The tragic shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue late last month was the deadliest anti-Semitic act in U.S. history, an unspeakable hate crime that has triggered important questions about the fundamental makeup of American identity. This national soul searching must include an examination of the current presidency, one that has fueled racial divisions, stoked resentment over perceived “others,” and embraced a xenophobic, religiously intolerant and fear-driven notion of American nationalism.
While the violence and virulent rhetoric might seem unique to this era, its roots are very American. Jews and communities of color have a long, painful and largely forgotten history of being targeted for widespread domestic terror in the United States. The entire landscape of U.S. history is pockmarked with the scars of violent racial assaults that targeted black people, in particular, in virtually every corner of the nation.
White rage against perceived black advancement contoured racial assaults during World War II. In 1943, amid intense competition over jobs and housing, Detroit exploded after fighting began between blacks and whites over the city’s segregated beaches. The riots left 25 black people and nine white people dead and hundreds more injured.
That same year, scores of Latino youths were brutally beaten by servicemen in Los Angeles during the “Zoot Suit Riots,” which found Mexican Americans brutalized by racial terror and law enforcement. Latino and black youths adorned in the baggy Zoot suits of the era found themselves racially profiled for wearing these clothes and failing to follow the racial etiquette of the day, which mandated a person of color move out of the way when a white person was on the sidewalk.
Civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s ushered in new, coordinated waves of both vigilante and police violence against black communities and their allies, which included large swaths of Jewish Americans. On June 21, 1964, three civil rights workers were reported missing just outside Philadelphia, Miss. In August the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were found, victims of both anti-black racism and anti-Semitism that fueled massive white resistance to racial justice in the Magnolia State and across the nation.
We continue to see how racism against black Americans provides a foundation for prejudice against other communities of color today. President Trump’s nakedly racist anti-immigration and anti-Latino ad released last week mirrored the notorious 30-year-old Willie Horton ad, which attacked Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis as a weak-kneed liberal who would let hordes of black criminals attack innocent whites. In short, the anti-black Horton commercial offered a template for Trump’s vicious assault on Latino and undocumented immigrants as dangerous threats to American democracy.
The racial hatred at the center of the ideology of white supremacy extends outward in concentric circles, enveloping new enemies as it grows and feeds off real and imagined divisions. Jews, Muslims, LGBTQ people, Latinx people, Asians, Native Americans, immigrants and black people are thus targeted in an expanding list of enemies of white nationalism that, far from being patriotically unifying, spreads a message of intolerance, fear, and rage.
That message has been received loud and clear by millions of Americans, as witnessed at Trump rallies where the president has referred to himself as a “nationalist” and personally applauded the use of violence to silence dissenters. A self-proclaimed supporter of the president allegedly orchestrated a campaign of terror by mailing explosive packages to a host of high-profile Trump critics, including to the homes of Hillary Clinton and former president Barack Obama.
While the suspect in the synagogue shooting criticized Trump in his social media postings, the president and his close allies have trafficked in ideas that beget anti-Semitism. Most notably, the president commented that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville last year, days after a group marched through the town chanting “Jews will not replace us.” The anti-Semitism that fueled the Pittsburgh massacre has a long and deadly history in our nation that remains tragically resilient.
Our national soul searching is long overdue but requires a deeper historical context of the role racial terror has played in shaping our concept of U.S. citizenship, justice and equality. The history of racial and religious terror — and how to survive, live and thrive amid institutionalized fear, anxiety and hatred — is achingly familiar to Jews, Latinos and communities of color, even as it remains unmentioned and unrecognized in our larger society.
The president’s merciless appeals to our worst instincts tap into a long, persistent and shameful history of domestic terror against the “other,” a watch list that seems to expand the more diverse this country becomes. At the core of these attacks against Jews, Muslims, immigrants and people of color remains the anti-black racism that animates our long national history of slavery and white supremacy, the same history that we must face squarely even as we rebuke the high cost of its contemporary evolution.
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