The day before Payton Gendron drove to Buffalo to commit what has been described as a “straight-up racially motivated hate crime,” he circulated a 180-page manifesto espousing the belief that, as one news outlet put it, “the U.S. belongs to White people and all others should be eradicated by force or terror.” Gendron’s proclamation—a candid rationalization for white nationalist violence—is far from the first of its kind. And it won’t be the last.
Over the past several years, a half-dozen white supremacists committed acts of violence under the belief that their country belongs to white people and they must suppress any risk of replacement by force. This delusion led Anders Breivik to kill 77 people in Norway in 2011 and inspired Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. to kill three people outside of a Jewish community center in Kansas in 2014. Elliot Rodger espoused the same notion in 2014 when he killed six people in Santa Barbara, California.* So did Dylann Roof before he killed nine parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. Patrick Crusius, who killed 23 people in a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, and Brenton Tarrant, who killed 51 worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, also composed and shared lengthy white supremacist screeds.
I’ve read each manifesto as part of my work as a professor and researcher at the University of Connecticut on the intersection of “race,” knowledge, media, power, religion, and science. In particular, I focus on whiteness and racism. While there is a diversity of ideas represented under the umbrella of white supremacy, two prominent logics weave their way throughout each manifesto. First, for example, Gendron writes:
White people are failing to reproduce, failing to create families. … Mass immigration will disenfranchise us, subvert our nations, destroy our communities, destroy our ethnic ties, destroy our cultures, destroy our peoples.
This is a voice of victimhood, weakness, and panic. But second, and simultaneously, Gendron like many others, proclaims an inherent white racial superiority:
I believe the White race is superior in the brain to all other races. … The brilliance and creativity found in White’s is incomparable to all other races, therefore I believe that White’s are superior.
These two tales form the DNA of the white supremacist manifesto. It is a double helix of equal parts inadequacy and superiority, a uniform blend of peril and power. How do two seemingly antagonistic ideas so easily commingle?
Often, these contradictions are rationalized by framing them as the product of psychopathology. Less than 24 hours after the Buffalo shooting, for example, the New York Times reported that Gendron was held for a “mental health evaluation last year” (buried in the story, the report concedes that he was evaluated and released). Others caricature white supremacists as political Neanderthals. “The right-wing extremists who control the modern GOP are all gripped by a racist delusion. The shooter is just the latest to act on it,” Rolling Stone opined. And for others, such contradictions fuse in the tangled pastiche of the internet. The “new generation of white supremacists” is “isolated and online, radicalized on internet memes and misinformation,” as the Los Angeles Times tells it.
But to explain the paradox of racial force and feebleness across white nationalist manifestoes like Gendron’s, we must critically assess whiteness—not mental health, not politics, and not media. This is ironic, given that it seems many do not understand the centrality of whiteness in, well, white supremacy.
The category of whiteness, like “race,” is a biological fiction with a social function. Whiteness emerged early in American history to rationalize exploitation. Early American colonists were slow to develop racial worldviews. But by the mid-1600s, philosophers and scientists like Bernard Varen, John Ray, and François Bernier began to publish ideas about African savagery and European civilization, which were progressively applied to resolve who should be the rulers versus the ruled. These ideas were codified into our legal system. In 1662, for instance, British statutory law conferred slavery with a biological status: Any child born to an enslaved woman would also be a slave. Over time, through a series of laws and social mores, a hierarchy that conferred legal privileges to “white” men, while stripping Black people and Native Americans of their humanity and standing in the legal and political arenas, was cemented.
Put another way, whiteness is not an inherent identity so much as a consolidation of lofty biological, legal, and theological notions that serve to buttress the social and political power of people bearing lighter skin. As W.E.B. Du Bois points out in his 1920 essay “The Souls of White Folk,” whiteness is a modern concept:
The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing. … The ancient world would have laughed at such a distinction. … This assumption that of all the hues of God whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness or tan leads to curious acts. … I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen! Now what is the effect on a man or a nation when it comes passionately to believe such an extraordinary dictum as this?
The effect is a Faustian bargain. And as a result, whiteness exists in a state of perpetual social anxiety. White people are taught that their biological, cultural, and/or God-given nature is to be “inherently and obviously better” than people of color and to have “ownership of the earth.” These ideals are, of course, so lofty that they are unachievable. Discontent is inevitable. Whiteness is a deal with the devil.
