Crime, Media, Politics, Top Stories

Why I Don’t Live in Fear of White Supremacists  

The 21-year-old terrorist who attacked an El Paso shopping center on August 3 was a white supremacist who believed that the United States is experiencing a “Hispanic invasion.” He also expressed support for an even deadlier hate crime that had taken place months before: the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 51 innocents were killed and another 49 injured. Hate criminals tend to inspire one another. And in the months since the Christchurch slaughter, there have been widespread fears that we may be on the cusp of a new global epidemic of racist killings.

These fears are encouraged by the sense of immediacy that results from the 24/7 social-media coverage of such tragedies, which overwhelms the insulating effects of geography. Immediately following the Christchurch killings, for instance, the Chancellor of University of California, Berkeley, where I am employed, felt required to send an email to all students, staff and faculty condemning the attack, and offering up a suite of mental health and diversity resources for members of the University community—particularly Muslims.

I thanked the Chancellor for her well-intentioned note. But I also told her that I was not going to allow a deranged gunman half a planet away to cause me anxiety or panic. As awful as the attack in Christchurch was, such events are extremely uncommon and unlikely, both in New Zealand and the United States.

According to statistics compiled by the Anti-Defamation League, U.S. domestic extremists killed around 50 people last year, and 37 the year before. In 2016, 72 people were killed. These deaths are tragic and horrifying. But in a country populated by 320-million people, they are not symptomatic of a wave of white-supremacist terror, “spreading like an epidemic across the country,” as one international headline put it.

Following the terror attack in El Paso, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders pledged to “go to war” against racism. This is the sort of language that was used by George W. Bush following the 9/11 attacks. And even in the aftermath of terrorism that had killed more than 3,000 Americans—two orders of magnitude higher than the current annual U.S. death toll from extremism—it became clear that “war” was a flawed approach to battling hate.

Sanders did not specify what his war on racism would entail. But he seemed to identify a broad set of targets. “My father’s whole family was wiped out by Hitler and his white nationalism,” Sanders told the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta. “Too many people have fought over the years, too many people have died against racism to let it resurface and flourish in America…We will go to war against white nationalism and racism in every aspect of our lives.”

Genocide is abhorrent. White nationalism is abhorrent. Racism is abhorrent. But the casual conflation of these concepts into a single rhetorical flourish is troubling. When it comes to both law and policy, it’s important to make a distinction between individual bigotry and violent extremism. Experiencing or witnessing ordinary prejudice at some point in your life is quite common in every part on the planet, while experiencing an act of violent extremism motivated by group hatred is highly uncommon.

A 2019 Pew survey found that significant numbers of Americans report hearing friends or family members of their own racial backgrounds make comments or jokes about other groups that would be considered racist or racially insensitive. The numbers varied only slightly depending on the racial group of the respondent. Forty-four percent of blacks said they would often or sometimes hear racially insensitive remarks from friends and family. For whites, the number was 46 percent. If we were going to lump together ordinary prejudice with a predisposition toward violent extremism, we would expect there to be millions of racial terrorists in America. Thankfully, there aren’t.

One byproduct of this conflation of ordinary bigotry and mass murder is a growing campaign to censor offensive content wherever it appears. In the days after the El Paso attack, for instance, Texas Democratic Congressman Beto O’Rourke, a long-shot candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, called for a change in the law that would make it easier to ensure that social-media companies remove “hate speech and domestic terrorism” from their platforms. He added that “when any one community is targeted, the very idea of America is under attack. That’s why we need to all come together to not only connect the dots between the proliferation of hatred across our country and the acceleration of mass shootings, but actually do something about it.”

A problem is that accusations of “hate speech” come thick and fast on social media, whether the subject is the Middle East conflict, gender politics or immigration policy. The very fact that O’Rourke would use an apples-and-oranges phrase like “hate speech and domestic terrorism” suggests that he hasn’t really thought through the implications of a policy that would link all speech deemed hateful with the apocalyptic spectre of mass murder.

That’s the problem with allowing ourselves to live in fear of terrorists: It makes us react emotionally to crime rather than respond rationally. In the Bush era, this meant declaring metaphorical war on terrorism and literal war on Iraq. Today, it means focusing on a terrifying but marginal phenomenon that cuts down dozens of innocents annually, even as suicide, the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, took more than 47,000 American lives in 2017.

