By definition, the United States of America was not a full-fledged democracy until the passage of the 1968 Indians Civil Rights Act (1968 was also one of the most violent years in our history). Up until that point, by law, nonwhite Americans had fewer rights than white Americans. This dystopian reality was programmed into the fabric of the nation from the very start—Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the Constitution dictated that black Americans were worth 3/5 the value of their white counterparts. Only white men could own property. Only property owners could vote. This is who the Constitution was written for.
Before we could even begin to process the realities of the El Paso shooter’s white supremacist manifesto that was almost completely indistinguishable from your average Tucker Carlson monologue on Fox News, another white man unleashed his rage in Dayton, OH. Conveniently for Fox news, he appears to be an anarchist who said he would vote for Elizabeth Warren. Before even considering the ideology of both these actors, the system surrounding them reveals a commonality at the root of both these cowardly acts: a white man very easily acquired weapons of war and used them on a vulnerable civilian population inside his own community. Most people who died in both attacks were not white (“white” being a designation which has never remained static throughout history, and currently encompasses about the entire northern hemisphere).
That is the story of how America expanded and ultimately controlled itself. This violence is all connected, and simply because the past seems distant, it does not mean that we can escape the enormity of its consequence. Inertia is a powerful force, and our inability to seriously address both our gun and white supremacy crises is an example of how difficult it becomes to unmoor ourselves from calamity once the political and economic establishment embraces something harmful. To take a step back and absorb the history of not just the United States, but European colonialism in general, is to understand that the wave of racial animus we are witnessing is more like a tsunami backed by the full weight of most of recorded history. The good news is that the total numbers are still overwhelmingly on civilized society’s side. The bad news is that barbarity has all the power right now.
Around 12,000 years ago, about 50 million nomadic humans crossed a land bridge connecting what is now Russia and Alaska, and they settled across all of North and South America. Once Christopher Columbus touched shore in 1492, there were an estimated ten million natives living in North America. By 1900, that number plummeted to 300,000. European colonizers killed so many Native Americans that it changed the global climate to such a degree that scientists call this period in the 1600s “the little ice age.”
White supremacy would not have been able to thrive like this for as long as it has without the enthusiastic support of the American state. There is a reason why Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that he wanted to model Germany off of the United States. From the Alien and Sedition Acts to the Chinese Exclusion Act to both Hitler and Jeff Sessions’ favorite, the 1924 Immigration Act, the United States government has always maintained a policy agenda based around white (rich and/or powerful) man’s interests, and at its lowest points, has attempted the ethnic cleansing of whichever nonwhite boogeyman is currently haunting white America’s fragile psyche.
This country is built on the grounds upon which it conducted its very own holocaust. I am writing this from Denver, the home of the Arapaho tribe as recently as 158 years ago. The gatling gun—the first predecessor to the machine gun—was also invented 158 years ago. These facts are related. Just like how the El Paso shooter’s manifesto and President Trump’s words and messages being the same are related. The state endorses this kind of violence, to such a degree where even the FBI is reportedly wary of intervening.
Those who say “this is not who we are” in the wake of tragedies like these are substituting blind optimism for clear-eyed historical literacy. While it is important to point out that there are so many good people in this world, as well as many who have fought against this ideology since the dawn of American slavery, as far as the mechanisms of the U.S. state in recorded history are concerned, this is exactly who we are. The ideology and tactics espoused by the El Paso shooter—to try to terrorize Latinx Americans out of this country in order to preserve white political power—is in lockstep with the agenda of the deadliest massacre from Reconstruction Era Louisiana in 1868. Per Smithsonian Mag:
On the first night, only one small group of armed African-Americans assembled to deal with the report they'd heard about [the supposed murder of the white schoolteacher who helped recently emancipated black Americans work to obtain political power, Emerson] Bentley. They were met by an armed group of white men, mounted on horses, outside Opelousas. Of those men, 29 were taken to the local prison, and 27 of them were summarily executed. The bloodshed continued for two weeks, with African-American families killed in their homes, shot in public, and chased down by vigilante groups. C.E. Durand, the other editor of the St. Landry Progress, was murdered in the early days of the massacre and his body displayed outside the Opelousas drug store. By the end of the two weeks, estimates of the number killed were around 250 people, the vast majority of them African-American.
