Opinion by Jane Greenway Carr
Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT) May 22, 2022, CNN
(CNN) Shortly after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison wrote in The New Yorker: “Unlike any nation in Europe, the United States holds whiteness as the unifying force. Here, for many people, the definition of ‘Americanness’ is color.” Reflecting on efforts — largely by White men — to define themselves by sustaining that poisonous definition, Morrison argues that those “who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status.”
In Morrison’s formulation, fear-driven devotion to racial status is more powerful to many White Americans than even self-interest, shame or any belief in humanity. And it is this reality, that White Americans’ anxieties in the face of a changing country have been and continue to be weaponized with disastrous and violent results, that has been instrumental in fueling the spread of so-called “replacement theory,” the false and bigoted claim that elites are conspiring to replace Whites with minorities.
Morrison passed away in 2019, but her words echoed with a prescient rattle this week. They hovered, hauntingly, over a Tops grocery store in a majority-Black East Buffalo neighborhood, where a young White man livestreamed the racist mass killing of 10 people. The alleged shooter also posted a hateful rant self-identifying as a White supremacist and expressing a belief in replacement theory.
“Racism, anti-Semitism and a resentment of immigrants are nothing new,” emphasized Frida Ghitis. “What is new is that in America, a land of diversity and immigrants, what used to be a fringe theory has found sympathetic voices in one of the two main political parties.”
Ghitis diagnosed deep irony that the “growing threat to democracy in the United States is occurring at a moment when US foreign policy has accomplished an extraordinary, historic feat; one that among other things serves to fortify democracy around the world.” That feat? Shoring up NATO, which is attracting new members, and leading America’s allies with a cohort that may soon include Sweden and Finland. “It’s a high point in America’s global leadership,” Ghitis concluded, “but only if you look at it with one eye closed.”
Like Morrison, theologian and activist Keith Magee pondered the brutal, dehumanizing cost of a race-fueled fear of change on all Americans. Writing specifically as a Black father of a young Black son, Magee addressed White teenage males after the slaughter in Buffalo to express empathy with the change and trauma of 21st century pandemic life — and ask a question.
“Because you are male, you were born a winner of the patriarchal jackpot. You are more likely to rise to the top of the career ladder and will be better paid on your way up. The state will not attempt to dictate what you can and cannot do with your own body. On top of that, because you are White, and you live in a country that is structurally racist, you enjoy the huge privilege your skin color gives you … My question to you is this — what are you going to do with all that luck?“
He urged young White American men to consider that “luck, like love, is unlimited. The more you share it, the more there is to go around. You will not lose your place in the world if other people are no longer marginalized.”
Dean Obeidallah rejected the toxic notion that Whiteness could ever define American identity, arguing that that “demographic change is nothing to fear in America. In fact, it’s part of what makes our nation so exceptional … It’s why on the Great Seal of the United States we see the words in Latin, ‘E Pluribus Unum’ — which means ‘Out of Many, One.’ Those who reject that philosophy to instead embrace the ‘Great Replacement Theory’ are literally rejecting what it means to be American.“
In the wake of a horrific event like the Buffalo massacre, people understandably search for solutions, noted Nicole Hemmer, who observed that the “problem of radicalization and right-wing violence is a deeply entrenched and difficult one, one with complexities that require a society-wide approach across political and social institutions to address … That endeavor is made more difficult by staunch conservative opposition to necessary reforms. Which doesn’t mean it will be impossible to defang right-wing radicalism, but rather that Americans will have to enact systemic changes over the long-term to bring that violence under control.“
Peniel E. Joseph: Buffalo is part of an unfolding American tragedy