Last weekend, just as I finished a live performance in California of Four Questions, the Grammy award-winning jazz collaboration for which I provided spoken words, word reached me about the racist killing of 10 people as they shopped in Buffalo, New York. I try never to be surprised by evil and never paralysed by despair. Instead, my immediate reaction was “here we go again”, with the horror, the suffering and then the now familiar routine of rhetorical gestures and superficial posturing.
On Tuesday, Joe Biden described white supremacy as a poison, and he is right, but – as ever – he fails to understand the gravity of his failure to make racial justice a priority; to see this cowardly white supremacy as a threat to American democracy.
The simple truth is that you cannot see this latest neofascist attack in isolation. Think of the attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, when a white supremacist terrorist killed nine African Americans during their Bible study in 2015. Think of the attack on the American Asian community in Atlanta last year, when four people were murdered amid assertions from prosecutors that the attack was fuelled by race and gender hatred. Or the attack on Chicanos in El Paso, Texas, in 2019, when 22 people were killed in an allegedly hate-motived shooting; and the murder of 11 Jewish Americans at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh the same year by a man who said Jews “were committing a genocide to his people”.
White supremacy is as American as apple pie. It was constitutive of the founding of our nation, like a serpent wrapped around the legs of the table on which the Declaration of Independence and constitution were signed. What we saw in Buffalo at the weekend is another manifestation of it.
From what we know, the alleged shooter was a young and gullible man who got caught in the web of neofascist propaganda. But it is important to look beyond him – to look to those who have created this atmosphere of anger and hate.
After the death of George Floyd, there was a marvellous display of multiracial solidarity, not just here but around the world. But the US has been unable to fight against this neofascist challenge. The Trump forces have got stronger. They have become the public face of US neofascism, and their targets are black people and indigenous people and LGBTQ people.
Trump is not out there with a gun, but he is leading a campaign continuing what Malcolm X called a war against black and coloured people. He is doing it within the electoral political system. He is not killing folks. But he bears responsibility in terms of the context. Have no doubt, he is still the dominant figure.
The campaigning and reflection after the death of George Floyd should have made things better in the US. And, for a beautiful moment, it did. But that moment passed. The press is fickle, the pandemic started to kick in, and other issues such as Ukraine and inflation captured attention. Look at the polls and see how issues of race have fallen down the list of people’s priorities.
The impact of the George Floyd marches was blunted. Congress was unable to enact any meaningful legislation, including the George Floyd bill itself, which would have given us some mechanism with which to address police misconduct and brutality. The Democratic party was not even able to act decisively to uphold voting rights for black people. That is a colossal failure of the Biden administration, but then Biden bears a lot of responsibility when it comes to the position and arrogance of these white supremacists.
Last year Biden said America was not a racist country, and his vice-president, Kamala Harris, backed him on that. But these are lies, and those lies have their effect. If we operate on that level, how can we ever address the vicious legacy of racism and white supremacy?
To the president and Democrats in power, I say: “Shame on you, you dropped the ball.” They must be vigilant and stop acting as if these murders are something they can address in a couple of weeks and then move on. Race is the most explosive issue in the history of this country: from war to civic strife to Buffalo.
The president can’t stop a rightwing gangster killing black people, but he can send a message. He can say: I am being consistent because one of my major priorities is to ensure black people have their rights. If, after all the demonstrations and the campaigns, racists pick up the message that politicians don’t really care about black people, we end up exactly where we are today.
Neofascists and the far right have momentum with their narrative of the great replacement, but someone – and ideally it would be Biden – needs to explain to them what is really going on: that in some places there is replacement in the name of fairness. That sometimes they are seeing visible black folk where they did not previously see them. The racists need to know that they are living in a changing society and we are concerned about them being treated fairly, just as they should be concerned about others being treated fairly. There is a fascist story about replacement and a progressive story about replacement. The neoliberal story cannot counter the fascist story, and we on the left have been unable to get our story out.
So how should black America respond? Since the shootings, I have spoken to so many people and appeared on so many radio stations. People are devastated. The answer is to be a love warrior of the highest sort, a justice warrior, to never give in and never give up. The anger is there, and I don’t aim to calm it down, but I want to rechannel it. Our organisation must be perennial. But counter-terror in the face of terror and counter-violence in the face of violence are not the moral and spiritual options that we need.
It is for us to respond with the same grace and dignity as the people who were killed in that store last weekend: they were very dignified people. Think of Ruth Whitfield. She was 86, a strong member of her community, and had just been visiting her husband in his nursing home. We have to be continuous with the best of our history.
Above all, remember Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy abducted and lynched by Mississippi racists in 1955. She said: “I don’t have a minute to hate, I’ll pursue justice for the rest of my life.”
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