Though it’s hard to appreciate it in the age of Trump, the arc of American history shows we are trending towards greater tolerance, not intolerance. Researchers at Harvard recently used data collected between 2007 and 2016 to show that there has been a dramatic reduction in both implicit and explicit bias about race. The long-term trend is that Americans are getting more tolerant. And there is little that white supremacist terrorists can do about it.

If we start to restrict civil liberties, spread panic and exaggerate the amount of hate and violence in our societies, we will give terrorists what they want: greater control over our political narratives and personal psychology. The killer who murdered those innocent Muslims in Christchurch likely will be sent to jail for the rest of his life. Yet, if he causes me to fear going to a mosque, he would still continue to harm the quality of my life. (One recent survey found that a third of Americans are avoiding some gatherings or public events out of fear of mass shootings.)

We’ve seen this movie before. After the 9/11 attacks, the United States and its allies dramatically ramped up unnecessary overseas conflict, imposed surveillance on domestic populations, and promoted an all-pervasive social fixation with terrorism. The effect was to transform a terrorist movement into a dominant force in geopolitics. On a more banal level, it also spooked American travelers, massively damaged the airline industry, and caused untold millions of children and grandmothers to be subject to invasive and humiliating airport security checks.

Media outlets are part of the problem—though often in a way that runs opposite to what O’Rourke suggests. One study released last year found that the incidence of mass shootings went up after periods of heavy media coverage of previous mass shootings—perhaps because would-be murderers are impressed by the amount of psychological havoc they can create with a single spasm of evil.

CNN, which taught Americans to be paranoid about anthrax two decades ago, has hyped a supposed “school shooting epidemic”—despite the fact that school shootings are actually down since the 1990s. In response to the scare, panicked school officials and politicians have spent millions of dollars on school security theater that is unlikely to help anyone. More children die every year in pool drownings than in school shootings.

To make matters even worse, at least six states now require mandatory school-shooting drills—terrifying experiences for young children. And it’s not even clear these drills actually help students, even at those rare schools where a mass shooting will occur. The killer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, had been through these drills, and planned his 2018 shooting with that experience in mind.

None of this is to suggest that our governments shouldn’t respond to white-supremacist terrorism or school shootings. These are serious policy issues that demand a serious policy response. On a personal level, we also should consistently work to make ourselves, our friends and family more tolerant of those around them: A less racist society is a better society for a multitude of reasons. But there is little sense in allowing panic and fear to govern our lives. It’s trite, but true: Such a response is exactly what terrorists want.


Zaid Jilani, a journalist, is currently on fellowship, studying political and social polarization at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. Follow him on Twitter @ZaidJilani.

Featured image: Mourners at a memorial for victims of the August 3, 2019 El Paso shootings.


  1. The El Paso shooter was not a white supremacist. He was a white nationalist. There’s a difference, and the difference matters. A lot.

    A supremacist believes that his people are inherently superior to other races and may even advocate the elimination of those races. A nationalist simply believes that his people ought to exist, to survive, to have their own place in the world. He doesn’t want others to cease to exist; he only wants them to not threaten his people.

    We can see how the intellectually lazy (and opportunistic) might characterize murders as being intrinsically supremacist, but everything we know about the shooter’s motivations tells us otherwise. He didn’t want to go into Mexico and kill them all. He wanted them out of America.

    What motivated him? Well, besides the Malthusian environmentalism that he has in common with the Christchurch shooter, it was the belief that an “invasion” was seeking to displace, breed out, and ultimately eliminate “whiteness”. What could have caused him to think that?

    Gee, I wonder.

    “Critical Race Theory”, by which Leftists simply associate everything they hate with “whiteness”, call it racist, and then declare that the world needs to eliminate whiteness, is getting a lot of airtime. Its messaging is nearly unavoidable. For the “rich white liberal”, this messaging is harmless and presents opportunities to virtue signal. But for the poor whites, who outnumber poor people of other races no matter what Bernie says, these messages are not so easily brushed off. Having discrimination against whiteness piled on top of their other disadvantages saddles them with a lot more legitimate grievance than your typical violent Leftist has.

    Of course, killing a bunch of people is the wrong response to this situation. But Leftists who freely advocate the killing of white people (and sometimes act on it) in response to their largely illusory grievances don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to criticism of his motives. Not only are they the ones motivating these shooters, but they’ve also performed (and cheered) a lot of similar behavior.

    Backlash is always one of the consequences of identity politics. No one should be surprised by it.

