More than half a century since the greatest gains of the civil rights movement and nearly a decade and a half since the election of the first Black President, a growing roster of killings motivated by racial rage — not just against Black Americans but against Jews and Hispanics as well — appears to augur a frightening new passage of history in a nation that is internally estranged.
This reality set off a day of agony and mourning in Buffalo and in minority communities nationwide on Sunday.
“Someone drove from hundreds of miles away, someone not from this community, that did not know this community, that came here to take as many Black lives as possible, who did this in a willful, premeditated fashion,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
A pattern that’s hard to dismiss
There will be claims that the Buffalo shooting was an isolated incident perpetrated by a sick extremist. But it is becoming harder to make such arguments. The 2015 massacre of worshippers at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, the 2018 mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the 2019 killings at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, were all also motivated by racial hate.
These contemporary trends, which confirm years of FBI warnings that White supremacist terrorism is America’s chief domestic threat, also pose deep questions.
For instance, what level of culpability is there for conservative media networks that advance inflammatory material in primetime like the “Great Replacement Theory,” which alleges that there is an organized plot to replace White Americans with Black, Hispanic and Jewish voters? That line of racial subversion appears to have influenced Buffalo suspect Payton Gendron, according to police and a copy of what appears to be his 180-page manifesto, which was obtained by CNN.
In the document, attributed to Gendron, he talks about his perception of the dwindling size of the White population and claims of ethnic and cultural replacement of Whites. An official familiar with the investigation said Gendron, who is charged with first degree murder, made statements that were filled with hate toward the Black community after his arrest. Investigators also uncovered other information from search warrants and other methods indicating the alleged shooter was “studying” previous hate attacks and shootings.
Racial politics seeds febrile atmosphere
While there is no evidence so far that the shooter in Buffalo had a partisan motive, the attack came at a time when racial demagoguery and equivocation about White extremism have seeped into politics, fostered by politicians such as ex-President Donald Trump.
And the massacre again plunges social media companies, on whose networks such hate sometimes percolates, into a fierce controversy over the extent to which free speech should be regulated to avoid promoting extremist ideology that kills.
“This spreads like a virus. And that’s why I’m calling on the CEOs of all the social media platforms to examine their policies and to be able to look me in the eye and tell me that everything is being done that they can to make sure that this information is not spread,” New York Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“They have to be able to identify when information like this — the second it hits the platform, it needs to be taken down, because this is spreading like wildfire. These theories that result in the radicalization of a young person sitting in their house is deeply scary and something that has to be dealt with.”
The Buffalo shooting also triggered the familiar and futile ritual of politicians offering prayers for the victims, accompanied by Democratic demands for gun control and Republican obfuscating on the issue of whether guns like the one used in Saturday’s attack should be legal.
Nothing that has happened since the gunman burst into the supermarket suggests that moderate, limited reforms to firearms law have any chance of getting around the GOP logjam caused by the Senate filibuster. Some Democrats might also rather not vote on gun control measures in a midterm election year. So there is every reason to believe that Buffalo will join other cities whose names become emblems for the country’s unwillingness to come to agreement on how to prevent mass shootings.
A weekend of gun horror
While the Buffalo attack was the most horrific outburst of gun violence this weekend, it was far from the only such bloodshed. Multiple people were shot in a church in Orange County, California. Up to 20 people were shot just hours apart in several outbursts of gunfire in Milwaukee on Friday night near an NBA Playoffs game. In Chicago on Saturday evening, a 16-year-old was shot and killed near “The Bean” public art display in Millennium Park.
America is hurting in more ways than one, and it’s likely the horror in Buffalo will exacerbate feelings of insecurity — in all its forms — that many Americans are experiencing.
Parents cannot find baby formula. High inflation, which has led to soaring food prices and almost daily records set for the cost of a gallon of gas, is making life miserable for millions of Americans. It has also confounded the White House’s initial diagnosis that the high cost of living was a “transitory” result of the pandemic and most of its efforts to ease the pressure.
The current tempestuous political mood might be the rule rather than the exception, but the acrimony and division is about to get even worse when the Supreme Court is expected to hand down a major abortion ruling in the next few weeks. Nationwide abortion rights marches this weekend, in response to the draft opinion striking down Roe v. Wade, underscored how the country is on the cusp of another major battle. If the final ruling does gut the nationwide right to an abortion and the issue is sent back to the states, the cultural divisions between red and blue states and cities and rural areas will ensure it’s a fight that rages for decades.
The existential feud between liberal and conservative visions of the country is taking place in a febrile atmosphere deliberately fomented by Trump for his own political gain. The ex-President’s lies about election fraud and his attempted coup to stay in power have poisoned the political process and made this moment in history even more fragile. His likely 2024 presidential campaign could stretch the country even closer to a breaking point — and further strain racial and social cohesion.
“We must all work together to address the hate that remains a stain on the soul of America. Our hearts are heavy once again, but our resolve must never waver,” the President said at the National Peace Officers Memorial Service on Sunday.
Biden does not share Obama’s eloquence or historic significance as a barrier breaker. And seven years on, amidst the political convulsions that have occurred since, he faces an even tougher task in leading a fractured nation toward common ground.