Mass-Shootings as Expressions of U.S. Racism

Nineteenth century U.S. racism, resting in part on biblical myth (the curse of Ham) and Social Darwinist notions of racial hierarchies, focused on the defense of slavery and suppression of uppity blacks. Its cruelest, most terrorist tool was the lynching. Twenty-first century racism rests on the myth of a lost golden era of white (“White”) prosperity and happiness in the Promised Land, a halcyon time gradually stolen by waves of unwelcome unassimilable brown people; it focuses on whites as victims, and the expulsion and exclusion of these others. Its current weapon of choice is the mass-shooting.

Lynchings were a statement to blacks: Live in fear. Mass-shootings are a statement to immigrants, Hispanics, African-Americans, Jews, Muslims—anyone challenging white nationalism—to similarly live in fear. Go home or risk death in a land that doesn’t want you.

But lynchings were coordinated group affairs, conducted by law enforcement and/or the Klan. Mass-shootings are usually loner affairs, solo actions often by suicide attackers. The latter cannot imagine that their individual efforts will produce the social transformation they crave; rather, they hope to inspire others to launch similar attacks, sharpening up social conflict resulting somehow, someday in a restoration of White Power. The shooter is thus part of a noble process larger than himself, to be recorded, living or dead, in the annals of White Pride. Often he’s connected to others through social media. If he’s not reborn in a Valhalla he will live on in cyberspace and the hearts of like-minded Volk.

Notice how this kind of racist white nationalism resembles the al-Qaeda variety of Islamist terrorism. Sensationalist acts of terrorism, justified by manifestos claiming victimization; the expectation of copycat actions and mass “radicalization”; some kind of apocalyptic climax. For bin Laden it was the restoration of the 8th century Caliphate; for the white supremacists, it’s an America made great again under firm white rule.

Nineteenth-century racism was this-worldly, affirming the status quo. Today’s racism is focused on the future America, whiter and greater. Donald Trump has obviously helped construct this racism.

One might point out that the mass-shooters are delusional; there will be no general race war; the people of this country including its whites will never accept ethnic-based slaughter. But then, the people did elect a presidential candidate who had made numerous racist statements, and advocated racist policies, many not even acknowledging or recognizing that he was racist. And his statements resonate with some would-be gunmen, like the El Paso murderer whose on-line manifesto alluded to a Mexican “invasion” of the U.S. It is quite likely that the present pattern of routine white nationalist mass-shootings will continue.

At a certain point al-Qaeda called on motivated individuals to take independent action to kill the enemy. So did ISIL, and many have responded to the call. Solo white supremacists are similarly following the calls of Norwegian Anders Behring Breivik and Australian Brenton Tarrant to take bold solitary action against non-white aliens.

Meanwhile the Trump administration is using terror tactics at the border, including family separations, to frighten Central Americans from applying for asylum. While such cruelty is not unprecedented in our history, Trump has made meanness the face of U.S. policy, and this pleases his base—the base that would send Ilhan Omar back to Somalia because she criticizes Trump.

So on the one hand, the lone gunman, acting in isolation, planning a moment of murderous glory; on the other, the president broadcasting white supremacist sentiments, validating anti-immigrant feelings in particular if not mass carnage. Trump having coasted to power largely on the basis of his overt racist views, cannot speak out against racism and white supremacy with any credibility. (It did not help that he confused Dayton with Toledo in a teleprompter speech.) He may be obliged to try, and make a couple more teleprompter speeches, but in the end he will need to retain the Breitbart right with the requisite race-baiting.

The Democrats for their part will continue to blame Trump for creating a racist atmosphere by his “rhetoric.” Trump’s adherents will reply that the “white supremacy problem” is a “hoax,” as Tucker Carlson has done on Fox News—a hoax designed to defame good loyal Trump-supporting Americans. The contradictions will intensify; the issue of racism will be confronted and debated as never before; the lines will be drawn; the white nationalists will be isolated and defeated. But before that happens we will need confront the problem of capitalism, and its relationship to racism and national oppression.

Why do Republican lawmakers solidly back an obviously racist president? It’s all about the Benjamins, baby. To retain their electoral support, and thus attract donors, they cannot attack Trump. They are obliged (even as some hold their noses) to cater to racists, due to the very nature of the system. Thus even as science debunks the very concept of “race,” racism thrives in contemporary America. Even as progressive civil lights legislation has produced undoubted progress for many African-Americans, the racist Crime Bill of 1994 led to the incarceration of more black men than were enslaved in 1862, many in for-profit capitalist institutions contracted by the government. Even as Muslims struggle to win understanding of their community and religion, rapid Islamophobia leads to (ridiculous, unnecessary) laws banning Sharia law and Trump’s call for a Muslim ban.

One faction of the U.S. ruling class is comfortable with Trump’s racist program. This guarantees that white supremacists will for now flourish and indulge both in collective actions (like the Charlottesville torch-lit march) and loner attacks. With each attack, calls for background checks mount, met with ferocious NRA resistance; thus the struggle against racist mass-murder is closely linked to the struggle for gun control.

The struggle to prevent more El Pasos and Daytons is a struggle against a racist presidency, America’s insane gun culture rooted in its unusually violent history, and grass-roots white racism and nationalism buoyed by the ascension of Trump. The responses to Trump’s visits to the two cities, in obligatory response to tragedy, will show how deep the divisions are in this racist country. There is no way the president can “heal” them given his history. And there’s no way racism will go away in this country without the moves towards economic equality that will probably require a revolution, with or without guns.

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: