After an 18-year-old-man opened fire and killed 10 people at a supermarket he had scoped out in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, some local Black religious leaders implored their white brethren to speak out against racism and white supremacy.
“Don’t tell me you’re a friend of our community and you don’t address this today at your pulpit,” Bishop Darius Pridgen of the True Bethel Baptist Church in Buffalo told The New York Times. “If you do not stand behind those holy desks and acknowledge that there are still people who hate Black people, you can go to hell with the shooter for all I care. Because at the end of the day, if you’re silent right now, you are not a friend of mine.”
To broaden that thought: How many white Americans, in general, did anything more than shake our heads over the bad news from Buffalo? You can attribute that to white privilege, but I think it illustrates something sadder and more dangerous — resignation. Fighting the hatred virus is harder than fighting the newest Omicron variant. There’s no vaccine against it, and no sure way in America today to enforce the kind of social distancing that could keep someone like Payton S. Gendron, the alleged shooter in the Buffalo massacre, away from his victims. The usual thoughts, prayers, and denunciations of evil are being expressed. But no leader in charge right now, including President Biden, seems capable of stopping the hate or slowing it down. Meanwhile, politicians on the right are seizing on the darkness as the path to power. Yet pointing that out doesn’t seem to change anything.
The hopeless state of the nation leads to a desire to move onto more pleasant pursuits. After all, as individuals, what can we do, besides spurn Tucker Carlson? I didn’t need to read the thousands of words The New York Times recently printed to document Carlson’s role as star purveyor of “replacement theory” — a racist and ridiculous theory that elites, sometimes inspired by Jews, want to “replace” white Americans. But my personal boycott of Carlson doesn’t keep millions of Fox News viewers from tuning into his number-one rated cable news show, or halt the many other online forums that promote racist and antisemitic theories.
After the Buffalo massacre, Governor Kathy Hochul of New York pledged to take on social media platforms that allow hate speech. The debate over how to do that without undermining First Amendment rights will rage on, and so will the violence. On Sunday, a gunman opened fire inside a church in southern California, killing one person and critically wounding four others. Meanwhile, the Buffalo shooter legally purchased the weapon he used from a licensed dealer. Then he modified it so he could use a high-capacity magazine. That, too, will lead to the inevitable call for more gun regulation, as well as the inevitable argument over Second Amendment rights.
And while there are exhortations to speak out, there are also warnings against saying the wrong thing. “Do not dare write off the shooter as somehow uniquely ‘troubled,’ ” writes Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post. A profile of Gendron in the Times relates anecdotes about a quiet student who became more reclusive as time went on and displayed what was described as increasingly bizarre behavior. For example, Gendron showed up to class in complete hazmat gear after coronavirus pandemic restrictions were lifted in 2020. As a senior last spring, he participated in a project about his post-graduation plans and said he wanted to commit a murder-suicide. He was then taken into custody under a state mental health law, but was ultimately released. He may not be uniquely troubled, but he was troubled. Is it wrong to try to figure out what turned him into not just a hater, but into a hater who plotted a murderous attack over several months?
To Bishop Pridgen I would say, yes, there are white people who hate Black people, and some, spurred on by right-wing media and right-wing politicians, will then take up an evil mission to kill. There are also white people who stand ready to condemn the hate and the hate crime. Even if it feels hopeless, we should do so. Silence is acquiescence. But on its own, speaking out doesn’t reverse hate or change the outcome. As a country, we have to be willing to work together to figure out what does.