Jurisprudence

The Dangerous Idea That Links the Buffalo Shooting and the Insurrection

A man carries a Confederate flag through a hallway inside the Capitol
The U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Saul Loeb/Getty Images

A white supremacist’s massacre of 10 people in Buffalo on Saturday demonstrated once again that the United States’ unique combination of entrenched racism and loose gun laws is a recipe for bloodshed. The 18-year-old shooter legally purchased the assault weapon he used to gun down his victims and published a manifesto asserting that immigrants are “replacing” white Americans. This concept, known as the “great replacement” theory, has become a fixture of Fox News and Republican rhetoric in recent years.

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Carol Anderson was disgusted—but not surprised—to see this noxious belief drive yet another mass shooting. A professor of African American studies at Emory University, Anderson has written extensively on the nation’s history of white terrorism against racial minorities. Her latest book, The Second, argues persuasively that the ratification of the Second Amendment was motivated by whites’ desire to oppress Black Americans. We spoke on Tuesday about the Buffalo shooting, the “great replacement” theory, and the broader intersection of racism and gun violence. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

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Mark Joseph Stern: What was your reaction to the Buffalo shooting?

Carol Anderson: Sadness and anger. Sadness because folks who were just living their lives at the grocery store were gunned down. Anger because of the way that the “great replacement” theory has been legitimized in the media and by some political leaders, despite the warnings that this is a campaign that dehumanizes, debases, and can lead to horrific violence. We’ve had evidence of this before. The Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. The Walmart shooting in El Paso. And yet they continue to troll, to stir up their minions.

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I feel frustration at the way that mass death is not able to shake sense into this nation. More guns have not made us safer. Anti-Blackness runs so deep that this society has said that mass shootings are worth it. We are so afraid of Black people that we are willing to not deal with the massive gun violence by having sensible gun safety laws. Historically, when the white community feels threatened, Black folks die.

Last time we spoke, you told me there is an “innocence of whiteness” that’s foundational to this society. I was wondering if you saw that “innocence of whiteness” in the way this attack was covered.

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You mean the way he became an “18-year-old teenager” but Michael Brown was an “18-year-old man”? The way that you had some running to “oh, it’s mental illness,” instead of what Martin Luther King called “the stale bread of hatred”? Or the way that he popped up on the police’s radar because of the threats he had been making at high school, and he was still able to buy a semi-automatic weapon? Yes. Oh, yes. Whiteness is never the threat, even when whiteness is the threat.

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Why do you think that is?

This is a society that has been founded on anti-Blackness, on dehumanizing those who are not white, and on making whiteness the penultimate privilege to which one should aspire. Blackness is the default threat. It’s foundational: Black freedom is “the threat.” In 1800, after Gabriel’s Rebellion [in which several enslaved people planned a revolt against their owners], there were beheadings and torture and horrific violence raining down on the Black community in their quest for freedom. Yet you don’t see the same response to white revolts, like Shays’ Rebellion or the Whiskey Rebellion. When we begin to look at the historical evidence, it just lays itself out.

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How might the Buffalo shooting and other white supremacist shootings echo the way that white people used guns in the 1800s to keep Black people from gaining power and freedom?

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After the Civil War, angry whites—who could not believe that Black people had the right to be free—knew that it was going to take enormous violence to keep the Black population from believing that they had the rights to citizenship. We see that same violence in the rise of Jim Crow, this enormous violence of, on average, one lynching every other day for three decades. That is white domestic terrorism. And it wasn’t always the state. It was these vigilantes—these armed whites believed they had the responsibility to keep Black folks in check. That’s the same kind of responsibility that the folks who killed Ahmaud Arbery believed that they had.

It’s also chillingly similar to what the Buffalo shooter believed.

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It is. And, you know, as a historian, I connect the dots. To me, one of those big dots is the insurrection, which was about those folks in those cities who had the audacity to vote. Trump’s Big Lie was that folks in Milwaukee, in Detroit, in Atlanta, in Philadelphia, stole the election. Notice that those are cities that have sizable minority populations. He didn’t say the election got stolen in Salt Lake City. He linked theft with Blackness, with the assault on American democracy, with folks stealing something valuable from hardworking white Americans. So when they’re carrying the Confederate flag through the halls of Congress, that is invoking whiteness as citizenship. And the threat to that citizenship is not that white supremacy that’s embedded in that Confederate flag, but it is all of these others—this “great replacement.” All of these other non-Americans are coming to steal our culture, to steal our political power, to steal our democracy.

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Those racist beliefs are so often intertwined with a fixation on the right to bear arms.

Think about how Reuters did that review of threats against election officials and poll workers, and how consistently you saw the Second Amendment invoked as a threat against those who were trying to make sure that every vote was counted. That was their sense of “this is our country and they are trying to steal it.” It’s the same thing that the Buffalo killer said.

We’ve seen a surge in white supremacist mass shootings targeting racial minorities, with no attendant increase in gun safety laws. If anything, those laws have been relaxed. I’m curious if you think we’d see the same dynamic if, say, white people were routinely massacred because of their race. 

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Oh, my God. [Laughs.] In the 1960s, you had the Black Panthers carrying weapons as a means of self-defense because the police were beating up and terrorizing the Black community in Oakland. They had their weapons out to say we’re serious, we’re watching you. The cops said we don’t like this at all. They went running to the California Assembly and said, “Every time we pull over the Panthers, they know the law! We can’t arrest them because what they’re doing is legal. They know the kinds of guns they can carry. They know how to carry them. We have to make what they’re doing illegal.” And the NRA helped write the Mulford Act [which outlawed the open carry of loaded guns]. So we have something close to that scenario—except that the Panthers weren’t hunting white folks.

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I want to turn to a recent decision by two Trump-appointed judges striking down a California law banning the sale of semi-automatic rifles to people aged 18 to 20. The ruling is especially alarming in light of the fact that the Buffalo shooter was 18 and purchased his semi-automatic rifle legally. We know those under 21 are statistically much more likely to commit violent crime than older adults. But federal judges are provided with security—they don’t face the lethal consequences of their own rulings.

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They are really protected. After the leaked decision on abortion rights, the Supreme Court was like, Oh, man, I can’t believe that thing got leaked. But y’all look really ticked right now. So we’re going to put some fences up and concrete blocks. These are the same folks who ruled that there shouldn’t be a free zone around abortion clinics so patients don’t get harassed when they’re trying to go in! Rights for me and not for thee.

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I was wondering what you thought of the majority’s historical analysis. The opinion begins: “America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army. Today we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enabled their sacrifice: the right of young adults to keep and bear arms.”

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When you see images of the American Revolution, it’s imagery of white men. But in the Revolutionary War, there weren’t enough white men who would volunteer for the Continental Army. It got to the point where the Continental Congress had to say, OK, Black men can fight in this army because we are not getting enough white men who are willing to fight. Then you see states in the North wooing their enslaved men, saying, “You fight in this war and you will get your freedom.” When that court is invoking the brave young men who fought for our freedom against the redcoats, I don’t think they’re envisioning the enslaved men who were carrying arms fighting for the United States.

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