I have often disagreed with the notion that racism is a permanent fixture in American society. I believe too strongly in humanity’s ability to change, to adapt, to dream. I believed that our country could someday become a semblance of the utopia it often claims to be.
Then I learned that 18-year-old Payton Gendron had walked into a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., and killed 10 people — eight of them Black — while wounding three others. I learned that Gendron had meticulously planned his actions after being indoctrinated by online racist conspiracy theories. I learned that there will always be someone else to take up the mantle of white supremacy. I learned, while watching a young man sacrifice years of freedom in the service of bigotry, that racism is indeed permanent.
Not because past generations have created systems that are meant to keep Black people in a condition as close to slavery as possible. And not because there is a conscious effort to keep the truth about America’s history of racism out of schools.
Racism is permanent because present and future generations of white supremacists are being taught to hate. And we’re not doing nearly enough to combat that toxic messaging.
Dylann Roof killed nine Black people at a Bible study. The arresting officers clothed the admitted white supremacist in a bulletproof vest and gave him a meal from Burger King before taking him to jail. Kyle Rittenhouse brought a semiautomatic rifle to a Black Lives Matter protest, claiming he was there to protect property. That night, he killed two white men who dared to stand up for Black lives. Then he walked past the cops carrying the rifle that he used. They found him not guilty at trial.
Payton Gendron studied such cases. Then he decided, based on the racist garbage he read on the internet, to buy a gun and ammunition, dress in tactical gear, drive 200 miles to Buffalo, conduct surveillance on a store, and kill as many Black people as he could.
Racism is permanent because the faded photographs of century-old lynchings have been replaced by videotaped gunshots that are livestreamed on Twitch. That is how Gendron chose to document his actions. But he didn’t stop there. He laid the foundation for his cowardly act of terrorism with a 180-page diatribe that enumerated the ways in which he hates Black people. Of course, all these things are alleged, just as it is alleged that Gendron bragged to the arresting officers about the racism that drove him to kill.
Gendron was taught to be racist. And his lessons were undergirded by a right-wing conspiracy theory known as the great replacement. In some circles, white nationalists teach that Jews are promoting immigration and pushing interracial marriage to suppress the white population. In Europe, replacement theory falsely blames top politicians for the growth in the Muslim population. On the internet, where Gendron was exposed to such conspiracies, evil grows in the dark.
Gendron, who scrawled the N-word on the barrel of his rifle to punctuate his hatred, is just the latest young white racist to target African Americans in an armed act of terrorism. And he will not be the last. Because racism is permanent.
The question now is simply this: What, if anything, can we do about it?
President Joe Biden visited Buffalo in the wake of the shooting, and rightly called white supremacy a poison. “In America, evil will not win, I promise you. Hate will not prevail,” he said. “White supremacy will not have the last word.”
Biden is right, but if the president wants to protect Black lives, he should do everything possible to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. He should stake his political career on passing federal voting rights legislation. He should do what he can to bring change.
Because even if racism in America is permanent, if we fight against it, racism no longer has to be prevalent.