    As to the merits of “nationalism” in the abstract, well, the definition has been quite malleable of late so it’s tough to evaluate. However, every so-called “pride” movement, in addition to various pro-black and pro-Hispanic advocacies, are guilty of a more intrusive “nationalism” than any “white nationalism” I’ve seen. The latter seeks only to prevent its eradication. The former imposes itself in spaces where it hadn’t previously existed and demands to spread.

    This isn’t complicated.

  2. Articulately said sir. Let’s say that Bernie’s neighbour trashed his own property and then kicked down Bernie’s door and said:

    “Right, we’re here. You will support us and however many of our relatives might show up. You will live in the basement from now on and you will check your Priviledge, meaning that there will be no backtalk from you. Here is a list of our cultural requirements; memorize it and adapt. The language of this house is now Spanish. If there is any trouble in this house it is already your fault, so try not to step out of line, our patience is limited. Hate will not be tolerated in this house. We add to the rich, multicultural diversity in this house, and you are happy to have us, aren’t you Bernie?”

    How would Bernie react? If he was upset, would that be White Fragility? If he called the cops, would he be a Sanders Supremacist? (He supposing that he has control over who lives with him?)

  3. Agreed.

    In fact, the further left we are taken by progressives, the further we progress into cultural diversity and racial identity, the more white nationalism appeals to me as a concept.

    I’m going to have find my tribe somewhere. No one else is going to take me in.

  4. Maybe this is a nitpick but it’s kind of absurd.

    Why would Sanders call Hitler a “white supremecist”?

    Most of the people the Germans fought and killed in WWII were white. He wanted to wipe out the entire Slavic race, which last I checked was pale as hell. He allied with a bunch of yellow people against the pale as hell British Empire.

    Leaving aside the question of whether Jews are White, the Wehmecht fought virtually no non-white people in the entire second world war. From what little I understand of the politics of the Middle East, and India they were mildly pro-Axis (if only to spite the British).

    “Whiteness” is a uniquely American phenomenon where in over really just the last fifty years or so the non-Anglo immigrant waves of pre-1924 were pretty well assimilated into a melting pot “white” culture. Whiteness as a concept would have been almost unintelligible to a mid 20th century European, who had just fought two total wars against other white people in a generation.

  5. Security checks and metal detectors were common in airports long before 9/11. The only difference post-9/11 is in the scale and technical sophistication of the methods used.

    I believe it’s unreasonable for the author to say that Americans were “spooked” into accepting increased security measures on a “banal level”. What is banal about flying a jetliner into a tall office building? What is banal about the rational fear of it happening again?

    Before 9/11, and then again on that day, Muslim extremists were hijacking and destroying jetliners in the name of Islam.

    There can be little doubt that but for increased security at airports, Muslim extremists would continue to do it.

    The effect was to transform a terrorist movement into a dominant force in geopolitics.

    Islamic terrorism is a dominant force in geopolitics on its own merits, and not because Americans transformed it from from something less malign.

  6. Good article. But what is most interesting is the information contained in the links in the article, in particular the data from the Pew survey and the Harvard study. Because when we juxtapose these two contrasting sources of information, it quickly becomes apparent that whilst actual measurable racism (implicit & explicit bias) is on the decline, the perception is that race relations are worse. Now those on the Left will blame the rise of Trump, and those on the Right will blame identity politics (or intersectionalism if they are well-read), I would to submit the alternative hypothesis, that it is actually political polarisation itself, that is fuelling the perception that race relations are worse.

    Let’s face it, if you are on Right you will probably believe that the accusation of racism against Trump are over-egged. You will probably be able to cite instance by instance, each time Trump was taken out of context- from the time he accused Mexicans of being rapists, and was actually talking about members of MS-13, to when Trump was referring to the other (non-violent) protesters at Charlottesville and qualified his statement (in the same initial press briefing that sparked the furore), that he didn’t mean the white supremacists.

    Similarly, if you are on the Left you will be able to cite everything from Trump’s adherence to the Birther conspiracy theory, to rumours of historical bad hiring and renting practices, to various Tweets as evidence of racism. But here’s the thing, regardless of whether he is a racist or not, the fact remains that if you are on the Right you are likely to be personally invested in the narrative that he is not a racist, and if you are on the Left you are likely to be personally invested in the narrative that he is a racist.

    Underlying all this, is the most basic and fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans. If you are a Democrat, you will see multinational corporations and Billionaires as the root of all evil (and inequality) in society, and will want the Government to protect you from them, by stepping in to regulate big business and correct for the basic unfairness that arises in all complex societies. If you are a Republican, you will see Government itself as the root of all evil, will be able to point to all the ways that Government has perpetrated well intentioned harm in the past, and see Government as an over bloated bureaucracy that should be limited.

