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White Supremacy and “White Innocence” Were Behind the Killings in Jacksonville

Philosopher George Yancy responds to the murder of three Black people in Jacksonville, Florida, by a white supremacist.

Demonstrators march after a rally against white supremacy at James Weldon Johnson Park on August 28, 2023, in Jacksonville, Florida.

The murder of three Black people in Jacksonville, Florida, last month by white male supremacist Ryan Christopher Palmeter, who later killed himself, cannot be understood as anything other than an act of racist terrorism. In the wake of the horror of the attack, we are left needing once again to make sense of this latest iteration of the U.S.’s relentless history of anti-Black terrorism.

As a white philosopher who takes the reality of racism seriously and who studies the role of conspiracy theories within white supremacy, I sought out the analysis of George Yancy — a prominent philosopher who has given conceptually robust and courageous attention to matters of race, racism and especially whiteness. Yancy’s philosophical emphasis on the insidious ways in which white racism operates in the social and political DNA of the U.S. forces us to think more deeply and in newly contextualized ways about the horrible killing that took place this August in Jacksonville, Florida.

Yancy — the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy at Emory University, and author, editor and coeditor of over 20 books, including Until Our Lungs Give Out, a recent anthology of interviews predominantly published in Truthout — sheds necessary light on the systemic nature of whiteness, its history and embodied invisibility. He also raises the stakes in terms of thinking about what it would take to abolish white supremacy or whiteness, and how “stochastic terrorism” has its limits when applied to describing acts of white supremacist terrorism.

H. A. Nethery: On August 26, 2023, in Jacksonville, Florida, yet another white man took Black lives — three to be exact. Three unique and unrepeatable existences snuffed out by the trigger pulls of an AR-15-style rifle. You’ve written a great deal about anti-Black racism, and I think every day about what you’ve written and said about the concept of hope within the context of your philosophical work. In fact, in a Truthout interview that you conducted with historian Robin D. G. Kelley, you argue that your “aim is not to endorse a form of nihilism, but to interrogate the ethics of hope in the face of an anti-Black world that is relentlessly hell-bent on the destruction of our people.” Does this recent act of racist terrorism affect how you see hope, in either direction?

George Yancy: I think that your use of the expression “racist terrorism” is accurate. It reminds me of just how much we should miss the uncompromising voice and presence of bell hooks. She understood that white supremacy was/is a form of terrorism — white terrorism. This is why she refused to let us forget that before 9/11, which was a great unspeakable loss of human life, the U.S. was itself guilty of acts of terrorism, anti-Black terrorism.

In Black Looks: Race and Representation, bell reminisces about being a child “where black folks associated whiteness with the terrible, the terrifying, the terrorizing.” Notice that she unambiguously names whiteness. She doesn’t limit her analysis to racial prejudices, or acts of discrimination, or even hatred. Such an analysis can avoid the systemic terror of whiteness, where whiteness is a structural reality that is predicated upon a Black/white racial binary where the former is not simply hated, but is deemed the abject, the disgusting, the putrid, the subhuman. It is not enough to hate Black people. They must be terrorized. They must be made to feel that they are despicable and must be reminded that they have no rights that any white person is bound to respect. As Black, they must be reminded that they are unwanted, that they will remain open to unabashed forms of gratuitous violence, that their lives are valueless vis-à-vis white lives.

For example, spectacle lynchings were not just acts of white brutality but functioned as warnings, as lessons for Black people. Black people were being taught that they are disposable objects, “things” to be arbitrarily dealt with through white authority. Ripping the Black body apart was part of the ritual; it was part of white desire. White children were allowed to bear witness to such acts of white terror, to be entertained by castrated Black male bodies and to have their little white nostrils filled with the stench of burning Black flesh. It was as if such rituals were necessary not just to keep Black people “in their place,” but to remind white people of their standing as human beings.

Black death, it seems to me, functions to shore up white life. If what I’m saying is true, then the problem of white anti-Black terrorism is as American as apple pie. This means that white America must face James Baldwin’s extraordinary insight: “What white people have to do is try to find out, in their own hearts, why it was necessary to have a ‘n*****’ in the first place.” It seems to me that white America is afraid to address that question or even to face it. Perhaps the psychic weight of an honest response is too much to bear for white America. It is not just white people who have been “radicalized” who must ask that question. White America must ask that question. In fact, I would argue that to be white in America is to be radicalized.

To be white is to be systemically linked to a structure of anti-Blackness. This is not to deny the effective use of the internet to recruit and radicalize white youth. My point is that white normativity, whiteness as usual, whiteness in its most banal ways, is the space of recruitment, of radicalization. Sitting around the dinner table where there are always white faces, and where no one names white privilege, is a site of white radicalization. The process of white radicalization is not exceptional; it is the norm. White radicalization happens when white youth are being inculcated with the idea that whiteness is not a problem, that their whiteness isn’t complicit in the perpetuation of anti-Black terrorism, that their whiteness is “innocent.”

