Cowardice is the point of white supremacy, too

(Monique Wray for The Washington Post)
(Monique Wray for The Washington Post)

My familiarity with Buffalo’s demographics isn’t quite what it was when I was in school there 20 years ago. But I remember enough that when I first saw breaking news alerts of a mass shooting in the city and read that it happened on Jefferson Avenue, I knew it was us who’d been shot before even knowing it was us. Some streets in some neighborhoods in some cities are just where you will always find regular Black people, and Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo is one of them. “Regular” here is not a pejorative. Nor is it an implication that there’s such a thing as irregular Black people. Just a way to describe working-class people doing nothing but living their lives on a sunny Saturday. Sleeping in. Tending lawns. Walking pets. Washing cars. Watching nephews. Grilling meat. Sipping tea. Getting nails did. And maybe going to the grocery store too.

It’s this banality — the purposeful obliviousness of the assumed safety of minding your damn business — that Payton Gendron allegedly hoped and prepared for. The 10 people killed weren’t just randomly chosen sitting ducks. They were targeted specifically because they were defenseless. Specifically because they included church ladies and retired grandparents with no real chance to fight or even run. That he was equipped with an assault rifle and outfitted with protective armor isn’t just more proof of an unfair fight. It’s proof that making the fight as unfair as possible was the whole point. Is the whole point.

We already know Payton Gendron too. We didn’t know his name until the news reported on it, but we know him. He’s Dylann Roof walking into a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and murdering nine people after watching them pray. And Dylann Roof is Robert Gregory Bowers allegedly killing 11 people during Shabbat morning services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. And Robert Gregory Bowers is Patrick Crusius saying he drove 10 hours to a Walmart in El Paso to kill as many Mexicans as he could.

These men, with their alleged sneak attacks on the unarmed and the unsuspecting, are no different than the mobs of dozens, hundreds, thousands gathered to lynch just one person. Like the hundreds in 1918 who hung Mary Turner upside down from a tree, doused her in gasoline and motor oil, set her on fire, and split her abdomen open with a knife. She was eight-months pregnant, and her unborn child fell to the ground and was murdered too. Or the domestic terrorists in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s attacking Black neighborhoods, Black schools and Black churches — with fire, bricks, bullets and bombs — at night and while hiding behind white sheets and citizens’ groups. Or the entire communities — masses of faces, full-throated and frothing — out to intimidate a 6-year-old going to class.

White supremacy is, essentially, an ecosystem built around the idea of never having to fight fair. A full-bodied commitment — culturally, politically, spiritually — to the retention of the privilege to be cowards. They’re learning to read? Let’s kill them. Can’t (legally) kill them anymore? Let’s burn down the schools. Can’t burn down the schools anymore? Let’s ban books. They want to vote? Let’s kill them. Can’t (legally) kill them anymore? Let’s make them take “literacy” tests. Literacy tests are outlawed? Let’s gerrymander the districts. The gerrymandering wasn’t enough? Let’s say the elections are rigged. They’re building community wealth? Let’s kill them. Can’t (legally) kill them anymore? Let’s redline them and deny them loans. Can’t (legally) deny them loans anymore? Let’s give them loans at subprime rates.

White supremacy is, essentially, an ecosystem built around the idea of never having to fight fair.

And while we’re doing this, let’s preach the gospel of meritocracy and selectively quote scripture and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Let’s cut off their feet, and then let’s scold them for having no bootstraps. Let’s flood them with guns. Let’s give them toxic land. Let’s give them poisoned water. Let’s give them bad health care. Let’s ensure they have no money, and then let’s keep them in jail for being broke. And then let’s deny, deny, deny. Deny this is happening. Deny what has happened. Deny what we’re planning to happen. Deny what they’re witnessing. Deny what they’re living.

I would maybe halfway respect the many guardians of white supremacy in Washington and cable news, if they just copped to it. But they will never. Because they know it’s more difficult for us to defend ourselves against a force that defines its own reality. And that it’s impossible to be a citizen with integrity, a person with empathy, a human and defeat a coward.

Because a coward won’t fight you unless you’re not looking. Unless they can swarm you. Unless they can cheat you. Unless they are armed and wearing armor, and you are in the produce aisle or on the pew. They punch sometimes, sure. But only if you’re sleeping.