    As a centrist I can tell you that you are both right. Government can be bad, but it can also be good. One example of good regulation is the fact that if you live in the UK and somebody steals your ID, it is the bank or credit card company that is liable for any debt that is incurred falsely in your name. This of course, makes the banks far more diligent in preventing fraud. At the same time, you have to ask yourself is it really necessary for some bureaucrat to charge a fee to tell you that your hairdresser can actually cut hair, issue a permit for your daughter to sell lemonade, or for your local school to do an environmental impact study that costs $300,000 to paint over or cover a mural?

    But I digress, I have made the argument that Government has a limited pool of resources, and these resources should be allocated or ‘rationed’ far more effectively than they are, before. For people on the Left, you have to realise that most people who are likely to vote Trump in 2020 are far less enthusiastic than a typical Trump rally would tend to suggest. They are simply willing to overlook whatever personal and personality flaws he may possess, in order to prevent a resurgence of Government, that most of the Democratic Candidates for 2020 appear to endorse.

    If you are on the Left, you should realise that the Intersectional or Authoritarian Left that seems to be dominating Democratic politics at the moment, only account for a relatively small minority of democratic voters. Most Democratic voters are far more moderate in their beliefs. Reassuringly, 2% of Twitter users account for 90% of the posts, which might account for the perception that those on the Left are lunatics. The free speech protests on college campuses seems to be mainly confined to elite four-year universities and many of the Antifa attacks on innocent pedestrians, are perpetrated by self-avowed communists and/or anarchists.

    But most importantly, there are early signs that intersectionalism may not be here to stay. Corporations seem to be suffering from a surplus of activism and an increase in lawsuits, from both minority groups and white conservatives who feel that they are working in hostile environment. It seems unlikely that they will be willing to let this trend significantly damage their bottom line for long. Many media companies, especially in the digital space, have been forced to cut back on their ‘woke’ content, as they realise that political correctness doesn’t play well with 80% of Americans. Several movies and franchises have suffered commercially from a move towards ‘wokeness’, and this tendency is only likely to increase as people become more able to spot the messages embedded in their movies and favourite TV shows.

    So where do we go from here? Well, first of all we have to remember that racism is continuing to die out, even if our perception is that race relations are worse. Also, give the other guys a break. The things you think about them are rarely, if ever, true. Most of all, if you happen to work for a media company, realise that calling Trump a racist is not going to stop people from voting for Trump. If anything, the accusation of racism is far more likely to push moderate and swing voters to vote for him, than not. To put it another way, there are plenty of other things that you could call him, that are far more likely to be effective.

    But a far more healthy view for Government, and politics in general, is to realise that there is a limited pot of resources to be spent, that needs to be used far more effectively to maximise good. If you’re a Republican, would you be more likely to vote for a Democrat that promised to reduce rent-seeking by Government, get rid of bad regulations, and spend your tax dollar on doing good? If you are a Democrat, would you vote for a Republican who acknowledged that climate change was real and serious problem that needs to be tackled (without destroying the economy), and that we need to find effective ways of increasing opportunities to the least fortunate in society?

    If your answer is anything other than an emphatic “no”, this shows that the precious swing voters you both want, are far more likely to be susceptible to these messages. Ultimately, I think most people are incredibly unhappy about the increasing political polarisation in Western countries, and anyone willing to address this politically, is likely to find themselves rewarded at the ballot box.

  7. Yes, I know Hitler’s views on the Nordics. But “white” and “Nordic” are not the same. So why would you call Hitler a “white” supremecist when he clearly viewed the vast majority of “whites” as inferior.

    It’s rather insane to me that if you believed that most of the white race needs to be wiped out then you are a “white” supremicist. Why not just call him a Nordic supremicist?

    “Whiteness” is a concept unique to America in the post-war world. It describes the result of the disintegration of the kind of inter-white divisions that dominated Hitlers worldview.

  8. “Though it’s hard to appreciate it in the age of Trump, the arc of American history shows we are trending towards greater tolerance, not intolerance.”

    Could someone direct me to one documented racist statement that Trump has made? Not something that has been conflated with racism or interpreted as racism. Something that is unambiguously racist and malicious.

  9. In a word, Farris; “no.”

    The President’s personality manifests as is typical of a certain type of businessman. Dismissive, authoritarian and at times, hyperbolic, but he does not make comments indicative of a sense of any superiority of all individuals of any one race over the members of another. I’ve dealt with many such businessmen, over a long stretch of years, and find them insufferably tedious, but the hallmark of their commercial ascendancy is an arrogance that transcends markers of race, ethnicity, nationality or class.

