It’s a new week in America, so we probably shouldn’t be surprised that Twitter has blown up with a picture of a majority-white class of teenage boys posing with the Seig Heil, a Nazi salute, dressed for what appears to be a school dance. Outside of a few boys, including one who confirmed he chose to abstain from doing the signal and that many of the classmates he was pictured with had bullied him for years, each was positively gleeful with joy in displaying a salute that recalls one of the most horrifying organizations in history, one which targeted Jews and other groups of people because of their identity, held them en masse in concentration camps, and systematically burned them alive.
What’s interesting to me is that the horrified uproar that launched on Twitter yesterday was actually a delayed response to the photo, and not one triggered by an act of literal violence–which is what usually forces the country to briefly face the consequences of white supremacist posturing. The photo of these students posing with the Nazi salute was released to the Baraboo community months and months ago. The photographer who took the picture (and who reportedly encouraged the boys to make the salute which he now claims was a ‘wave goodbye to parents’) had been displaying it on his website with no qualms. Parents had shared it on Facebook. Scores of adults were witness to this hearkening to one of the darkest periods of human history—to the point that they cheerfully helped spread it to their networks online—and evidently no one saw it as a problem that these boys were mirroring the markers of Nazis until a dude on Twitter questioned it.
It’s part of a larger pattern I’ve noticed in America, where people boldly communicate their support of race-based violence on all sorts of platforms (in New York Times interviews, on Twitter, on Gab, on Reddit) and witnesses to this—usually white people—bend over backwards to assure us that the implied and explicitly stated desires of the bigots—usually men—who virulently hate specific groups of people are nothing to worry about.
Friends of Dylan Roof, the white man who murdered 9 black people in a church in Charleston and had an online catalog of his genocidal fantasies, said the mass shooter “would talk about killing people, but none of us took him seriously.”
Cesar Sayoc, the Trump supporter who sent pipe bombs to a number of President Trump’s favorite public punching bags–including Jewish philanthropist George Soros, drove around in a van emblazoned with pictures of Democrats with red-targets over their faces, was known by his family and coworkers as a man who regularly sent racist texts, had run-ins with law enforcement due to previous bomb threats, and was asked to park his delivery van in a discreet area at the job where he worked earlier this year because, according to his former boss, it displayed:
“…puppets with their heads cut off, mannequins with their heads cut off, Ku Klux Klan, a black person being hung, anti-gay symbols, torchings, bombings, you name it, it was all over his truck,”
She added, “He always talked about ‘if I had complete autonomy none of these gays or these blacks would survive.”
The man who opened fire on a yoga class in California, killing two women and then himself, had shouted over and over again—seemingly into the void—about his violent inclinations. He publicly fantasized about molesting, raping, and killing women. He complained about ‘the invasion of Central American children’, admired the Toronto misogynist who shot 20 people because he couldn’t get a date, and recorded songs on Soundcloud like one called ‘Who let the F*gs’ out. All over the internet, and in real life, he was positively brimming with the desire to have a human target on which to spend his rage.
I admit to being confounded by America’s steadfast adherence to free speech that often makes itself known most fervently when in defense of views that explicitly threaten the person-hood of huge swaths of people. Like the love of guns, the support of a theoretical ideal—that one should be able to say and wield whatever they want, no matter how abhorrent or dangerous—seems to hold more value here than the real human lives which are increasingly sacrificed for those inflexible rights.
We’ve seen white supremacy handled with a similarly indulgent approach; one where many are loathe to even admit it is inherently deadly. Like the school and parent community of Baraboo who did not initially interrogate why a group of boys carried out their best impression of Hitler Youth, the general response seems to be ‘boys will be boys’, as if flirting with white supremacy and reminiscences of genocide is just another benign adolescent phase, or a differing idea worthy of debate and reasoned consideration. Either way, nothing to really worry about and certainly nothing to proactively contain. Meanwhile, the real life implications of these beliefs are both festering and fatal:
- Hate crimes have risen for the third year in a row.
- Our leaders have become bolder and bolder in employing rhetoric that dehumanizes whole groups of people by describing them as everything from dirt to infestations—which historically has preceded the forced elimination of people who’ve been similarly maligned.
- The killings of Heather Hyer and the Emanuel nine, the recent shootings of randomly chosen black people in Louisville, the murderous attack on worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.
On the individual and institutional levels (including mainstream media outlets and the FBI, who has admitted it has no concerted strategy to address the rise of right-wing extremism, but has readily monitored groups like #BlackLivesMatter) the reaction to mostly white men saying plainly—over and over—that they are eager to use violence to assert their self-ascribed superiority in the social order has been decidedly timid.
My hypothesis is that, loathe as we are to admit it, the belief that whiteness inherently deserves precedence lies within many across this country. To acknowledge that that belief cannot be divorced from it’s logical ending throughout all of history: that non-whites should be subjugated, given less opportunities, brutalized, and their numbers regularly culled, forces the low-level racist to own their support of an ideology that is fundamentally evil. To have their cake and eat it too, to hold that white supremacy is just an alternative view, or even more disingenuously, a form of high-level comedy (or low-level, according to the ‘boys will be boys’ crowd) allows those who sympathize with racist beliefs to tell themselves they are separate from the deadly consequences of it.
But they aren’t blind to the fact that non-white people don’t get to escape the bullets of the men whose vile views they indulge, make excuses for, and rationalize away. They’re getting the end result they wanted—the terrorizing of minorities who arrogantly believe they have the right to equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination, to ascend to the schools, jobs, and neighborhoods that racists believe to be their birthright—while getting to pretend all they want is a safe space for white identity politics to be heard. They just want a little separate but equal, is that such a crime?
But white supremacy isn’t benign. It never has been, and never will be. It is invariably coupled with cowardice, and so its most pathetic proponents are driven to distance themselves from its inherently violent conclusions to convince themselves that they aren’t tacitly supporting attacks on humanity.
What those sympathetic bystanders fail to realize is that the race violence they stoke, wink at, and then disingenuously downplay won’t fit within clearly defined lines when it’s ready to devour whatever it needs to quench it’s thirst. It’s a little like Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when he sets a bewitched blaze to a room in hopes of harming those he deems lesser, and then almost loses his life in the flames himself. When the conflagration of radicalized, unhinged white rage takes its final shape of America, we’re all at risk for getting burnt. Even those who saw it coming and welcomed it with their silence.