The groups managed to achieve their ultimate purpose, as was borne out by the results of the November presidential elections. Even though Republican nominee Ulysses Grant won, not a single Republican vote was counted in St. Landry Parish. Those who oversaw the election felt “fully convinced that no man on that day could have voted any other than the democratic ticket and not been killed inside of 24 hours thereafter.”
The Republican Party used to be the party of Abraham Lincoln, filled with abolitionists who understood that our country can never make good on its promise until it truly extends it to all its people—but now they are the Party of Trump, the party who tacitly encourages the kind of violence we saw in both 1868 Louisiana and 2019 El Paso. This country was built by white men on the backs of slaves and on the graves of natives, and the story of our political history is of white men doing everything within their power to maintain the control promised to them and (almost) only them in the original text of our Constitution.
Put it this way: Slavery existed in America longer than women have had the right to vote. We are not, and never have been, a true representative democracy. The wave of landmark legislation passed in the 1960s was our first serious attempt at making good on our foundational promise since the Reconstruction Era, but the half-century since has proven that massive advancement a half-century ago is inadequate on its own in this attempt to cure the ills of a country willing to elect Donald Trump as its standard bearer.
There is a connection between the rage of these disaffected young white men, and the Second Amendment which allows them to become their own militia (how they become disaffected is a modern story that we are still in the process of unraveling). The story of gun control in America is unfortunately one that disproportionately affects black and brown people's ability to defend themselves against the state controlled by white men—a state that encourages this weekend's kind of terror through dehumanizing rhetoric that has been utilized by tyrants ranging from Andrew Jackson to Donald Trump to liberal titan Woodrow Wilson—rhetoric whose logical conclusion is forced upon innocents from the Trail of Tears to Wal-Mart parking lots.
The Constitution is a promise to only one kind of American (and simply a “we'll see” to the rest of the country), and everyone who is not a white male property owner has had to shed blood and martyrs in order to extend its guarantees to themselves. This has always been met with pushback from the white power structures, as John Roberts' Supreme Court has currently demonstrated by blasting a hole in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Current conservatives in power have proven they have absolutely no problem rolling back the advancements of the 1960s—or the 1930s, for that matter. Our Gilded Age of the late 1800s and early 1900s was seeded by the collapse of the Reconstruction Era. That is where we are being led by force. Oligarchy benefits from white supremacy because so long as they dress it up white, oligarchs can get an entire voting bloc to embrace oligarchic economic policies.
White supremacy is not just an ideology in this country, but a literal foundational principle that all our political, economic and legal framework is situated around. The oil companies which exacerbate our current climate catastrophe are pulling carbon from ground previously occupied by tribes who our government massacred in the service of white man's expansion (the propagandistic phrase that we are taught in schools for this is “Manifest Destiny”). In the halls of power at our major economic and political institutions, there are more white men named David and John than women. Republican politicians exploit our broken immigration system to paint vulnerable people without U.S. citizenship who simply are trying to find a way out of poverty as murderous psychopaths out to destroy America. This betrays the fact that these de facto refugees are fleeing countries destabilized by the failed U.S. Drug War and the pure, uncut totalitarianism embraced by the historically-celebrated Monroe Doctrine. Even dramatic liberal accomplishments like the New Deal of the 1930s were reserved for white men only, and Social Security was initially not available to agricultural and domestic workers—who were largely black Americans. Again, as far as the state is concerned, this is who we are. It is who we have always been.
