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White supremacist extremism takes up arms in the United States

The racist mass shooting in Buffalo, inspired by replacement theory, has put the spotlight on an increase in far-right domestic terrorism and led to renewed calls for gun control

Tributes to the victims of the Buffalo shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a Tops supermarket.
Tributes to the victims of the Buffalo shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a Tops supermarket.LINDSAY DEDARIO (REUTERS)

May 14 wasn’t just another day of violence in the United States. There was a mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket that cost the lives of 10 people and injured three more, but it was more than just another shooting: according to data from independent watchdog Gun Violence Archive, it was the 198th in the country this year. That equates to 10 a week (in 2021, there were 693). After the suspect was arrested, a customary ritual in such cases began: collective shock and grief broadcast live on television, the president’s consoling words and calls to reopen the debate on gun control in a country where there are more firearms (around 390 million) than inhabitants (332 million).

On this occasion, there was an unexpected added ingredient: the motive of the shooter, an 18-year-old named Payton Gendron, who chose to sow terror in a district with the highest percentage of Black residents in New York State. The tragedy has once again put a spotlight on two growing cancers in the US: white supremacy and domestic terrorism (there were 107 attacks of this kind in 2020, more than twice as much as the previous year, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies). Gendron had been intoxicated with both poisons through social networks such as 4chan and 8chan, and left a written manifesto of 180 pages that can be read like breadcrumbs on his path to hatred, which began at the same time as the pandemic.

The Buffalo shooting suspect, Payton Gendron, appeared before a grand jury last Thursday where he was indicted on charges of first-degree murder.
The Buffalo shooting suspect, Payton Gendron, appeared before a grand jury last Thursday where he was indicted on charges of first-degree murder.BRENDAN MCDERMID (REUTERS)

He drew inspiration from Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019. Tarrant also live-streamed his assault and left a justification for his actions online, which he titled The Great Replacement, based on the 2011 theory put forward by French far-right philosopher Renaud Camus, who claimed that leftist elites, with a little help from the Jewish community, are trying to destroy the white race in the West through interracial marriages, uncontrolled immigration and increased access to voting among minority groups.

Gendron aspired to follow in the footsteps of Dylann Roof, who killed nine Black parishioners in Charleston; Robert Bowers, who shot dead 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and Patrick Crusius, who carried out a mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart that ended the lives of 23 Latinos and immigrants. Gendron wrote the names of these and other extremists on the Axis XP hunting rifle he used in the shooting, as well as the slogan White Lives Matter.

One in three Americans believe in replacement theory

A recent Associated Press survey suggested these crimes should not be considered rampages by a group of impoverished evil-doing loners cut off from the world, but with an internet connection and ready access to assault rifles. According to the survey, one in every three US adults believes in a more or less radical version of Camus’ replacement theory, in part due to the cheerleading of some members of the most extreme wing of the Republican Party and television stars such as Tucker Carlson, who presents the most-watched cable show in the US on Fox News, regularly pulling in up to 4.5 million viewers. As is always the case with Carlson, a living embodiment of cynicism, it is difficult to gauge how much he believes of what he says (Fox did not reply to several requests from EL PAÍS for a comment from Carlson). What is clear is that he uses the term a lot: according to The New York Times he has cited replacement theory in over 400 shows. It is also clear that many of his viewers buy such theories.

People gathered outside the Tops supermarket in Buffalo in the aftermath of the shooting.
People gathered outside the Tops supermarket in Buffalo in the aftermath of the shooting.LINDSAY DEDARIO (REUTERS)

Underlying replacement theory is the assumption that as soon as 2045, according to the US Census Bureau, whites will cease to be the majority, making up 49.7% of the population, with Hispanics (24.6%), blacks (13.1%), Asians (8.8%) and other ethnic groups (3.8%) accounting for 50.3%. How the idea of such a “minority majority” will affect the balance of power between Republicans and Democrats is the source of great debate in the US.

Political scientist Yascha Mounk, a keen analyst of global populism, tells EL PAÍS that he believes it dangerous to present this data “as a clash between two mutually hostile blocks; whites against the rest. Both parties use this rhetoric for their own benefit: Democratic strategists see it as a given that this will swing the electoral balance in their favor, while the Republicans stir up fear, when nothing is that clear. For example, look how many Latinos voted for Donald Trump or take into account that the most extremist candidate in the Pennsylvania primaries [Kathy Barnette] is an African-American woman,” says Mounk, who discusses replacement theory in his book The Great Experiment, arguing that the fundamental challenge for modern democracies lies in dealing fairly with increasingly diverse societies. And he is optimistic that this can be achieved.

The challenge of diversity

This is not the first time that the US has faced the challenge of diversity. “It is a theme that runs throughout our history. The arrival of millions and millions of immigrants from Asia and the Mediterranean region at the end of the 19th century is a good example. Another is the height of racist violence after World War I, when not only were Black people lynched but entire communities were destroyed,” says Donald Yacovone, an associate at the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, who points out that the notion of white supremacy emerged long before that era. “It has deeper roots than any other aspect of American culture; more than democracy or Republican values. As such, those who have been educated in these lies about their superiority are terrified when they realize that the guys who have come to fix their roof or clean their pool are different to them, and speak a different language.”

