Researchers have shown a dramatic reduction in bias about race in recent years. The long-term trend is that Americans are getting more tolerant. And there is little that white supremacist terrorists can do about it.
The 21-year-old terrorist who assaulted a retail mall in El Paso on August 3 was a white supremacist who believed in a "Hispanic invasion" in the United States. He also showed sympathy for an even more heinous hate crime that occurred months earlier: the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 51 people were murdered and another 49 were injured. Hate criminals have a tendency to inspire each other. And there have been widespread worries in the months after the Christchurch massacre that we are on the verge of a new worldwide epidemic of racist homicides.
The sense of immediacy that emerges from 24/7 social-media coverage of such disasters, which overwhelms the insulating effects of geography, fuels these worries. Following the Christchurch massacre, the Chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, where I work, felt compelled to send an email to all students, staff, and faculty condemning the attack and offering a variety of mental health and diversity resources to members of the University community—particularly Muslims.
I expressed my gratitude to the Chancellor for her thoughtful message. But I also assured her that I wouldn't let a crazed gunman half a world away cause me anxiety or fear. As horrific as the Christchurch incident was, such occurrences are incredibly rare and unlikely in both New Zealand and the United States.
Domestic extremists in the United States killed roughly 50 individuals last year, up to 37 the year before, according to information collated by the Anti-Defamation League. 72 persons were murdered in 2016. These are awful and horrible deaths. They are not, however, symptoms of a wave of white nationalist terror "spreading like an infection across the country," as one worldwide headline put it, in a country of 320 million people.
Following the El Paso terrorist assault, Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders vowed to "go to war" against prejudice. This is the kind of phrase George W. Bush employed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Even after terrorism murdered more than 3,000 Americans—two orders of magnitude greater than the current yearly death toll from extremism in the United States—it became evident that "war" was a misguided way to combating hate.
Sanders did not elaborate on what his anti-racism campaign would include. He did, however, appear to have identified a broad range of targets. "Hitler and his white nationalism wiped out my father's whole family," Sanders said at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta. "Too many people have battled and died against racism throughout the years to allow it to reemerge and flourish in America... In every part of our life, we shall wage war on white nationalism and bigotry."
Genocide is horrible. White nationalism is terrible. Racism is reprehensible. However, the haphazard blending of different ideas into a single rhetorical flourish is problematic. It's critical to distinguish between individual intolerance and violent extremism when it comes to legislation and policy. Ordinary prejudice is relatively frequent in all parts of the world, but seeing an act of violent extremism inspired by group hatred is quite rare.
According to a 2019 Pew study, a large proportion of Americans report hearing racist or racially insensitive statements or jokes about other groups from friends or family members of their own racial origins. The figures differed only slightly depending on the respondent's racial group. 44% of blacks said they hear racially inappropriate statements from friends and family on a regular or sometimes basis. Whites made up 46% of the population. If we were to combine ordinary prejudice with a proclivity for violent extremism, we would predict millions of racial terrorists in the United States. There aren't any, thankfully.
A increasing drive to suppress objectionable information wherever it appears is one result of this conflation of everyday racism with mass murder. For example, in the days following the El Paso incident, Texas Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rourke, a long-shot Democratic presidential contender, asked for a reform in the law to make it easier to require that social media corporations remove "hate speech and domestic terrorism" from their platforms. "When any one population is targeted, the fundamental notion of America is under attack," he continued. That is why we must all work together to not just connect the links between the spread of hatred across our society and the rise in mass shootings, but also to take action to address the problem."
Whether it's about the Middle East war, gender politics, or immigration policy, allegations of "hate speech" fly thick and fast on social media. The fact that O'Rourke would use a conflated term like "hate speech and domestic terrorism" demonstrates that he hasn't fully considered the ramifications of a policy that would link all hate speech to the apocalyptic threat of mass murder.
That is the problem with living in dread of terrorists: it causes us to respond to crime emotionally rather than sensibly. This means waging a metaphorical war on terrorism and an actual war on Iraq during the Bush administration. Today, it means concentrating on a scary but minor phenomena that kills hundreds of innocent people every year, despite the fact that suicide, the 10th largest cause of death in the United States, claimed the lives of almost 47,000 Americans in 2017.
Though it's difficult to see in the age of Trump, the arc of American history demonstrates that tolerance, not intolerance, is the trend. Harvard University researchers have used data from 2007 to 2016 to show that there has been a significant decline in both implicit and explicit racial bias. Long-term, the United States is becoming more tolerant. And white nationalist terrorists have no power to stop it.
If we start to restrict civil liberties, spread panic and exaggerate the amount of hate and violence in our societies, we will give terrorists what they want: greater control over our political narratives and personal psychology. The killer who murdered those innocent Muslims in Christchurch likely will be sent to jail for the rest of his life. Yet, if he causes me to fear going to a mosque, he would still continue to harm the quality of my life. (One recent survey found that a third of Americans are avoiding some gatherings or public events out of fear of mass shootings.)
This is a movie we've watched before. Following the 9/11 attacks, the US and its allies stepped up unneeded overseas combat, enforced home monitoring, and developed an all-encompassing societal fascination with terrorism. The result was that a terrorist organization became a major geopolitical player. On a more mundane level, it frightened American passengers, wreaked havoc on the airline business, and subjected millions of toddlers and grandparents to intrusive and humiliating airport security screenings.
Media outlets are part of the problem—though often in a way that runs opposite to what O’Rourke suggests. One study released last year found that the incidence of mass shootings went up after periods of heavy media coverage of previous mass shootings—perhaps because would-be murderers are impressed by the amount of psychological havoc they can create with a single spasm of evil.
CNN, which taught Americans to be paranoid about anthrax two decades ago, has hyped a supposed “school shooting epidemic”—despite the fact that school shootings are actually down since the 1990s. In response to the scare, panicked school officials and politicians have spent millions of dollars on school security theater that is unlikely to help anyone. More children die every year in pool drownings than in school shootings.
To make matters even worse, at least six states now require mandatory school-shooting drills—terrifying experiences for young children. And it’s not even clear these drills actually help students, even at those rare schools where a mass shooting will occur. The killer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, had been through these drills, and planned his 2018 shooting with that experience in mind.
None of this implies that our governments should remain silent in the face of white nationalist terrorism or school killings. These are severe policy problems that necessitate substantial policy solutions. On a personal level, we should strive to make ourselves, our friends, and family members more tolerant of others around us: For a variety of reasons, a less racist society is a better society. However, allowing panic and anxiety to rule our lives is counterproductive. It's cliched, but it's true: Terrorists seek such a response.