The White Supremacist in Us by Rinku Sen

Crossposted at The Huffington Post

Over the past two weeks, Americans struggled to make sense of tragic shootings that seemed disconnected at first glance. Anti-Semite James Von Brunn killed Stephen T. Johns, a black security guard at the Holocaust Museum. George Tiller's murder a few days earlier seemed to be about abortion, yet his shooter, Scott Roeder, also had roots in the racial purity movement. Yesterday, it was reported that the murders of Raul Flores and his daughter in Arizona were charged to three people with white supremacist ambitions.

There's been lots of discussion about why hate crimes are rising and how to prevent future tragedies, yet we've largely missed the relationship between extremist racism and the less obvious version that plays out in our political debates. These shooters all felt that people of color (along with women and Jews) have stolen the birthright of white men. In his book "Kill the Best Gentiles," Von Brunn rails against "the calculated destruction of the White Race." Roeder was a member of the Montana Freemen; commenters on white supremacist websites praised him for ensuring that Tiller would never "kill another White baby." Flores' alleged murderers appear to have been preparing for a white uprising.

Our discussion of these events has boiled down to the idea that racism is an intentional, violent act of a lone crazy white man. Underlying this idea, however, is the unspoken assumption that since we criminalized such hatred through civil rights laws, there's nothing else we can do as a country. Collectively, we bemoan the backwardness of "some" people before we move on, thinking of racism as isolated extremism.

But social psychologists who developed the Implicit Associations Test at Harvard and the Universities of Virginia and Washington in 1998 tell us that notions of the innate goodness of white people and the equally innate badness of people of color are so deeply embedded in our minds that we're totally unaware of making such judgments. Even I, a woman of color and racial justice activist for 25 years, have taken their online test with dismaying results. White supremacists speak their beliefs aloud, but we all have similar ideas and act on them in tiny ways that add up.

The notion that people of color get more than our share plays out again and again in our institutions and policies, expanding the racial divide. If we think that Black people manufactured the foreclosure crisis in order to get a handout, the law limits their ability to get relief. If we think that undocumented immigrants are leeching off the U.S., we will not pass an immigration reform that changes their status. If we think that children of color can't learn, we don't do what's needed to improve public schools.

As a nation, we are about to make critical decisions about all our systems. Unconscious biases already permeate these debates every time we ask who deserves how much of health care, education, jobs. Our discourse is heavily coded. There's no need to say that "illegal" equals Mexican, or that the "irresponsible" homeowner is black, or that "unqualified" means woman of color. Even if we don't rhetorically attach these ideas to particular groups of people, our brains have been conditioned to make the connections anyway.

There's particular danger in characterizing racism as isolated madness during the greatest recession in 60 years. We now have to rebuild our economy - will we continue with a model that includes stark inequality? That seems likely if we can't grapple honestly with the racial gap, since structural inequality will always make our economy more vulnerable to a crash. That inequality is also what keeps us apart, in separate neighborhoods, schools and workplaces. That distance makes it much easier for violent extremists to recruit struggling white people into their ranks.

As white communities, particularly men, face conditions that have been chronic in communities of color, their vulnerability to racist ideas could disrupt the possibility of working together for real solutions. The unemployment of white men has more than doubled over the past year, from 4.2 to 8.5 percent. They are shocked, angry, and ready to direct all that heat somewhere. The most productive place for that energy is in alliance with communities of color, so that together, we can focus on changing the policies that allowed elites to run off with all our assets.

It is possible to craft truly universal social and economic policy that can both generate racial equity and improve life for everyone, including unemployed white men. There were racially-fueled murders before last week, and there's every reason to think there will be more. As we grieve, the Obama Administration and Congress continue the immense task of rebuilding the economy and reforming immigration and healthcare. Something positive can emerge from these tragic events if our efforts to understand them led to policies that actually brought us together - in our lives, as well as in our minds.

Rinku Sen is Executive Director of Applied Research Center and Publisher of ColorLines.


  1. Anonymous6/19/2009

    I am increasingly worried about this upsurge of violence, and moreover this re-newing of a trend in America as I see it. With the advent of the "war on terror" instituted by GWB, it seems "okay" to be bigoted again, albeit in the name of national security. I see far too much of this and I am truly frightened that when we get tot he issue of "immigration" reform, t racists will have a field day Pretending they do and say all in the name of safety.

    Thanks for visiti my blog. I'll be adding you to my reader, and I will discontinue using th term Hispanic. I was in error thinking that Latino was reserved for Latin America and places like Puerto Rico. I happily stand corrected!

  2. Thanks for excellent article !

    If a Mexican drunken driver hurts anyone, then this is Big News for days or weeks with top AAA hours and hours of rants against Latinos and Mexicans. By the top Racists of the Fox News Network : O'Reilly, Hannity, Beck and the despicable clowns that they invite to their shows.

    But if a little beautiful girl is killed by the Minutemen Vigilantes in Arizona then this piece of the News is totally ignored. Because O'Reilly, Hannity, Beck, etc ... know deep in their subconscious that they carry responsability for these Racist Murders. They constantly kick the Latinos and praise the Racist Organizations.

    The Minutemen and FAIR?
    Shawna Forde, the ringleader and one of those arrested in the deadly home invasion, heads up a border "watchdog" group known as the Minuteman American Defense (MAD)- She is the top leader and Executive Director.

    Forde plotted and executed the killing of nine-year-old Brisenia Flores in order to raise money for her vigilante group. According to the Associated Press:

    Jason Eugene Bush, 34, Shawna Forde, 41, and Albert Robert Gaxiola, 42, have been charged with two counts each of first-degree murder and other charges, said Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County, Ariz.

    It turns out that Shawna has also been a representative of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an organization that regularly lobbies Washington and appears as an expert voice on mainstream news, despite its classification as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

    The mainstream media is barely reporting Brisenia's murder.


    Vicente Duque

  3. A New Forum in memory of Brisenia Flores with Instant Informations about these Racial Murders of Children and other Racial Abuses like threatening Schools

    Dear Friends :

    I want to give this important piece of News to you and your readers :

    There is a new Site and Forum on Brisenia Flores and Racial Murder against Minorities ( not mine, not operated by me ), however I plan to put some work helping to make this New Forum grow.

    Click Here :

    Brisenia Flores Forum


    Let us helpt the New Baby to have a vigorous and strong life.

    I hope that we can use this New Forum inside BriseniaFlores.com to give up to the minute news on these important developments, without bothering our friends with such big loads of extension in theis blogspots, or waiting for Moderation.

    Thanks again to all friends !


    Vicente Duque