On May 15, a young white man carrying a semi-automatic rifle opened fire outside a supermarket in a predominantly Black eastside neighborhood of Buffalo. The rifle barrel had the N-word written on it along with the number 14, a well-known white supremacist slogan.
Payton Gendron killed three outside the grocery store and wounded another. Then he went inside. When it was over, 10 people were dead, including a security guard with whom he had exchanged fire. Of the 13 people shot, 11 were Black. Gendron, clad in body armor, live-streamed the shooting on Twitch. (Twitch has since deleted the video).
Gendron, 18, is from a rural town 200 miles from Buffalo. There he assembled and posted online a 180-page manifesto. According to CNN, he wrote about “his perceptions of the dwindling size of the White population and claims of ethnic and cultural replacement of Whites,” and “attributes the internet for most of his beliefs and describes himself as a fascist, a White supremacist and an anti-Semite.”
Mass shooting equation
The public discourse around these tragedies follows a predictable pattern. News reports and commentary discuss how extremism was cultivated in online spaces. Once down the extremism rabbit hole, they took advantage of lax or questionable gun laws to arm themselves. They methodically identified a location where the target would be congregating, and then decided to execute as many as they could.
This is the extremism + guns = mass shooting equation.
It is correct.
To a degree.
The set of beliefs up to and including the belief that terrorism is an appropriate plan of action is clearly extreme. There is a spectrum of racist practices. Gendron was on the far end of that. No doubt.
He’s an extremist.
There is no doubt that readily available firearms are a powerful means by which extremists terrorize minority populations.
If they live in a state with no waiting period for gun purchases, the ink on the manifesto may not have dried by the time they commit mass murder. The potential for carnage, moreover, is exponentially greater if the extremist uses a rapid-fire weapon, like a semi-automatic rifle.
Clearly, the extremism + guns = mass shooting equation is right.
But we’re missing the forest for the trees.
Extreme normal people
The trees are deciphering a shooter’s manifesto. The trees are the patchwork of gun sale and ownership laws and their loopholes in the US. The trees are the quality of the numerous research papers dedicated to understanding how someone becomes radicalized online.
But we need to zoom out for the forest.
If we could look down on the American population from 30,000 feet, we would see large swaths of everyday white Americans grappling with changes in their status vis-a-vis Black people and people of color:
Racial minorities, especially Black Americans, have been pushing for more visibility in the media and more representation in institutions.
The behaviors of people of color, again especially Black Americans, have always been under scrutiny. Increasingly, the behaviors of white Americans are being scrutinized.
For the first time, possibly, since the Great Depression, white Americans are experiencing economic distress, like Black people.
These very real trends amount to a loss of privilege and status. Gone are the days when being white was the most fungible currency. White Americans are more than ever on equal terms with people of color.
This should be celebrated.
But for many white Americans, it generates deep feelings of precarity – a sense that they must do something before all is lost.
With that precarity, and sense of loss, we get a series of problematic behaviors. It would be unwise to assume those behaviors are only random acts of violence. Instead, it’s a collection of opinions and behaviors amounting to a culture of normal people who are extreme.
They are, as Jonathan Metzl argues, literally “dying of whiteness.”
They refuse to support universal health care even though they need it because they see it as a benefit to Black people and people of color.
They support deportation, voter suppression and book burning.
They fill the ranks of the Oathkeepers and other citizen-militia groups.
They are election deniers so devoted they became J6 insurrectionists.
They go to school board meetings and howl at educators to keep “CRT” out of classrooms even if there is no such thing being taught.
They vote for candidates who have no legislative or political experience but pander to their identity as aggrieved white people.
I could go on.
These are accountants, Uber drivers, custodians, lawyers and software engineers. They are normal people with extreme racist attitudes.
So even if we were able to repeal the Second Amendment and find a way to erase all the conspiracy theories and hate speech from the internet, they would find ways of acting out their racist aggression.
Is it really surprising that out of the millions of people in this culture, a Payton Gendron would eventually wake up one morning, write the N-word on the barrel of his rifle and kill 10 Black people with it?