Boundary of Whiteness are protected
The desire to uphold white rule has always been a potent force in American politics. And since the era of eugenics ushered in a fanatical obsession with breeding, that goal has been aided by rhetoric that inflames fears of the extinction of whiteness. From the anti-immigration statutes of the 1920s to anti-miscegenation laws to Trump’s Muslim ban, racists have sought to protect the boundaries of white racial purity. It’s a boundary often drawn in blood and bullets.
“The grim truth of the matter is this: The whole white race is exposed, immediately or ultimately, to the possibility of social sterilisation and final replacement or absorption by the teeming coloured races,” wrote the Ku Klux Klan officer and author Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, in his 1921 book The Rising Tide of Colour Against White World-Supremacy. The white man, he wrote, “cannot withstand coloured competition.” Ninety-eight years later, a similar dread of white “replacement” has motivated four mass shootings in the past year—a sentiment little changed over most of a century. But today the Internet has allowed the message to be transmitted globally and reduced the time it takes for violent events to inspire one another.
At the heart of white supremacy is a belief, first and foremost, that a coherent white “race” exists. Socially, whiteness has been flexible in the past: It has admitted Irish, Italians, and Poles, for example, over the course of a single century. Whiteness is a social invention defined primarily by whom it excludes. Against whiteness there stands the invention of blackness, which in US history has meant inferiority in a racial hierarchy. Slaves coming to the Americas were stripped of their native languages, names, cuisine, and very identities as citizens of distinct cultures. In the place of this history, America substituted a racial order in which blackness was its own identity, one designed to bear the brunt of white greed and prejudice. In order to maintain racial order, racist ideologues and their agents had to define the enemies of whiteness as weak enough to defeat but strong enough to present an existential threat.
The invention of whiteness and blackness dates back to before America was a country. In 1661, Virginia passed a law that prohibited interracial marriage. In the Constitution, racial hierarchy was measured out in precise fractions: Each slave counted for three-fifths of a white person. But the racial paranoia of interbreeding was refined in the 18th and 19th centuries, as race scientists employed phrenology, craniometry, eugenics, and prejudice to justify an existing edifice of racism. Science drew dividing lines, and the Ku Klux Klan and other violent racists policed them. While both de jure and extrajudicial racism had material benefits—recent research has revealed the extent to which lynchings of black men enabled white men to steal land—protecting white women’s virtue served as a potent psychological excuse. But while terror of black sexuality was a useful proxy for economic domination and persecution by white supremacists, the last century has seen that fear manifest as a fear of white extinction. A manufactured panic of being outbred and rendered extinct drove the anti-immigration legislation of 1924 and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
The modern manifestation of the fear expressed by Lothrop Stoddard is a fear that immigration and interracial breeding constitute a “genocide” against the white race. Influenced by the global response to Nazism, the “genocide” terminology dates back to 1994, when the white supremacist David Lane wrote a short document called The White Genocide Manifesto. In it, he wrote down 14 words that neatly encapsulate both the urgency and fixation on breeding of white supremacist ideology. The slogan simply states, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Lane wrote the manifesto in prison, serving a sentence for driving a getaway car from the murder of a Jewish radio host. He’d been part of a white supremacist terrorist group called the Order.
The same anti-immigrant paranoia—and the conviction that there exists a plot against whiteness, seeking to destroy it through immigration—has motivated three mass shootings in the United States. In October 2018, a young man named Robert Bowers murdered 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue; his social media posts revealed he was punishing Jews for, as he saw it, inducing the death of whiteness by orchestrating immigration. Six weeks later, John Earnest, 19, murdered a woman and wounded several more people at a synagogue in Poway, California, leaving a manifesto that blamed Jews for “funding politicians and organizations who use mass immigration to displace the European race.”
And this past weekend, a white supremacist gunman murdered 20 people and wounded 26 more in an effort to stop what he called a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas. He was, he said, “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement.” All four mass shooters shared the same commitment to “great replacement” theory—a theory that rests on the racist commitment to white rule. While some adherents of “great replacement” theory are virulently anti-Semitic, attributing immigration to a Jewish plot, others point to a more generalized social decay as the cause of imminent white extinction. Increased acceptance of gay rights, feminism, and racial equality together form a plot—whether Jewish or not—to convince whites not to breed and allow nonwhites to overwhelm what had been white countries.
As in the 1920s, restrictive immigration policies are being passed in an environment of heightened societal racism. In the early 1920s, Congress passed the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, banning Asian immigration to the United States. Anti-miscegenation laws were passed in numerous states, and Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act, which enforced a “one-drop” rule tightening the boundaries of whiteness. In this environment of politically acceptable racism, a revived Ku Klux Klan went on a racist terror campaign, committing murders, bombings, lynchings, and whippings. In 1921, a white mob attacked the Greenwood neighbourhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a prosperous area known as “Black Wall Street.” The mob torched 35 city blocks, injured 800 people, and killed at least 36, though historians now estimate that as many as 300 people may have been murdered.
In the present day, the easy communication of a global web of radicalised young men and the instant dissemination of murderers’ manifestos have made mass shooting “socially contagious,” according to recent research. But if the desire for an infamous death is a social contagion, then so is the ideology that motivates white supremacist terrorism. Viewed through the warped lens of far-right message boards, news sites, chats, and YouTube channels, immigration is an imminent threat that demands a violent response. Young men marinating in the far-right Internet that glorifies murder, rape, and racism are driven to take up arms, to prevent “the doom of their race,” to be part of a larger cause and live on forever—if only on a list of murderers.
(Lavin is a writer and researcher living in Brooklyn)
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