    The segment of the population that vilifies the President with sincerely meant accusations of racism seems to have had precious little familiarity with the everyday mendacity of commerce. Those indulging in stereotypically insincere calumny on the basis of racial animus are, well, insincere (to put it charitably. No time today for a full rant, replete with condescension and disdain.)

  10. Because in their sincerity, they have succumbed to the empty credentialism that induces them to believe what has been written or spoken by ideologues whose agenda promotes narrative over information that may be dilutive of their indoctrinative efficacy…

    Such acceptance does not automatically render them insincere, merely gullible within certain contextual frameworks. Such sincerity stands in marked juxtaposition with those who cynically and disingenuously cast unfounded and insupportable aspersions on anyone whose outlook threatens their status.

    Emerson says it best in “Self Reliance:”

    “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.”

    I would opine that a lack of intellectual self reliance does not equal insincerity. Peterson has remarked publicly that “most people don’t know how to think” [sic] and I agree with him. I do not consider myself an outlier in this, Farris. What I value most in my interactions with folks like you, here in this Quillette forum, is that such discourse assists me greatly in the realization of my desire to learn how to think.

  11. Good stuff, Geary. But I would call your approach centre right, not centrist. But I quibble.
    Let me propose an experiment. Let’s say that the government took a year off. Parliament passed the appropriations and then went into recess for a year. All the government departments would go on working of course, but no new policies would be announced and no new regulations or legislation would be passed. Things would go swimmingly. Most people would forget about politics and go about their lives happily unconcerned about all the player that politicians and the media find important but which are really abstract bollocks to most of us.
    Of course the media would go mad, as there would be nothing much on which to report. And therein lies the rub. Governments keep on expanding the areas of life into which they interfere, cause they constantly have to show the media that they are “governing”. It seems that governing in this day and age doesn’t mean just administrating the masses of laws you have now, but also finding new and inventive ways to make more laws. It matters not that a lot of the old laws are rubbish and have had unintended consequences that have caused great social harm. The media and the politicians must find some new way to “fix” something.
    Of recent time Spain and Belgium both went through periods where there was no government in place. That didn’t mean that anarchy reigned, but that simply that there was no political power in charge for a few months.
    In both countries, the economy actually improved during those period in which there was no government in power.
    The media of course had a heyday speculating endlessly about which parties would form a government, etc, etc, but the government in the meanwhile was in caretaker mode and ran smoothly.
    So maybe that’s a good reason to have a multi party system in which governments fall a lot. It can focus the media and the politicians on forming governments rather than thinking up and badly implementing new laws.

  12. That’s true. I have a mate who was a Lib Dem, who says that he will never vote for them again- after they went into coalition with the Tories. Most moderates and centrists fall somewhere on a spectrum. I see The Free Market as a perfectly serviceable table that just needs the sharp corners shaved off- it’s just a shame that so many on the Left want to tear the table apart and make something completely new out of the materials. It hasn’t worked so far and is unlikely to ever work without a far more profound understanding of why the market works.

  13. When are Americans going to stop offensive casual prattle about ‘white supremacists’? This was not a phenomenon a few years ago. The country (and by extension the other countries it pollutes with its mind-rot via social media and news cycles) is getting more and more disgustingly racist towards white people all the time. And they’re expected just to take it and grin. Or preferably be self-flagellating and self-torturing. Beyond sickening. And has the writer never heard of writing a lead to an article? This just tumbles clumsily into the subject matter without a lead-in.

  14. “Well, today “Nordic” doesn’t mean what it did 100 years ago.”

    It seems to me that Hitler and his contemporaries were quite aware of how “Nordics” were different from say Eastern and Southern Europeans. When he said “Aryans” were superior he did not mean “whites”.

    “So let’s quit the hair-splitting and call him a White supremacist.”

    He murdered tens of millions of “whites” because he considered them sub-human. This isn’t hair splitting at all.

    You’re basically saying “anyone that believes any group of people are superior to any other group of people is a white supremicist.” By this logic Black Nationalists are “white supremicists”. The Imperial Japanese were “white supremicists”. Lee Kuan Yew is a “white supremecist.” This is a meaningless term.

  15. Wanting to be part of a group of people with similar interests and values is one thing, judging people and formulating policies based on immutable group characteristics is another.

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