I have often heard white racism described as a disease, a kind of pathology. I think there is a different way of thinking about this. Whiteness, as I’m suggesting here, is not just the “dis” (the negation of Blackness), but it is also the “ease” of whiteness. That is, whiteness is the simplicity of never having to ask oneself: “Is this my country?” Black people, however, through the pain of double consciousness, continue to ask such a question. The answer to that question for Black people is evident in the three Black lives taken this August by 21-year-old white male Ryan Christopher Palmeter. It is an anti-Black response that is recursive, one that has left Black bodies enslaved, segregated, terrorized, lynched, brutalized, incarcerated, unemployed and asphyxiated — screaming, “I can’t breathe!” If you don’t believe me, wait, and see. More Black bodies will be cut down, and another white racist manifesto will soon be written in the wake.

After the murders in Jacksonville, Florida, Ron DeSantis said, “We are not going to let people be targeted based on their race.” He also referred to Palmeter as a “major league scumbag.” First, DeSantis has been doing nothing less than targeting Black people based upon race, from blocking a course on African American studies to signing bills that are designed to limit discussions about race. These are forms of targeting Black people based on race. So, DeSantis’s words about Palmeter are contradictory, and ring hollow.

To limit discussions about race in a country predicted upon white supremacy is to deny the reality of Black people; it is to buttress the “innocence” of whiteness; it is to feed white people lies about this country’s white terroristic history and how white people continue to benefit from whiteness. To refer to Critical Race Theory (CRT) as “state-sanctioned racism,” as DeSantis has, is to target critical Black thought and to engage in a form of vicious obscurantism. Second, the use of “scumbag” creates the illusion that Palmeter was an “aberration.” This attempts to move the discussion away from the ease and normality of whiteness as anti-Black. Palmeter is not a “scumbag”; rather, he is a product of white America. Name-calling is too easy. Palmeter’s actions are, or so I would argue, consistent with an ideology to “make America great again.”

White normativity, whiteness as usual, whiteness in its most banal ways, is the space of recruitment, of radicalization.

I realize that this is a circuitous route toward responding to your question. Palmeter was hell-bent on murdering Black people — people who look like me, people who look like my mother. This recent killing at a Dollar General Store in Jacksonville, Florida, speaks to me of the history of anti-Black rituals. It speaks to me of a legacy of just how insignificant Black lives are deemed in the U.S.

I refuse to construe the death of these precious three Black souls as isolated events caused by a radicalized white male, a “lone wolf.” Their brutal murder speaks to what it means to be Black in America. Unfortunately, white folk will not admit that the brutal murder of those Black people is what it means to be white in America, what it looks like to be racially valued as white.

How in the hell am I supposed to have hope within the context of a white America where I’ve already been condemned like Sisyphus? As you may recall in the mythical story, no matter how many times he rolled the boulder up the hill, the boulder would return. For Black people, white terrorism, despite our “success” in this country, metaphorically rolls back down, returns with a vengeance, with greater momentum. Perhaps hope is what lies on the other side of quotidian whiteness, the other side of its anti-Black structural demise, dismantlement, abolition. Perhaps the question should be: What good is a form of hope that paradoxically sustains Black suffering?

Regarding the racist actions of Ryan Christopher Palmeter, researchers are currently referring to that kind of brutal violence as “stochastic terrorism,” or acts of terrorism that are inevitable based on the demonization of some group. Do you think this is an apt term? What term would you use? How do we label a monster and an atrocity like this?

As you know, scholars have described stochastic terrorism as “the use of mass media to provoke random acts of ideologically motivated violence that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.” I think that the term insightfully describes what Trump does. His discourse about making America great again, for example, can function to produce a plausible relationship between the use of such discourse, and violently atrocious outcomes. Or just think about his Islamophobia, his pernicious views regarding immigration, his anti-Asian discourse regarding the “Chinese virus.” He perpetuates forms of divisiveness that create an us-versus-them mentality. So, his discourse or his rhetoric incites hatred or violence without functioning to determine a violent outcome. In this way, he can always claim plausible deniability.

While “stochastic terrorism” is an important concept, I wouldn’t use it to explain Ryan Christopher Palmeter’s actions. What’s my point? “Stochastic terrorism” places emphasis on the “lone wolf.” Historically, when I think about the history of anti-Black racism in the U.S., I think about white supremacy as institutional and systemic. I think about the fact that anti-Black racism was written into law, supported by the highest offices in the land. There is no need for a white supremacist lone wolf when American democracy itself functions to the disproportionate benefit of white people. America was founded as a Herrenvolk democracy, a government ruled by white men, those deemed the “white saviors.” Again, take lynchings. These were not acts of a lone wolf; they were carried out by mobs of white people, organized and sanctioned by local white authorities. In fact, “mob” might be the wrong term. Black bodies were indeed demonized. My sense, however, is that anti-Black racism in the form of lynching the Black body wasn’t simply based upon the demonization of the Black body. Such spectacular acts of anti-Black violence functioned as justification for white “purity.”

