a favorite among white nationalists, and source of the chant heard in Charlottesville during the Unite the Right Rally in 2017: “Jews will not replace us.” Almost certainly the killer was also influenced by President Trump’s repeated references to an invasion of the U.S. from the Mexican border. Clearly, he was familiar with many national leaders who have joined the president in promoting a climate of fear regarding Latino peoples. And, surely, he was empowered by the silence of so many good people who either look the other way or are afraid to get involved.

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His manifesto notes that his hatred of brown people predated the election of the president, but when Donald Trump began his campaign in 2015 by stating that  Mexicans are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” this killer was an impressionable 17-year-old high school student.

Recently, FBI Director Christopher Wray noted that a majority of domestic terrorist violence is perpetrated by white supremacists who harbor hatred toward people of color and religious minorities like Muslims and Jews. The most recent FBI report notes a threefold increase in hate-related crimes in the U.S. since 2016.

White supremacists are increasingly above ground and growing. In recent months we have seen anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and white supremacist violence directed at black and brown folk. The Unite the Right Rally marked a high point in attempting to legitimize and unite violent far-right hate groups. Clearly since 2016, these violent extremists feel empowered to crawl out from under their rocks.

Overt racism for most of U.S. history

I was alive when overt racism was above ground and empowered. Indeed, for most of U.S. history, from our founding in 1787 until the early 1970s, U.S. politicians ran and won on overtly bigoted and racist platforms. Ten of our first 12 presidents were slave owners, and every American president from the founding to the final Indian wars at the end of the 19th century supported an explicit policy of violent removal, war, and genocide against indigenous nations. At various times, the U.S. government has enthusiastically embraced Chinese exclusion, Japanese internment, Jim Crow  segregation, Indian boarding schools, the criminalization of consensual sex between same-sex couples, and marital rape. Well into our own time, extraordinary levels of discrimination have been tolerated by U.S. politicians, north and south.

Jeff Kolnick
Jeff Kolnick
Starting in the 1970s, white politicians had to find new ways to appeal to racist voters and at the same time, white supremacist organizations went underground.

In 1981, Lee Atwater, who served as the deputy director of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign, as manager of George H. W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign, and as the chair of the Republican National Committee, explained things with compete clarity: “You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. … ‘We want to cut this’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Must be driven underground

Malignant ideas cannot be killed or banished. They can and must be forced underground by an empowered citizenry that ostracizes those who advocate hate and intolerance. When those among us who embrace racism, nativism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, sexism, and homophobia are empowered, their forces grow and become stronger.

Once again, all of us who embrace love and oppose hate need to assert ourselves. Author Toni Morrison, who died on Monday, reminded us that “there is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

So get busy, readers of MinnPost. I will shed my despair, abandon my self-pity, and speak without fear. Who will join me?

Jeff Kolnick, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Southwest Minnesota State University. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his own.


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