White Terrorists Give Political Cover to Other Americans’ Prejudices

The racial fears motivating white-nationalist killers are more widely shared than mainstream Americans would prefer to admit.

Ibram X. Kendi |The Atlantic | April 1, 2019


How many people do white terrorists have to kill before America treats them as more dangerous than people of color? When asked after the recent massacre of Muslims in New Zealand whether he saw a growing threat from white nationalists, Donald Trump replied, “I don’t, really.” This from a man who frequently portrays people like me as a growing threat.

I have been threatening so many times—including one morning in November 2011, when I pulled into a CVS parking lot in North Philadelphia. To avoid the chill, I was wearing a black hoodie, much as Trayvon Martin wore a gray hoodie when he ambled to a convenience store a few months later. The peekaboo hole in my worn gray sweatpants revealed part of my ashy right knee. Nothing covered my brown skin or my long locks. In retrospect, I was a bull’s-eye for bigots.Walking toward the front entrance, I noticed a police car parked near it. As I entered the CVS, I told myself that I had no time to be nosy; there was no need to threaten my own safety by looking into whatever had brought the cops there. I needed toothpaste, and I wanted to leave the store quickly so I could get to the barbershop down the street before the wait got too long. I wanted to get my hairline cleaned up.

Still warming my hands in the pouch of my sweatshirt, I kept my eyes focused down the aisles. In the corner of my field of vision, I saw someone approach—a white police officer. I slowly turned my head and noticed his hand gripping his gun, and fear gripping his reddening face.This police officer could not have been suspecting me. I thought for a second to look behind me. I’m glad I did not. A sudden movement from a black person before a fearful police officer can be a death sentence.

The police officer ordered me to take my hands out of my hoodie’s pouch. “Why?” I flippantly responded.

In America, the endangered are seen as dangerous. Police cars intensely patrol black neighborhoods. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents move in on Latino areas. Investigators spy on Muslim houses of worship.

In America, the dangerous are seen as endangered. Leaders treat white-nationalist terror not as a broad social ill, but as a fringe problem that will become extinct on its own. “I think it’s a small group of people that have very serious problems,” Trump said.

To portray white terrorism as an outlier is to ignore America’s entire racial history, not to mention its present. The FBI currently has approximately 900 open domestic-terror investigations. Researchers found that the ideology of white supremacy undergirded 78 percent of domestic-terrorist murders in 2018; Muslim extremists accounted for 2 percent. According to one study, white supremacists stepped up their propaganda efforts by a startling 182 percent in the United States in 2018.

Democratic politicians scorched President Trump for downplaying the white-terrorist threat with his words. But in their own way, they are downplaying the white-terrorist threat, too. Democrats have debated a Green New Deal to address climate change and Medicare for all to curb the health-care crisis, but none of the party’s presidential candidates or leading figures in Congress has put forth any major policy plan to counter the threat of white nationalism. Anti-bigotry resolutions without clear definitions are like institutional diversity statements—smoke screens for policy inaction.

Democrats and Republicans both distance themselves ideologically from the white nationalists unleashing violence from Charleston to Parkland to Pittsburgh. Mainstream Americans show up again and again to the public funeral—as they did after the New Zealand massacre—and think that the tragedy had nothing to do with their ideas. Their disassociating scorn for the perpetrator upholds a dangerous lie: that the white terrorist is an exception.

The myth of the crazy white loner provides cover for one’s own racist views. I’m not racist, because I don’t mass murder people. The simple story line that Trump’s rhetoric alone has radicalized such people to the point of violence provides cover as well. It imprints Trump on the other side of the denial coin as Barack Obama. I’m not racist, because I don’t support Trump, people can say now—just as they used to say, I’m not racist, because I supported Ob