The brutalization of the Black body, the performance itself, was part of the price of the ticket as James Baldwin would say. The price of the ticket was to become white — as pure as the driven snow. To castrate the Black male body was proof that white men and white women were/are “virtuous.” In his article, “On Being White and Other Lies,” Baldwin writes, “White men—from Norway, for example, where they were Norwegians—became white: by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping Black women.” The price of the ticket was to become murderous without feeling or being guilty. So, when I think about the murderous acts of Palmeter, I think about the process of giving birth (a constant rebirth, as it were) to a nation that is largely silent about its collective anti-Black violent history; a nation that collectively refuses to face the ways in which white people continue to value the price of the ticket, that is, continue to reap the rewards (material, psychological, ontological) of being white.

This recent killing at a Dollar General Store in Jacksonville, Florida … speaks to me of a legacy of just how insignificant Black lives are deemed in the U.S.

For me, the apt term is collective white innocence. As Baldwin says, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” This is not to say that Ryan Christopher Palmeter isn’t liable. He is! But we mustn’t sidestep an equally important truth: It is this white nation that collectively bears responsibility for the death of those three precious Black bodies: Angela Michelle Carr, Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre Jr. and Jerrald Gallion.

Like Baldwin, I can hear the white innocents screaming, “No! This can’t be true. You exaggerate, you go too far!” I would ask such white naysayers to critically rethink how their whiteness is tied to or sutured to the racial vulnerability and precarity of Black bodies. I would ask them to expand their moral imagination, one that reimagines whiteness as structurally unethical. In this way, I would speak with the wisdom of Baldwin: “I don’t know you personally, but I know you historically.” Regarding labels, I don’t have one to describe Ryan Christopher Palmeter or his actions. And if I were to use the term “monster,” I would necessarily use it to describe white America. The atrocity is that Black people will continue to be killed and “white innocence” will remain intact. That is the unbearable truth that must be borne.

I am currently working on a project about white supremacy and conspiracy theories. In nearly all these anti-Black massacres, conspiracy theories like the Great Replacement Theory are often found in the pages of the manifestos these killers leave behind. This seems significant to me. This is tricky though, because as some specialists in the field of stochastic terrorism warn, these documents are sometimes themselves an act of trolling on the part of an utter nihilist. I understand this concern, but I also worry about it. Regardless of whether or not the shooter really believed in the Great Replacement Theory, that theory is still there, on the page. It’s a repeatable object that is there for others to see and interpret, and as is often the case, there to repeat themselves. Do you think it’s important to note the ways in which conspiracy theories function within these atrocities? Or is it a distraction?

I think that there’s lot of important work to be done in examining how white supremacy and conspiracy theories work hand in glove. Such theories are predicated upon fear. They are effectively deployed as “truth,” which can lead to acts of violence against those who are seen as, in this case, the nonwhite interlopers. In the writings of the white supremacist who murdered 10 Black people in Buffalo, New York, on May 15, 2022, it was said to include “statements that his motivation for the attack was to prevent Black people from replacing white people and eliminating the white race, and to inspire others to commit similar racially-motivated attacks.”

I get your point. Whether or not one actually believes the conspiracy to be true or not, the fact of the discourse, the fact that it resounds in white supremacist echo chambers (as you say, repeatable) is important. This raises all types of questions relating to access and the strategic use of the internet by white supremacist and “alt-right” groups to recruit white people who feel victimized, and to further their white supremacist projects. So, I do think that it’s important to critically examine the ways in which conspiracy theories function within anti-Black violent atrocities, and especially to critically think about ways of combating recruitment on the internet. That is not a distraction.

For my part, I want to rethink white supremacist recruitment at the level of the quotidian. I think that processes of white supremacist recruitment and radicalization should be expanded to include the violence of whiteness as ordinary, the violence of whiteness as privilege, as “virtuous,” as “ethical,” as “beautiful,” as “innocent,” as habitual. There are plenty of white people who don’t identify as white supremacists, who reject anti-Black conspiracy theories and who have never visited a white supremacist website because they feel “victimized.” Yet, they continue to remain silent about and complicit with the fact that whiteness is a structurally anti-Black process. This way of thinking reformulates how we think about the meaning of conspiracy or what it means “to conspire.” The root meaning of the word means “to breathe together.”

The atrocity is that Black people will continue to be killed and “white innocence” will remain intact. That is the unbearable truth that must be borne.

Think here about what happens at predominantly white churches, predominantly white academic institutions, and other predominantly white spaces. In those spaces, white people breathe together, they inhale and exhale with ease together; their bodies are made to feel wanted, desired, accommodated. That is what it means to be white in America; it means to be at home, which is another way of saying that white people conspire to uphold the hegemony of monochromatic whiteness. And it is that sense of racial belonging that is underwritten by the fact that one is not Black. To be Black is never really to be at home in America. Both “well-meaning” white people and white supremacist lone wolves continue to painfully remind Black people of that reality. Whether alone or together, Black people find it hard (at times impossible) to breathe at all.