How the Pittsburgh Massacre Fits Into America's Long History of Anti-Semitism

Violence driven by racial or religious hatred is as American as apple pie, according to a cultural anthropologist who has studied the white-power movement.
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A meeting of hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan circa 1920.

A meeting of hooded members of the Ku Klux Klan circa 1920.

One reason Americans are aghast over Saturday's massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue is the sense it was an attack on everything America stands for. "People see tolerance of other races and religions as part of our common ideals," says cultural anthropologist C. Richard King.

But, he argues, that's only because we are in denial about the dark side of our collective past. Perceived threats to white dominance have inspired violence at many points in our nation's history, and non-Jewish Americans have often perceived Jews as dangerous outsiders.

"For some number of Americans, anti-Semitic mythology helps them explain how the world works," King says. "It gives them an enemy—a force against which to struggle."

King has been teaching about and researching the white supremacist movement for over a decade. Co-author of the book Beyond Hate: White Power and Popular Culture, he is chair of Humanities, History and Social Sciences at Columbia College Chicago. He spoke with Pacific Standard on Monday to discuss how and why anti-Semitism keeps resurging in America, and the violence-inspiring perception of "imperiled whiteness."

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At a time when so many minority groups are perceived as threats, why do white supremacists still target Jews?

First, there's a Western tradition of thinking of Jews as being both subhuman and superhuman, and involved in deadly, destabilizing conspiracies. From the Middle Ages forward, narratives grew in which they were responsible for all kinds of things—child murders, using the blood of children for their secret rituals, sabotaging crops—even the plague. Then, in the 19th century, they got blamed for everything from revolutions to financial crises.

Then there's the immigration panic in America in the early 20th century. Anti-Semitic thinking got tangled up in anti-immigrant sentiment during that period. Lots of Southern and Eastern Europeans, who were disproportionately Catholics and Jews, were coming into the United States. Many Americans looked at those folks and thought, "They're going to destroy the white race."

Sounds familiar.

It certainly does. One hundred years later, we are replaying much of the same debate, with different racial and ethnic groups as the target.

Another unescapable element is Hitler. He rationalized anti-Semitism in a particular way that allowed it to cross over into American politics after World War II. Some Americans were attracted to the underlying race logic that drove the Holocaust. Nazism supercharged American racism.

But anti-Semitism is more complicated than racism, is it not?

Yes. The classic model of racism in the U.S. says whites are better than blacks. Anti-Semites believe Jews may be superior in some ways. They have particular powers, which makes them threatening to whites.

Those different threats apparently coalesced in the mind of the Pittsburgh shooter, who was incensed by HIAS, the Jewish organization that helps settle refugees of all sorts in America. In the shooter's account, Jews are conspiring to help those inferior races enter America.

That's one of the really interesting developments over the last generation or two. Now, it's not just that Jews are conspiring to destroy the world by manipulating the economy, although you did hear that narrative during the Great Recession. A newer type of conspiratorial thinking has grown in which Jews are using other racial groups to erode or destroy white America. That narrative is now happening around immigration. Anti-Semitism is flexible; stories can be expanded upon in response to current events.

How big a role does social media play in radicalizing people?

I think it's fundamentally important. It allows easy, anonymous access to material one might otherwise not know about. A generation ago, if you wanted to get involved in [racist or anti-Semitic] conversations, you'd have to get on a mailing list and have someone send you books, or go to a meeting of some sort, which means exposing your identity to other people. That's a risk some people wouldn't be willing to take. So there's easier access. Online, there's no gatekeeper, and no penalty for being transgressive.

Can finding a like-minded online community harden radical beliefs, and perhaps even convince you to take action?

Yes. Think of Dylann Roof, or the individual who shot up the synagogue. They get a sense of self, and a sense of community, in these radicalized spaces. The fact that we haven't had a serious conversation about the role of social media is a fundamental failure, much like our failure to have an honest debate about guns, or about racism.

There's also a lot of media traffic between the extreme and the mainstream. That easy flow is really unnerving. You can often turn on mainstream cable networks and hear things that echo things people are saying on white-power websites. You can tune in to [Fox News host] Tucker Carlson and hear things about "white genocide" that are eerily familiar to how people talk on white-power sites such as Stormfront.

That blurring makes this moment really hard to grapple with as a country. What was once a shared consensus around race in society has broken down, and, without that consensus, it's hard to confront social problems, or even have conversations.

President Donald Trump has been widely blamed as contributing to this problem through his use of violent rhetoric, and habit of pinning one group against another. To what extent is he responsible for this upsurge in white-extremist violence?

I can't tell you what percentage of this has to do with Donald Trump, but people doing bad things to other people feel emboldened by him. His dehumanizing rhetoric lays a foundation for them. The individual who sent the mail bombs saw himself as a Trump supporter; he was getting energy and inspiration from the president. But it's a mistake to say this is all about Trump, or any single individual. It's reflective of a much bigger social movement in the United States.

The thing that connects people like David Duke, Richard Spencer, and anyone else we put under the white-power umbrella is a sense of imperiled whiteness. That has emerged as a very visceral, palpable thing over the past 10 or 15 years. Some segment of white Americans feel their world is under siege, and something needs to be done. That's the connection between efforts to restrict voting and the use of violence to intimidate certain groups of people.

This notion of imperiled whiteness is as American as apple pie. It's more visible at some points in history than others. There was the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction, the anti-immigrant movement of the 1920s, the return of the Klan in the 1950s and '60s. The notion of whiteness, and white power, being at risk prompts people to do some really ugly, dehumanizing things.

What, if anything, can we do as a society to get a better handle on this?

One solution would be teaching kids about race, history, and power in every grade, from elementary school to college. That way they could think critically about the subject, and when confronted with a particular theory about, say, what's driving immigration, they'd have tools to engage it, rather than accepting easier, more problematic explanations.

Of course, that wouldn't be impactful for a generation or two. There's not an easy solution here. Even if you took away people's guns and censored social media, you still wouldn't be addressing the resentment and unease that is out there, as well as the prejudices that allow people to take those resentments and put them onto a particular set of people.

Today, the economy is in good shape. Yet people feel insecure and have a great deal of resentment they are directing at others. If this is how the worst among us are acting now, what's it going to be like when things get bad?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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