This month in El Paso, in my beloved Texas, the peace and tranquility of a summer Saturday afternoon were shattered by yet another mass shooting involving a young white man brimming with hate and racism. And I have to ask: Why? From where did this extreme hatred come, vented in gunfire directed at people whose only offense, in his mind, was that they had darker skin and Hispanic surnames? What would drive a man in his early 20s, at the very cusp of a long life in America, to such anger that he was willing to drive 10 hours in 100-degree heat across the state to kill human beings he did not know, all while risking his own life and freedom in the process?
To find the answers we must look within ourselves as a national community.
I was born during turbulent racial times and knew racism’s vitriol far too well as an elementary school child. I could not understand it then and I struggle to understand it now. Desegregation was the hot topic of the day as school districts tried to make education “equal.” But the very idea of integration brought out the worst in many; the rhetoric of leaders in the white community was horrible. I remember Ku Klux Klan rallies where men, hiding their faces, openly shouted extreme hatred for other human beings based solely on the color of the others’ skin.
And then, just two years ago, while on a weekend getaway in Austin, a Fourth of July celebration went from a family celebration brimming with flag-waving and God Bless Americana to a scary, racially charged, hate-filled nightmare as white supremacists and Neo-Nazis stormed the area. Behind “Pepe the Frog” masks, flak gear and helmets, they carried Nazi and Confederate flags and chanted through mega-horns hostile white supremacy rhetoric. They tried to intimidate and scare people gathered and succeeded in breaking up an event percolating in patriotism.
I came away shaken by the realization that the amount of racial hatred in our nation was escalating. Shortly after my experience in Austin came Charlottesville, complete with deadly consequences.
And from where does this hate radiate? There are two strong emotions that will motivate people to put their own lives in danger: one is love, the other is hate. Hate is derived from fear — fear of losing your power, your way of life, your job, your money, any number of things. It is — however much some of us may deny it — a fear of losing white supremacy and that associated, perceived “way of life.” It’s a fear of the unknown: What will happen if another ethnicity outnumbers your ethnicity? That’s why at Charlottesville and in the El Paso massacre, the cry reiterated was: “They shall not replace us.” It’s the fear of being the minority. One can readily find this theme in the so-called “manifesto” purportedly by the El Paso shooter, who at the very outset proclaims: “My motives for this attack are not at all personal. Actually the Hispanic community was not my target before I read ‘The Great Replacement.’ ” The book: a 2011 rant by French white nationalist Renaud Camus about how outsiders unchecked might corrupt French culture and greatness.
So, the thinking seems to be, if you believe another ethnicity will rock your boat of privilege and ease, or change your status quo, if you are fearful enough, such fear can devolve into hate. And fearful people can be rallied to action by the words, chants and rhetoric of others who share this fear. Never underestimate the power of mob mentality. And in today’s world, a mob doesn’t have to even be in the same city. A mob can form across social-media platforms involving online chats with total strangers who share your paranoia. These groups let their anger mix with one another till a heating pot of venom boils over. And when it does, the results are devastating.
What can we do as a community to combat racial hatred? We don’t stand silent, we don’t ignore it. We speak out when we hear racism and hate. We speak out over and over again, clearly and loudly. And this can be uncomfortable when it is your friend, your co-worker, even a fellow church member. When we stand silent as words of racism ring in our ears, seeds of hate are sown. When we stand silent, we are complicit in the gathering storm. So no matter how uncomfortable it may be to speak up when someone says something racist, speak up we must. Don’t be afraid that you will be impolite. Speak up clearly that racist speech has no place in our society.
My challenge to my community: Do your part and speak up. Let’s make ours a community of love and respect where everyone is embraced and no one is afraid. Let us all do our part to stop racist hate in its tracks. And may peace and love follow.