This fever will not break until we acknowledge white supremacy's historical roots in the renowned Age of Enlightenment which birthed modern Western society, and how America's current caste system is sorted by the ideological virus embedded in this last intellectual great leap forward. Seemingly innocuous every day institutions for white Americans are predatory nightmares for millions of others unable to hide behind the comfortable anonymity of whiteness.
For example, banks are a classic tool of white supremacy, as they are the prime lenders in a country where black and Latinx Americans are still denied home loans at twice the rate of white Americans. Hell, we don't even need to have an insidious backdrop like “Wall Street” to this in order to demonstrate how deep the rot goes. Photography and film have also helped to uphold white supremacy, because up until recently, film was made specifically to pick up detail in white faces, to the detriment of detailing nonwhite faces. Studies show that when we see faces, we feel more empathy. At least some part of the reason why we are more tolerant of other races than our own now is certainly because camera technology has dramatically improved. This may seem like a silly anecdote, but in a dramatically segregated country like our own, media is a huge deal. Will & Grace did more to advance gay rights in America than “liberal” President Bill Clinton did. This is all impossibly intertwined.
Whether these inequities are cognizant work on behalf of white supremacy or not is secondary to the fundamental reality that so much of the fabric of our society is engineered explicitly for white men, and everyone else has to navigate the various hurdles left in front of them to clear a path for people who look like me. The folks who worked on camera technology in the early 1930s were almost surely not chanting “Seig Heil” as they innovated their product (although given the widespread anti-Semitism at the time, odds are good that at least one person was), but they definitely knew what kind of customer they were building the technology for. That, and a nearly infinite stream of seemingly innocuous inequalities is a direct function of a country which prioritizes white men above all, no matter the issue.
This crisis is both a gun issue and a white supremacy issue. White supremacy had nothing to do with the Dayton shooter's ability to claim ten innocent lives and injure 27 other people in less than a minute. This is somehow legal in America.
Simply doing the sane thing and ridding our streets of weapons of war would save countless lives, and it is the area where political change can most rapidly bring about progress, but legislation will not stop the violence creating these terrorist events. This violence, primarily driven by white male entitlement and rage that have been co-opted and encouraged by the state throughout our history, is woven into every crevice of this nation. America has more mass shootings than anyone because we have more guns than people, but it cannot be as simple as more guns equals more mass shootings, or gun-saturated countries like Switzerland and Canada would experience these tragedies far more often than they do. Like the classic Onion headline goes, this is the only country that regularly experiences this. Easy access to weapons of war fuels this fire, but it did not spark it.
President Trump has made the popularity of white supremacy undeniable, but he did not make all of his supporters racist (although he clearly has converted aplenty). He gave a megaphone to an ideology which predates the existence of the United States, and he simply supplied a demand in the political marketplace—a demand which grew exponentially in the wake of Osama bin Laden's attack designed to do exactly what it has done to us. The Bush Administration terrorized Muslims at home and abroad, and American propaganda painted them as the only kind of terrorist in existence, then conservative media ran with this narrative. After ratcheting up this fearmongering during the first black presidency, it ultimately produced Republican President Trump, who has proven to simply be a cartoonish version of the modern conservative establishment which was birthed by Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Dick Cheney and others in opposition to the advancements of the 1960s.
Terrorism claimed the land which you are currently sitting upon. Terrorism was the primary economic engine of the country which seceded from America in 1861. Terrorism is still terrorism when targeted at nonwhite communities, and the fact that this fact is just beginning to seep into our national discourse is yet another example of how deeply embedded white male bias is in this country. It is not enough to simply point out the self-evident fact that by definition, white supremacy is terrorism thanks to its violent political ideology—white men must understand that there is a direct line between the systemic benefits that each of us enjoy every day in this country, and the white supremacist violence endured by countless minority communities since this country’s inception. We must all work to right these institutionalized wrongs and create the country we purport to be, otherwise we are complicit in this ongoing barbarity. For starters, here are a few of the many good organizations fighting the good fight that you can donate to:
Council on American-Islamic Relations
Native American Rights Fund
Jacob Weindling is a writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.