The White Supremacist in Us

Over the past two weeks, Americans struggled to make sense of tragic shootings that seemed disconnected at first glance. Anti-Semite James Von Brunn killed Stephen T. Johns, a black security guard at the Holocaust Museum. George Tiller's murder a few days earlier seemed to be about abortion, yet his shooter, Scott Roeder, also had roots in the racial purity movement. Yesterday, it was reported that the murders of Raul Flores and his daughter in Arizona were charged to three people with white supremacist ambitions.


There's been lots of discussion about why hate crimes are rising and how to prevent future tragedies, yet we've largely missed the relationship between extremist racism and the less obvious version that plays out in our political debates. These shooters all felt that people of color (along with women and Jews) have stolen the birthright of white men. In his book "Kill the Best Gentiles," Von Brunn rails against "the calculated destruction of the White Race." Roeder was a member of the Montana Freemen; commenters on white supremacist websites praised him for ensuring that Tiller would never "kill another White baby." Flores' alleged murderers appear to have been preparing for a white uprising.

Our discussion of these events has boiled down to the idea that racism is an intentional, violent act of a lone crazy white man. Underlying this idea, however, is the unspoken assumption that since we criminalized such hatred through civil rights laws, there's nothing else we can do as a country. Collectively, we bemoan the backwardness of "some" people before we move on, thinking of racism as isolated extremism.

But social psychologists who developed the Implicit Associations Test at Harvard and the Universities of Virginia and Washington in 1998 tell us that notions of the innate goodness of white people and the equally innate badness of people of color are so deeply embedded in our minds that we're totally unaware of making such judgments.

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