How the Trail of American White Supremacy Led to El Paso
A century ago this week, the city of Chicago, its air tinged with smoke, was conducting a body count. It had just endured eight days of arson and violence, which had claimed the lives of thirty-eight people—fifteen of them white, twenty-three of them black—including John Simpson, the sole police officer killed during the unrest. More than five hundred people were injured. Ostensibly, the violence began when Eugene Williams, a seventeen-year-old African-American, went swimming and rafting with his friends on Lake Michigan and drifted toward a part of the beach used only by whites. A white man named George Stauber began hurling stones at Williams, who eventually slipped beneath the water and drowned. Racial skirmishes broke out along the beach and spread across the city, lighting kindling that had been laid throughout the previous year. Thousands of black soldiers returning from the First World War competed against white workers for employment and housing. The veterans brought with them a renewed intolerance for discrimination, an attitude summarized in an editorial by W. E. B. Du Bois in the magazine The Crisis. “By the God of Heaven,” Du Bois wrote, “we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” Other African-Americans, newly arrived migrants from the South, as part of what became known as the Great Migration, were viewed as interlopers whose willingness to work for low pay undercut the wages of white men. As the poet Eve Ewing notes in her searing collection “1919,” white Chicagoans attributed the violence to a “Negro invasion” of previously white enclaves. The world had been made safe for democracy; Chicago had not.
This past Saturday, the Chicago Race Riot of 1919 Commemoration Project held events across the city, including a bike tour and panel discussions, to memorialize the dead and to detail the legacy of that week of chaos and terror. The same day, fifteen hundred miles to the south, in El Paso, Texas, there was a different commemoration taking place, one more akin to a dramatic reënactment than a sombre reflection—the past climbing out from its shallow grave to place its claim on the present. Twenty-two people died at the hands of a man armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a list of grievances yellowed by a century of repetition. A manifesto believed to be written by the shooter cites the “Hispanic invasion of Texas”—a contortion of history if ever there was one—as a motive for the murders. Another section of that document offers a disclaimer meant to indemnify Donald Trump. “My ideology has not changed for several years,” it states. “My opinions on automation, immigration, and the rest predate Trump and his campaign for president.” This is notable, in the sense that unsolicited denials often sound like direct admissions. In the past month, Trump has urged four sitting members of Congress—Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib—all women of color, to “go back” to where they came from, and attacked a fifth representative, Elijah Cummings, an African-American, by claiming that his district is “disgusting,” rat-infested, and beneath human habitability. Trump followed that with a tweet appearing to jeer when Cummings reported that his home had been burglarized. The language of the alleged El Paso shooter’s screed bears resemblance to Trump’s rhetoric, particularly in the martial description of undocumented people as an “invasion.” If the immediate conversation in the aftermath of El Paso—and the massacre of nine people thirteen hours later, in Dayton, Ohio—has tended toward the accessibility of weapons of war in civilian life, the word “invasion” becomes even more telling. We are not, the killers seem to be telling us, living in peacetime. An AK-47 is a tool created to address enemy invasions.
Past New Yorker coverage of mass shootings and the battle over gun control.
In remarks delivered at the White House on Monday, Trump explicitly denounced white supremacy, just as he eventually did after first praising the “very fine people” at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, two years ago this weekend. (He reverted to form a few months later by referring to Haiti and African countries as “shitholes.”) Just as he criticized people who chanted, about Ilhan Omar, “Send her back!,” at a rally three weeks ago. (He followed that by reversing that criticism and launching more racist tweets a week later.) Trump’s mindless belligerence, his perilous and ignorant world view, and, particularly, his use of inflammatory racist rhetoric are rightly seen as alarming. The Presidency is the most esteemed and powerful platform in the country, and it is reasonable to see a relationship between the President’s imprimatur and the ballistic bedlam that regularly erupts and targets people and groups for whom he has expressed contempt. Cesar Sayoc, who on Monday was sentenced to twenty years in prison for sending sixteen homemade pipe bombs to people whom he deemed enemies of the President, argued that his perspective was skewed by mental illness—and also by his obsessive admiration of Trump. This, for the record, is why people in public life are supposed to be mindful of their rhetoric. Their words reach a wide swath of the public, which has varying abilities to interpret their meaning and their nuance, or to parse what is said in earnest from what is meant facetiously. (Trump is particularly troublesome in this regard, as his most incendiary words are frequently explained away as humor lost on his uptight critics.)
The more difficult possibility is that the alleged shooter’s manifesto is truthful, and that there is no causal or suggestive link between his actions and Trump’s words. The Chicago riot of 1919 exists within a constellation of violence known as the Red Summer. Two dozen riots erupted in the summer and fall of that year, overwhelmingly targeting black people, particularly those who had migrated into urban areas in the North and the Midwest. In that pre-Internet age, there was no need for central coördination. In Elaine, Arkansas; Washington, D.C.; Omaha, Nebraska; Charleston, South Carolina; Wilmington, Delaware; Chicago, and elsewhere, mobs of whites, confronted with the possibility of black people gaining a share of the housing, employment, and democracy that they enjoyed, independently reached the same conclusion about the proper recourse. As the historian Linda Gordon points out in her book “The Second Coming of the KKK,” the Klan, which had become moribund at the end of the nineteenth century, was resurrected during that time, adopting a broader set of hatreds, adding Jews and immigrants to its enemies list. Racial charlatans such as the lawyer and eugenicist Madison Grant, who wrote “The Passing of the Great Race,” and the journalist Lothrop Stoddard, the author of “The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy,” whipped up public fears that the white population was being subsumed in a tide of inferior bloodlines. Exclusionary, racist immigration laws were passed. And black people in cities were pursued and attacked, leaving an estimated two hundred and fifty fatalities. Invasions, after all, are to be met with overwhelming force.
Trump declared his Presidential campaign on June 16, 2015, citing the presence of Mexican rapists as part of his rationale. A day later, Dylann Roof killed nine black people in the basement of a church in Charleston, citing the threat of black rapists as his rationale. The former did not cause the latter—Roof, in fact, had been planning the attack for months. But Trump and Roof were responding to the same racial Zeitgeist, one in which the elevation of a black President meant that the value of whiteness had been correspondingly diminished. History, we’re told, repeats itself. But this phrasing has always troubled me, as if we are beholden to an inanimate application designed to produce similar situations again and again. A more precise assessment is that people respond in familiar ways to the same dynamics across time. There is no law mandating that our futures bear some familial resemblance to the worst of our present. Humans may learn from history. But we’ll invariably find ourselves locked in conflict with dangerous men intoxicated with their own sense of mission, and drunkenly believing that the only problem with the past is that we ever departed from it at all.
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