How America can respond to white nationalist violence

This attack in Buffalo in a predominantly Black neighborhood, like too many before it, is leading to another period of conversation and self-examination for some on questions of race, white supremacy and extremist ideology. Eric Ward, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Jelani Cobb, the next dean of the Columbia Journalism School, join Judy Woodruff to discuss for our series, "Race Matters."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This attack, like too many before it, is leading to a renewed conversation and for some self-examination for many on questions of race, white supremacy and extremist ideology.

    We're going to focus on some of those questions ourselves with Eric Ward. He has long studied all of this and the proliferation of hate crimes. He's now at the Southern Poverty Law Center. And Jelani Cobb, writer, journalist and historian. He's also the next dean of the Columbia Journalism School.

    Our conversation is part of our ongoing coverage of Race Matters.

    Jelani Cobb, Eric Ward, welcome to both.

    Jelani Cobb, let me start with you.

    We heard that man at the very beginning of Cat Wise's piece say, we don't know if there are any other haters out there. What is your answer to him?

    Jelani Cobb, Columbia University School of Journalism: Well, we can answer that in the affirmative.

    I don't think, unfortunately, there's any question. When we look at the connections between what happened in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. What happened in El Paso, what happened at the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, what's happened now in Buffalo, what's happened in other places that I'm not mentioning now, having covered and having written about this issue, we can be fairly certain that there are more people of a like mind who out there.

    And the bigger question is, what we, as a society, are prepared to do in order to prevent these kinds of atrocities from happening again and again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask you, Eric Ward, because you have spent decades looking at this issue, is this — is this incident that we see in Buffalo just another incident of anti-Black hate? Is there something that stands out to you about this particular moment?

  • Eric K. Ward, Southern Poverty Law Center:

    Yes, it is a moment where we are beginning to watch the unfolding of mission-oriented hate crimes.

    These are not merely reactionary hate crimes that we have witnessed of the old targeting of minority communities. This is an ideology that is fueling this violence. This violence is not an aberration of the Great Replacement Theory. It is a feature.

    And it is a feature that is grounded in antisemitism. Let's be clear. This killer believed that, by targeting and killing African Americans, that he was engaging in a war against what he believed to be a Jewish conspiracy. And so we're beginning to understand that this underlying Jewish conspiracy called the Great Replacement Theory is threatening not just Jews, but all of us.

    But what's most frightening is that elected officials are beginning to mainstream and promote this message in the halls of Congress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Jelani Cobb, I mean, which leads us to the question, why does it keep happening?

    We — there are the incidents that you named and so many more in this country. What is it that has gotten into the psyche of Americans that these terrible things keep happening?

  • Jelani Cobb:

    I mean, I think this is a much bigger conversation, that we see the mass violence happening across an array of factors.

    But, most fundamentally, we don't do anything after it happens. We don't enact meaningful legislation. We don't have any significant changes in policy. We make dramatic public displays of grief — at least, our elected officials do — and then effectively go back to what we — they were doing before.

    And I have covered so many of these stories. I really hate to sound cynical, but there is a particular script that we can expect things to follow in the trajectory of them over the next days and weeks. We will mourn, we will grieve, and, eventually, we will recede back into the same sorts of habitual behaviors that facilitated this in the first place.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Eric Ward, do you think we're going to fall back into that same pattern this time?

  • Eric K. Ward:

    Regretfully, we will, as long as we continue to tolerate the rhetoric that creates this theory that Jews are somehow secretly trying to take over the world.

    We have to push back against this antisemitism. But we have to make real our opposition to this white nationalist terror that is taking place around the country. We need government to step in. We need business leaders to step up. And we need community organizations to be trained and prepared to how to deal and manage with political violence.

    This is not ending. This is not an aberration. This is a beginning of the targeting of minorities in order to overthrow American democracy. You have to be serious in this moment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jelani Cobb, what more specifically do you think needs to be done to get people's attention?

    You're right. We talk about these incidents. We cover them in the news media for a period of time. But then, as you just point out, they happen again and again. What different needs to happen?

  • Jelani Cobb:

    Well, one of the things I think that's really important in this is that, if we want to talk about what's different between now — because there's a long tradition of white nationalist terrorism and white nationalist violence in this country.

    If you want to talk about the differentiating factor of the current moment, one of them is the access to disinformation the Internet and on social media. And we have to come up with some sort of meaningful reform.

    And, of course, in some instances, it seems that the social media is going in the opposite direction of responsibility. But we have to come up with some sort of mechanisms, whether that be through kind of private acts or pressure from private groups or some combination of government relationships and oversight.

    But the fact is that it's indisputable at this point. We have data that points to people being radicalized, indoctrinated via social media, and that's one avenue that people can take meaningful steps to address, at least as a beginning, to do something.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You're speaking about the responsibility that these big tech companies have, essentially…

  • Jelani Cobb:


  • Judy Woodruff:

    … and the lack of regulation.

    Eric Ward, is that — I mean, is that something that realistically can happen? Because I keep coming back to hearts and minds. People — are people — do we think it's a matter of changing what's racist in people's hearts? Is it a matter of changing — of stopping that racism from becoming these terrible acts of violence?

    Where do you see the stopping that needs to happen?

  • Eric K. Ward:

    I think there's three things we could do immediately, Judy, that begin to send a message that we are serious about responding to white nationalist violence and its threat.

    The first is, we can be responsive to the community of Buffalo, particularly to families and friends of those who are survivors of friends that they have — and families that they have lost that is a community where we can make race equity real and a model for the nation. And we should take on that challenge.

    The second, though, is that local communities need relief from federal government. Many local communities and counties have been struggling under the weight of white nationalist violence. And they need help. They need resources to be able to respond.

    The third is this. We have to have the public will. And the truth is this. If we were able to revamp the world economy in three weeks to come to the support of Ukraine by the invasion of Russia, we can build the political will here, if we choose, to be responsive to this white nationalist assault on America.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jelani Cobb, do you think that political will is there?

    And I have to ask you both, what — well, let me ask you that first. Is the political will there?

  • Jelani Cobb:

    Certainly not on the right in this country.

    We have seen what were once fringe politics become more and more parts of the mainstream in the Republican Party, at least in terms of the rhetoric that we have seen among conservatives. And so that is something that people have to — will have to speak out more forcefully about, will have to address. That just doesn't seem to be high on the list of priorities or addressed in meaningful ways. And that doesn't seem to be happening.

    I think, at some point, it's possible that these explosive actions will become so volatile and so dangerous that it will create a pressure for people to distance themselves. But, at this point, honestly, we have seen so much of this violence, I don't understand — I don't — can't predict the scale of the catastrophe that would be required to make people begin to think twice or to think about this differently.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A very quick final question to you both.

    We heard people in Buffalo expressing outright fear after this. What would you say to them in this moment, Jelani Cobb?

  • Jelani Cobb:

    I think that it is right to be concerned, but I think that the objective of these sorts of behaviors is to instill fear in people, and that the only way to proceed is to recognize, to be vigilant, to be aware of your surroundings, but not to succumb to fear, because fear is the ultimate objective.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Eric Ward?

  • Eric K. Ward:

    Judy, this is our opportunity to show the community of Buffalo that they are not alone, not today, not this week, or for the years to come.

    This is an opportunity to speak directly to the white nationalist movement by investing the best opportunities and energy, right, to ally ourselves with those who have faced horror in Buffalo, New York.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Eric Ward, Jelani Cobb, we thank you.

  • Jelani Cobb:

    Thank you.

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