Racism is a public health crisis: white radicalization and the lie of meritocracy

One of the more recent tragedies of white male radicalization was the terrorist attack in a Buffalo supermarket earlier this summer, in which a young man who looks like me sought to destroy the lives of as many Black people as possible.

No one demanded to know what *I* think of white male rage, violence, or terrorism.

No one held it against me that this terrorist and I are both white males. No one demanded to know what I think of white male rage, violence, or terrorism (that kind of treatment is reserved for my Black and brown coworkers, friends, and neighbors, who will be asked to explain and account for the actions of people that look more like them). Instead, we heard about mental health, “lone wolves,” troubled childhoods, and “really bad days.”  And white people will continue to distance themselves from the pattern of white supremacist terrorism because that is our privilege – one we need to actively fight against.

I recently had the privilege of attending an important two-day training on Allyship, delivered by the organization Service Never Sleeps. Per the training, one of the tenets of what it means to be an effective ally is to engage with folks who share my privileges to better understand the systems of oppression that benefit us. And while I certainly don’t have all the answers (it is also critically important to remain humble as an ally), I do have some insight into white male radicalization, a terrifying phenomenon with deep historical roots that continues to adapt for the modern age.

This blog is an attempt to explore the pathways through which a young white male like myself becomes engaged in radicalized white supremacist terrorism in the US, and how we might counteract these measures. I do not seek to center myself or people who look like me in racially motivated shootings, and I certainly do not seek to pardon the thoughts or actions of supremacists. Everyone is ultimately responsible for their own actions, and chooses to engage in white supremacist thinking. In order to prevent further radicalization however, I think it’s important for white men to ask the question:

Why does someone who looks like me want to hurt people who don’t?

Recognizing the white supremacy playbook

The Buffalo terrorist’s motivations stem from a long standing history of racist political rhetoric that is regularly echoed in popular mainstream media. You’ve also probably heard how social media and other online communities are the greatest catalysts for the spread and evolution of this dangerous rhetoric. It’s true, and shouldn’t come as a surprise to any active social media user, who is likely to at some point or another be exposed to white supremacist content. As the director of one of the most popular white supremacist websites explicitly explained: “The goal is to continually repeat the same points, over and over and over and over again. The reader is at first drawn in by curiosity or the naughty humor, and is slowly awakened to reality by repeatedly reading the same points.”

This is essentially the playbook for developing young white supremacists; using dog whistles, increasingly explicit racist messaging, humor, and repetition on websites and social media that people are already comfortable using – Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, 4chan, etc. While these sites all operate a little differently, they all actively host (and in some cases promote) white supremacist content including the racist theories that radicalized the Buffalo shooter. Social media algorithms convert engagement to continued exposure, priming users to experience echo chambers of racist content in their feeds. Platforms are either ill equipped or uninterested in moderating this content, despite research telling us that regular exposure to hate speech and racist content both desensitizes and increases prejudice.

So, the information and the manipulation tactics are there and growing, largely unchecked. But what determines who is ensnared? One element that determines the efficacy of radicalization efforts is a person’s protective factors. I can use myself as an illustration here, not long ago an adolescent white male with unfettered internet access and plenty of time. I can’t say with certainty that had I been exposed to the playbook above at an early age I wouldn’t have become radicalized. But I also – thankfully – had a mother who was unafraid to talk about racism, and teachers who were empowered to communicate the truth about our nation’s racist and supremacist past and present.

Policies and pressure that support downplaying racism

Another key protective factor is the ability to synthesize content with proper context. I’ve written before about the dangers of content without context, specifically regarding the misuse of data to justify racist thinking and policymaking. Young people may be exposed to well-tailored white supremacist memes, jokes, and dog whistles before they are educated on the racist history of the United States. But when their teachers are empowered to foster honest discussion, they can nurture critical thinking skills that allow students to meaningfully and critically consume content.

Young people may be exposed to well-tailored white supremacist memes, jokes, and dog whistles before they are educated on the racist history of the United States.

Both of these influences – protective factors and critical/contextual thinking skills – relate to the experience of children in classrooms. The role of our teachers in reducing white supremacist violence therefore cannot be overstated. That is why it is all the more appalling that there are multiple active efforts in the state of Ohio (House Bill 322, House Bill 327, House Bill 616) and nationally that, if passed, would make it illegal to teach lessons about racism in the classroom. The bills prohibit critical analyses of concepts such as the United States being inherently racist, meritocracy being a product of white supremacy, white people bearing responsibility for the actions of our ancestors, and students feeling any sort of psychological distress (including “discomfort” and “anguish”) on account of their race. There’s a lot to unpack and not a lot of room here so I want to focus on just a couple points: impartiality and meritocracy.

The lie of meritocracy

In HB 327, teachers are permitted to teach about “divisive concepts” so long as it is in an “objective manner without endorsement,” and encourages “impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history.” What does that mean, I wonder – to teach “controversial aspects of history” such as slavery and genocide impartially or without endorsement? Would it not be discomforting for young Black Ohioans to hear the horrifying truths about slavery and racism that shaped the laws, culture, and economic strength of the United States, taught in a way that is “impartial”? Would it not be anguishing for young American Indians to learn about the violent theft of their land taught in the proposed detached, neutral way?

The emphasis on upholding the concept of meritocracy illustrates how these bills suppress the critical and contextual thinking skills that help prevent the radicalization of young white men. The notion that hard work and determination pave the way for success is a core belief of the American Dream, but one that has been largely debunked. Factors such as how wealthy your parents are, the quality of your school system, and where in the country you were born are all far more important than how hard you work. In fact, according to the Census, individuals who work multiple fulltime jobs on average make less than people who only hold one job.

The concept of a meritocracy gives white people permission to ignore systemic oppression and problems fundamental to the United States.

The concept of a meritocracy gives white people permission to ignore systemic oppression and problems fundamental to the United States. It gives young white men who learn that, for example, women consistently earn less than men in the work force, or that on average Black and Hispanic families in America only have a small fraction of wealth compared to white families, or that there is a gross overrepresentation of Black people in the criminal legal system, permission to believe stories about personal responsibility and blame. It allows us to believe our privilege was earned. And with zero context for why these inequities exist, the number of young white men primed for the radicalization they will almost inevitably stumble upon (and potentially be taught in their schools) will continue to grow.

So, what can we do?

Fight back against legislative efforts to rob young people of proper education. Support declarations of racism as a public health crisis (an important first step to advancing racial equity). Hold social media companies accountable. And be a positive influence – in person and online. Service Never Sleeps also strongly recommends that allies should amplify BIPOC and other marginalized voices, something that can certainly be done with social and traditional media. You can also explore the comprehensive curation by Black scholars with roots in Buffalo of information related to racism, violent policing, and the systemic oppression Black and Indigenous people face in Buffalo. The collection is called the Buffalo Syllabus. 

Be comfortable with your own self-critique.

Finally, be comfortable with your own self-critique. Are you engaging with or amplifying content online or on social media platforms that is upholding subtly bigoted ideas? Do you have young family members that may have access to this kind of dangerous content? You probably understand why a racist meme is wrong; let’s make sure the children and young adults in our lives do as well. Better that context comes from you and not the comments section.