Consequently, white people move neither into nor out of moments of racial anxiety, nor do they—despite the popularity of the cliché—experience flashes of “white fragility.” Whiteness does not wax or wane relative to racial pressures, cracking to expose either reactionary political movements or even the occasional mass shooting. Rather, whiteness is an omnipresent imbroglio; it cannot live up to the greatness it assumes it can naturally realize.
Reconciling the peril that results from the inability to fully manifest white power necessitates a scapegoat. And so the crisis of whiteness is continually externalized onto racial “others.” This helps to explain why an increasing number of white people now believe they have been cheated out of their birthright—an inheritance of domination stolen by people of color. White nationalism and supremacy could not function under absolutist apartheid; it is an ideology and practice that requires the presence of people of color to justify its own shortcomings. White peril and white power go hand in hand.
Many of the white men responsible for recent acts of domestic terrorism have penned manifestoes jampacked with lies, errors, and myths about whiteness and the world. Gendron, Breivik, Roof, and others ramble on ad nauseum about interracial marriage, ethno-racial migration, and welfare—not to mention racial supremacy, eugenics, and murder. But the core tenets of “white nationalism” are neither as rare nor as unpalatable as one may assume.
Before killing nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, Roof wrote about his beliefs that Black people are intellectually inferior to white people. “Negroes have lower Iqs, lower impulse control,” he wrote. “There are personality traits within human families, and within different breeds of cats or dogs, so why not within the races?” His ramblings highlight some of the most fundamental and abhorrent beliefs about “race.” And while these notions have ostensibly fallen out of favor in polite society, recent polling makes clear that, among many white Americans, these ideas are still entrenched.
Consider the attitudes captured in the General Social Survey, a national poll “assessing the attitudes, behaviors, and attributes of the American public.” Between 2012 and 2016, 23 percent of white people living in the U.S. believed their intelligence to be greater than the intelligence of Black people. That’s nearly 1 in 4. GSS data from 2021 also shows that 29 percent of white people surveyed believe that Black people do not have “the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty.”
The same phenomenon holds true for white nationalist beliefs that people of color migrate to majority-white nations to usurp “the white man’s industries, claim the white man’s welfare and buy and use goods created by the creativity and ingenuity of Western—white—people,” as Breivik put it in his manifesto. While this is supposedly a peripheral belief, many white people support divestment from public welfare services when those resources are believed to benefit people of color, especially Black Americans. Thirty percent of white people believe the government should not aid Black people, according to the 2021 GSS. Roughly a quarter of white people believe we spend “too much” on “assistance to Blacks,” while roughly 20 percent believe we spend “too much” on “improving the conditions of Blacks.”
White people even subscribe to hyperbolic views, shared by Gendron and others, that the world has become increasingly hostile to white people. Gendron opined about “anti-white politicians” and the “anti-white state.” Other white supremacists have even concluded that “anti-white racism is real and a very underestimated phenomena.” These views are shared by a majority of white Americans. In 2021, the GSS found that 56 percent of white people believe that a white person won’t get a job or promotion while an equally or less qualified Black person gets one instead. Similarly, research has shown that many now believe white discrimination is both more prevalent and more intense than discrimination against Black people. And a host of studies indicate that white people tend to translate increasing diversity as a growing anti-white bias.
In the rush to make sense of the shooting in Buffalo, many have categorized the violence as the reflection of hatred, bigotry, mental illness, and growing extremism. It may be tempting, or even comforting, to view the manifestoes shooters like Grendon leave behind as merely the bile of the big bad bigots. But that conclusion is a pleasant fiction. As it turns out, many white Americans across very different ideological and political orientations believe in and employ similar racist ideologies. In reality, white supremacist terrorism is a natural outgrowth of mundane and banal white socialization. So long as white people hold one another implicitly accountable to unattainable ideals of superiority and excellence while targeting people of color, and Black people in particular, as the objects of their un-manifest destiny, the violence will not end. White Americans cannot exorcize these demons without also examining their souls.
Correction, May 19, 2022: This piece originally misstated that Elliot Rodger killed three people. He killed six.