On White Supremacists and Guns, Silence Is Complicity

Tom Scocca asks us to think about “where taking the concerns of racists seriously has gotten us.” He notes several prominent columnists who blamed Democrats for Trumpism because liberals weren’t empathetic enough to the president’s supporters. For example, he cites this from Mark Lilla.

The whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.”

Here is where that kind of thinking got us.

A few days before the atrocity in El Paso, CNN’s Dana Bash had questions for the presidential candidates in the Democratic debates: “Sen. Sanders, you want to provide undocumented immigrants free health care and free college. Why won’t this drive even more people to come to the U.S. illegally? … Gov. Bullock, about two-thirds of Democratic voters and many of your rivals here for the nomination support giving health insurance to undocumented immigrants. You haven’t gone that far. Why not? … Congressman Ryan, are Sen. Sanders’ proposals going to incentivize undocumented immigrants to come into this country illegally?”

Bash was challenging the candidates to justify policies that, viewed from a certain angle, might be offensive to certain voters. It was necessary to ask, because some Americans hold these opinions.

The El Paso killer wrote, of the Democrats, “They intend to use open borders, free healthcare for illegals, citizenship and more to enact a political coup by importing and then legalizing millions of new voters.”

Here was the person CNN wanted the Democrats to reassure. It was important that Americans know that the party’s policies wouldn’t go too far. There’s no room in our politics for extremism.

Meanwhile, Leonard Pitts is getting emails from readers about how they’re tired of hearing about racism. The implication is that people of color and their allies should stop talking about it. On Friday, the day before the shooting in El Paso, he responded to one of them named Ed.

In a nation of mass incarceration, job and housing discrimination and resurgent white nationalism, Ed and people like him think the real issue is how race makes them feel? It is hard to even imagine the level of cognitive myopia that allows them to suggest that while missing the glaringly obvious. To wit: If race is so fatiguing for a white man to hear about, what do you figure it must be like for a black man to live?

“Tired?” Give me a break, Ed.

To be an African American is to be perpetually exhausted by race. It is to be worn, wasted, spent and drained from the daily need to prove and defend your own humanity.

If you think that the kind of sentiments expressed by the El Paso shooter are something new, perhaps you should read the book by Monica Muñoz Martinez titled, The Injustice Never Leaves You.

Between 1910 and 1920, the Texas Rangers murdered hundreds of ethnic Mexicans — a term [Muñoz Martinez] uses in order to include citizens of both Mexico and the United States — and concealed these crimes while turning themselves into mythic heroes. In the present day, state violence on the Texas-Mexico border has become a major piece of our political debate, and Muñoz Martinez’s work serves as a reminder that government brutality on the border is nothing new. In fact, it was the heart of the Texas Rangers’ mission a century ago.

The Rangers started out as vigilantes. An Anglo-American settler named Stephen F. Austin banded a group of rangers together in 1823 to unofficially defend white land-owning interests in Texas, though the region was still Mexican territory at the time. Once Texas became independent, the state government formally incorporated the Rangers to patrol the border and protect Anglo property. Nine years later, Texas joined the United States, and the Rangers became state police.

The Rangers were a force of white supremacy at every stage in their development. Before the Civil War, they fought ethnic Mexicans and Native Americans on behalf of Anglo ranchers and slave-owning farmers. They were briefly disbanded during Reconstruction, and when they returned, it was as state enforcers of segregationist “Juan Crow” laws. The Rangers’ original mandate lingered, however. By the 20th century, their goal was twofold: to keep Mexican “bandits” off Anglo property and Mexican citizens out of Anglo sight.

Mexican-Americans who live along our southern border have many reasons to be exhausted by racism as well.

All of that is what leads me to say that, when it comes to the discussion we’re having in this country right now about white supremacists and guns, I agree wholeheartedly with E.J. Dionne.

Our rancid political culture is, quite literally, killing our nation. And the problem is not caused by some abstraction called “polarization” or by “the failure of both sides to understand each other.” Those are the alibis of timid souls so intent on sounding “balanced” that they turn their eyes from the truth.

What is that truth? When it comes to gun violence and the need to confront white nationalism, one side is right and one side is wrong.

Until we face this, even two mass shootings within 24 hours will do nothing to galvanize action.

This is not a question of left vs. right, but right vs. wrong. That means that it is time to stop taking the views of racists seriously and stand with the people who are the victims of their hatred. And yes, that means doing so regardless of the political consequences.

That doesn’t mean that anyone needs to get into the gutter with the likes of Donald Trump. It means that we are facing a moral question on which everyone needs to take a stand. The ministers of the Washington National Cathedral put it this way.

When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.

We heard something similar from Barack Obama on Monday (emphasis mine).

We should soundly reject language coming out of the mouths of any of our leaders that feeds a climate of fear and hatred or normalizes racist sentiments; leaders who demonize those who don’t look like us, or suggest that other people, including immigrants, threaten our way of life, or refer to other people as sub-human, or imply that America belongs to just one certain type of people. Such language isn’t new – it’s been at the root of most human tragedy throughout history, here in America and around the world. It is at the root of slavery and Jim Crow, the Holocaust, the genocide in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. It has no place in our politics and our public life. And it’s time for the overwhelming majority of Americans of goodwill, of every race and faith and political party, to say as much – clearly and unequivocally.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” At this moment in time, silence is complicity.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.