How the Buffalo massacre is part of US tradition: ‘We’ll continue to see killings’

<span>Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP</span>
Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP

Brandi Collins-Dexter of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center spoke to the Guardian about how the massacre is rooted in America’s long history of white supremacist violence

The attack on Black shoppers at a grocery store in Buffalo was carried out by an 18-year-old white man who authorities say was engaged in “racially motivated violent extremism”.

The shooting left 10 people dead and is being investigated by the US justice department as a hate crime. Reports suggest the shooter had legally purchased multiple firearms, detailed his plans for the attack online for months, and claimed he was motivated by the “great replacement” conspiracy theory, a racist and false idea that white Americans are being deliberately replaced by immigrants. He has been arrested and charged in the slayings.

Related: How 4chan’s toxic culture helped radicalize Buffalo shooting suspect

The massacre comes amid a rise in anti-Black hate crimes in the US, where murders committed by white supremacists and far-right individuals have dominated extremist violence in the last four years.

Brandi Collins-Dexter, a senior research fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center who studies disinformation and formerly advocated with civil rights group Color of Change, spoke to the Guardian about how the massacre is rooted in America’s long history of white supremacist violence and racist conspiracy theories.

What was your initial reaction to the news?

You’re just horrified to see the community’s pain. But I also think about the things we could have done as a society for us not to be here. It’s incredibly disturbing, distressing and frustrating that we’re still here after so many different episodes throughout history and in the last 30 years.

I also think about the fact that this grocery store in a Black community became a target of violence and how that will have traumatizing implications for many. I live in Baltimore, and the day after the massacre, I went grocery shopping in a white area. I didn’t feel safe going into my normal grocery store.

What should we take away from this happening in upstate New York?

As a country, we still seem stuck on this idea that systems of racism and economic segregation are southern or rural things or tied to specific places. But what we see in Buffalo and what we’ve seen in Syracuse – where my family is from – and what we’ll continue to see is that there isn’t a geographic confinement to the systems of harm. There are individuals across regions invested in ideas of “extermination” who are willing to go to any means necessary to carry it out.

In Buffalo, I also think about all the systems that put members of the Black community in that particular grocery store at that time – how the highways were built, forms of economic segregation or how that area was a food desert for a long time before the community lobbied to get that store built.

You tweeted that people should stop saying, “This is not who we are as a country,” which we hear so often after horrific tragedies. Can you elaborate?

I remember watching live footage of the insurrection on January 6, and seeing signs with sic semper tyrannis, the Latin phrase meaning “thus always to tyrants”. That’s a very specific frame. John Wilkes Booth said it before he assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865. We saw it 130 years later in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people in an Oklahoma City bombing and was wearing a shirt with the phrase. We keep seeing it pop up, and it feels very present here. When we talk about misinformation and disinformation online, it’s like a 21st-century spin on the same problem of conspiracies spreading in different communities.

Throughout history, we’ve seen how people defined as white react when they believe there is a threat to their way of life, whether KKK members running for school boards in the 1920s or the resurgence of the Confederate flag in the 1950s. We see what happens when the conspirators are the people in power who perceive a loss of power. So it really does us a disservice to act like these things are strictly in a container. What if we said to ourselves, this is who we are as a country? How would that change how we approach systems, politics and what we do to try to prevent this from happening again?

What’s behind the significant rise in white supremacist extremist killings in recent years?

The modern iteration of the “great replacement theory” stems from Barack Obama’s election and the toxic reactions to the first Black president and what that meant for white people in the US. That combined with the rise of big tech platforms and sites like Telegram, information overload online, data voids and context collapse that we see in pockets of the internet where people are living in these Petri dishes. Those are the conditions that allowed us to go from Timothy McVeigh in the 1990s to the consistent trend we see now. It’s happening so often that the news cycle can’t keep up, people can’t keep up and we can’t fully make sense of it.

What does that normalization look like?

I anticipate we’ll continue to see an increase in these killings, absent any sort of sweeping set of interventions. That is what feels really scary to me. I thought January 6 would force a conversation, but it didn’t. Stuff got normalized. Every day, it feels like the floor is getting lower, and our expectations for what is acceptable in society change, and we’re willing to accept more and more. And in the partisan politics of this environment, we’re not legislating and we’re not tackling these issues online.

It’s really grim and frightening. How should we understand the modern Republican party’s role in this environment?

When you look at the Buffalo suspect’s “manifesto”, it’s kind of a cut-and-paste job from the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shooting that killed 51 people. It has inspiration from Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, 4chan memes and discussions about “human biodiversity”, which is a type of pseudoscience that has long been used to develop tropes and associations about Black people. These elements aren’t all neatly tied to the Republican party. But what the Republican party has done is created a political home for some of these extreme fascists and mainstreamed some of this ideology. We’ve seen this with certain Republicans supporting the January 6 insurrection.

When you look at this history of anti-Blackness – this othering – we see that the Buffalo massacre is deeply embedded in an American tradition of defining Black people as a stranger in our own land. It’s about who defines America and who defines the US. You see this in media narratives, cultural products, who gets platformed and who is protected in free speech conversations online. These are all conditions that allow for people to feel like they own the rights to define who is American and who gets to live or die in America. That can’t be strictly confined to the Republican party.

How does the “great replacement” conspiracy theory tie to anti-Black racism in America?

It’s easier to think of the “great replacement theory” as something that’s confined to immigrants, but it has a long history in anti-Black racism. There’s the 1857 Dred Scott decision that proclaimed Black people were not citizens in this country. There’s the pseudoscience used to justify the absence of adequate medical care. These ideas are implicit in 4chan memes, in “accelerationism”, in “eco-facism”. It’s about a whole cabal of things, but time and time again, anti-Blackness comes to the forefront. Black people are still by far the largest group of victims of hate crimes.It also tends to be underreported in the media just how frequently Black people are under attack in our homes, communities, on the street and in the grocery store. It’s an unignorable element in the fight to define what a true democracy is in a country that is still grappling with this multiracial experiment.

How should our leaders be responding at this moment? How can we make progress?

We need gun control. We still haven’t answered the question of why someone needs to have the type of weapons that he was carrying. And then there’s the fight around critical race theory as the shorthand for telling a story of America that acknowledges its unsavory aspects and the tapestry of who has contributed to it. The absence of that storytelling in our education system allows somebody to convince themselves that they are the true savior of this country and have the right to take other people’s lives. This isn’t just a political football. There are deeper implications when somebody gets to overhaul curriculum and fire teachers in the name of a skewed story of America. We have tech companies that are too big to regulate and can’t regulate themselves, and we see how these companies have become a platform for fascist regimes carrying out violence or individual killers. We have to tackle that question.

It is marginalized communities, Black people and the people with the least amount of power who are paying the cost.