How many people do white terrorists have to kill before America treats them as more dangerous than people of color? When asked after the recent massacre of Muslims in New Zealand whether he saw a growing threat from white nationalists, Donald Trump replied, “I don’t, really.” This from a man who frequently portrays people like me as a growing threat.
I have been threatening so many times—including one morning in November 2011, when I pulled into a CVS parking lot in North Philadelphia. To avoid the chill, I was wearing a black hoodie, much as Trayvon Martin wore a gray hoodie when he ambled to a convenience store a few months later. The peekaboo hole in my worn gray sweatpants revealed part of my ashy right knee. Nothing covered my brown skin or my long locks. In retrospect, I was a bull’s-eye for bigots.
Walking toward the front entrance, I noticed a police car parked near it. As I entered the CVS, I told myself that I had no time to be nosy; there was no need to threaten my own safety by looking into whatever had brought the cops there. I needed toothpaste, and I wanted to leave the store quickly so I could get to the barbershop down the street before the wait got too long. I wanted to get my hairline cleaned up.
Still warming my hands in the pouch of my sweatshirt, I kept my eyes focused down the aisles. In the corner of my field of vision, I saw someone approach—a white police officer. I slowly turned my head and noticed his hand gripping his gun, and fear gripping his reddening face.
This police officer could not have been suspecting me. I thought for a second to look behind me. I’m glad I did not. A sudden movement from a black person before a fearful police officer can be a death sentence.
The police officer ordered me to take my hands out of my hoodie’s pouch. “Why?” I flippantly responded.
In America, the endangered are seen as dangerous. Police cars intensely patrol black neighborhoods. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents move in on Latino areas. Investigators spy on Muslim houses of worship.
In America, the dangerous are seen as endangered. Leaders treat white-nationalist terror not as a broad social ill, but as a fringe problem that will become extinct on its own. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very serious problems,” Trump said.
To portray white terrorism as an outlier is to ignore America’s entire racial history, not to mention its present. The FBI currently has approximately 900 open domestic-terror investigations. Researchers found that the ideology of white supremacy undergirded 78 percent of domestic-terrorist murders in 2018; Muslim extremists accounted for 2 percent. According to one study, white supremacists stepped up their propaganda efforts by a startling 182 percent in the United States in 2018.
Democratic politicians scorched President Trump for downplaying the white-terrorist threat with his words. But in their own way, they are downplaying the white-terrorist threat, too. Democrats have debated a Green New Deal to address climate change and Medicare for all to curb the health-care crisis, but none of the party’s presidential candidates or leading figures in Congress has put forth any major policy plan to counter the threat of white nationalism. Anti-bigotry resolutions without clear definitions are like institutional diversity statements—smoke screens for policy inaction.
Democrats and Republicans both distance themselves ideologically from the white nationalists unleashing violence from Charleston to Parkland to Pittsburgh. Mainstream Americans show up again and again to the public funeral—as they did after the New Zealand massacre—and think that the tragedy had nothing to do with their ideas. Their disassociating scorn for the perpetrator upholds a dangerous lie: that the white terrorist is an exception.
The myth of the crazy white loner provides cover for one’s own racist views. I’m not racist, because I don’t mass murder people. The simple story line that Trump’s rhetoric alone has radicalized such people to the point of violence provides cover as well. It imprints Trump on the other side of the denial coin as Barack Obama. I’m not racist, because I don’t support Trump, people can say now—just as they used to say, I’m not racist, because I supported Obama. No talk, then or now, of confessing one’s racism and striving to be anti-racist.
In singling out the president as the embodiment of racism, Democrats (and Never Trump Republicans) can minimize how they share the same racist fears that radicalize white nationalists. Americans across the political spectrum clutch their purses and wallets as black pedestrians approach on the streets. Liberals from New York to San Francisco find ways to segregate their homes and schoolchildren from too many Muslims, from too many black and Latino people. There is little ideological difference between those liberals who see black and Latino neighborhoods as intrinsically dangerous and those conservatives who see black and Latino nations as intrinsically dangerous. When liberals and conservatives alike see me as danger embodied, they allow the white terrorist to imagine himself as a protector.
Voices from America’s most important bully pulpits have amplified white-nationalist ideas. University of North Texas researchers found that counties that hosted Trump campaign rallies in 2016 saw a 226 percent increase in reported hate crimes over comparable counties that did not host a rally. “The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive,” Trump said in Poland in 2017. “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
Trump’s ideas are as unexceptional as the white terrorists he inspires. Presidents from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush waged decades of wars on crime, drugs, and terror justified by mainstream horror tales about dark-skinned people. In 1988, the infamous Willie Horton ad bolstered the Republican nominee George H. W. Bush against Michael Dukakis—whose alleged softness on crime the New Democrats, led by Bill Clinton, sought to expunge four years later. It was Clinton who insisted, in a speech at the University of Texas in 1995, that “blacks must understand and acknowledge the roots of white fear in America.” It isn’t racist, he told his audience, for white Americans to judge black communities based on what’s on television. “There is a legitimate fear of the violence that is too prevalent in our urban areas,” Clinton said, “and often, by experience or at least what people see on the news at night, violence for those white people too often has a black face.”
The fears of people of color receive no such deference. Years later, when Black Lives Matter activists dared to protest police shootings of innocent African Americans, many politicians and commentators portrayed that anti-racist movement as dangerous—as a war on cops in particular and white people in general.
To be someone like me is to have met the legal and illegal face of white terrorism time and again. The danger is ever present, just as it was in that CVS eight years ago. Any day can be the day I meet the final face of white terror.
In the American imagination, danger comes mainly in black or brown, to the point that people miss the threat emanating from individuals who happen to be white. In recent years, white terrorists motivated by all sorts of bigotry have shot up white churches and synagogues and concerts and schools and bars and yoga studios. White people, not to mention the rest of us, are being terrorized—primarily by other white people. Any day can be the day they meet the final face of white terror, too.
The fundamental question of our time is whether we have enough respect for humanity to protect against white terror. Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve and extend pockets of equality, liberty, and democracy in the face of those who would subvert and destroy them?
The cop in the CVS that day in Philadelphia clearly feared for his life. I calmed myself, as danger stared at danger. I slowly removed my hands from my pouch. Minutes later, I sat in the cage of the officer’s car as the blue line arrived, encircling me. Apparently, I fit the description of someone allegedly shooting a gun in the area: black male, black shirt.
The officer eventually set me free. I got my toothpaste and sped to the barbershop. Four black guys were ahead of me now, waiting. I sat down next to them and gazed at them. I noticed that they had on black tops, too.
Any one of us could have been killed that day. We all fit the description. When will the white terrorist fit America’s description of danger?