Members of the Ku Klux Klan, which the US has designated a terrorist group, during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan, which the US has designated a terrorist group, during the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017.Chet Strange (Getty Images)

To demonstrate the persistence of these ideas, Yacovone is writing a book titled Teaching White Supremacy: The Textbook Battle Over Race in American History, in which he examines how education in the US has been shaped “from the Founding Fathers to the present day.” Yacovone studied more than 3,000 school textbooks, in which he says he found some “genuinely atrocious examples. Even now, when school programs are more sensitive, it doesn’t matter, because many parents, above all since the pandemic, opt for home-schooling and teach their children from decades-old textbooks, because they feel they are more patriotic. They do not like how children are educated in contemporary America and are terrified of concepts like critical race theory.”

This school of critical analysis, which interprets racism as an endemic evil that permeates US society and that must be taught in-depth to achieve its neutralization, is one of the biggest battlefields in the contemporary cultural war. “What is worse is that the Republican Party has been kidnapped by a demagogue [Trump] capable of doing anything to rise to power and to remain there: annulling elections, denying many people the right to vote and encouraging white supremacism. Whatever it takes,” says Yacovone.

Upswing since Trump’s election win

African-American historian Nell Irvin Painter points out the irony of Gendron targeting a predominantly Black neighborhood – “our presence in this country dates back to the 18th century; we’re not replacing anyone” – and agrees that “supremacy has always been there, but there has been an upswing since Trump came to power.” Painter, author of the influential book The History of White People, adds: “”What is terrifying in this case is the combination of these toxic ideas and an 18-year-old kid’s access to assault weapons designed for war; machines that can kill 10 people in two minutes.” The History of White People, which explores the idea of whiteness from the Ancient Greeks through to modern-day America, was a best-seller when published in 2010 during the Barack Obama era, the president whose arrival in the White House it was hoped would lead the US to finally embrace “the end of racial conflict.”

“Everything changed with Trump, who was already a racist and surrounded himself with people like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, who we knew had ties to white terrorist groups. They helped to bring these ideas in from the margins,” says Painter. Bannon, whose support was crucial in opening the doors of the White House to Trump, left the administration days after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, during which a young counter-protestor, Heather Heyer, was killed when white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr drove his car into a crowd, injuring a further 35 people. The march, called Unite the Right, was a coming out for a patchwork of far-right groups and militias with names such as The Proud Boys, the 3 Percenters, the First Amendment Praetorians and the Aryan Nations, who would later take part in the assault in the US Capitol in January, 2021. Some of the groups’ leaders are awaiting trial for the Capitol attack and their organizations, according to the South Poverty Law Center, have opted to “soften their points of view in line with the prevailing discourse.”

Brendon Tarrant, who was handed a life sentence for the 2019 Christchurch massacre.
Brendon Tarrant, who was handed a life sentence for the 2019 Christchurch massacre.Pool (Getty Images)

It seems obvious that Gendron adopted these ideas away from the far-right mainstream, in the darkest corners of the internet, where conspiracy theories and paranoia manifest themselves in fascist memes, adulterated statistics and fake news, which adolescents consume without the necessary means to discern what is real and what is not, according to the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. “It was on social networks that he found other reference points, which are not being talked about much: the novel The Turner Diaries, by William Luther Pierce,” says the writer Ishmael Reed, one of the most respected voices in the Black community in the US. Described by the FBI as “the Bible of the racist right,” The Turner Diaries tells the story of a violent revolution that overthrows the government, bringing about a nuclear war and an ethnic conflict that ends with the extermination of the entire “non-white” population.

Reed, who says that Carlson should not be singled out for blame alone - “he is a mere employee, it would be better to point the finger at the Murdochs” - notes that The Turner Diaries was also found among the bedside reading of another extremist and the most infamous domestic terrorist in US history, Timothy McVeigh. In 1995, McVeigh killed 168 people by placing a truck bomb outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. “The Buffalo killer was also seeking that kind of fame,” says Reed, author of the 1972 anti-racist satire Mumbo Jumbo, which was added to the elite list of Penguin Classics in 2017.

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing by Timothy McVeigh.
The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing by Timothy McVeigh.Jim Argo (AP Photo/The Daily Oklahoman)

When he visited Buffalo to meet with families of the victims, Joe Biden talked about “white supremacy” as “a poison running through our body politic” and described Gendron as a “domestic terrorist.” The president also made a pledge to put some kind of legislation on gun control before the Senate, one that would at least restrict access to assault weapons, but for that he will require a qualified majority that the Democrats lack. His words resonated with both empathy and electoral calculation: in an election year that doesn’t look encouraging for the Democrats, both parties have engaged in a gloves-off fight to make the other appear to be the greater threat to democracy.

In the meantime Kathy Hochul, the Democratic governor of New York State, a Buffalo native, on Wednesday announced a toughening of state laws on firearms possession and an investigation into the social networks that Gendron used. The Attorney General of the State of New York, Letitia James, has also opened an investigation into who is behind the 4chan and 8chan networks where Gendron was radicalized, and how he was able to live-stream the attack on Twitch and publish his manifesto on Discord.

Attorney General of the State of New York, Letitia James (in blue jacket), at a vigil for the Buffalo shooting victims on May 15.
Attorney General of the State of New York, Letitia James (in blue jacket), at a vigil for the Buffalo shooting victims on May 15.SETH HARRISON/USA TODAY NETWORK (via REUTERS)

Last Tuesday in Buffalo, Letitia James carried a wreath of flowers through the cordoned-off area around the supermarket where the attack took place. Speaking to EL PAÍS, she acknowledged: “A lot more has to be done to prevent something like this from happening again. But above all the gun lobbies must be stopped from holding Congress hostage.” That will not be an easy task. In 2020, weapons manufacturers enjoyed their best year ever in terms of sales, with 22.8 million firearms bought in the US. Their second-best year was 2021.

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