My people have been on the receiving end of white nationalist terrorism for more than 400 years. We know it when we see it. Understanding when and how white supremacy rears its ugly head can literally be a matter of life and death for us. We keep an eye out for the subtle and not subtle signs.
My ancestors knew the words and actions that could precipitate a lynching. My parents knew the phrases "tough on crime" and "law and order" were shorthand for mass incarceration and state-sanctioned police brutality against Black and Brown people. I have had the “talk” with my children, wherein I let them know that when it comes to interactions with police they have no civil rights that an officer is obligated to respect, and as such, they should do everything in their power to appear docile. We learn what neighborhoods, cities, and states to avoid. None of the above is a guarantee that white terrorism will not be visited upon us, but an imperfect survival strategy is better than not having one at all. All that to say we have hard-earned expertise about what white supremacy is and can do.
So, I know I echo the frustration of many who have watched Trump ride white nationalism all the way to the White House while the media at large and white liberals, in particular, have hemmed and hawed over whether the president is even racist. I take that back, frustration is the wrong word. It has been maddening to see this president do and say everything short of showing up at a press conference wearing a white hood and yet there is still a debate about whether or not he is racist.
The confusion about what Trump actually represents has had dire consequences. In the last two weeks, dozens of people have died at the hands of domestic terrorists espousing the president’s xenophobic rhetoric. Closer to home, four young people of color were shot by a person who didn’t cite Trump directly, but posted about white supremacist literature on his Instagram feed. Trump, in his expression of white nationalism, has galvanized a base of young homicidally angry white men. This fact combined with unfettered access to assault weapons (a unique feature of American life) has created the conditions for spasmodic slaughtering of innocent people.
The Garlic festival shooting has increased our collective awareness of the domestic terror threat in our own backyard but our supposedly left-leaning political machinery is still behind the curve when it comes to understanding the scope of white supremacy. Case in point, the recent controversy surrounding Santa Clara County’s civil detainer policy.
In the wake of San Jose resident Bambi Larson’s tragic murder, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant, there was a policy debate about whether the county and the city should amend their sanctuary rules and collaborate with ICE. Well-meaning local politicians, many of whom consider themselves adversaries of Trump were unable to see how their knee-jerk impulse to criminalize an entire community in the name of public (i.e. white people’s) perceived safety is straight out of the white supremacy playbook. This would have been an opportune time for leaders in city government and law enforcement to learn a valuable lesson about the depth and breadth of white nationalism from the activists and organizers who battle this threat daily. Instead, we had a long and unnecessary debate which thankfully ended without negative changes to the policy and now we can say we have the strongest civil detainer policy in the country – but the rift between law enforcement, city government, and our immigrant communities was further damaged.
In the wake of these mass shootings, folks from across the political spectrum (even Republicans!) have begun to draw a line of connection between Trump’s rhetoric and white terror. That's a good thing. Better late than never. But understanding the current violence only within the scope of 45’s presidency is still a short-sighted analysis. White nationalist ideology underpins all aspects of American life and this has always been the case. In order to reckon this violence, we are going to have to be clear about what white supremacy is and can do.
For those who are new to this understanding, now is the time to listen to those of us who have had to learn about white supremacy the hard way.
Demone Carter is a local arts advocate in San Jose. Currently, he works at the School of Arts and Culture at MHP, a cultural institution in East San Jose that catalyzes creativity and empowers community.
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