Preventing Home-Grown White Terrorism

A few days ago, white supremacist Jeremy Joseph Christian stabbed three men — Ricky Best, Taliesin Namkai-Meche and Micah Fletcher — on a train in Portland, Oregon because they were defending two young women, one of whom wore a hijab, from Christian’s racist rant. Two of the men died immediately, victims of home-grown white terror. Christian, who is white, had publicly allied himself with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, and apparently saw not just harassing but also killing as justifiable.

Just two weeks earlier on the University of Maryland campus, Sean Urbanski, who is white and a member of “Alt-Reich” Facebook group, ordered African American student Richard Collins III to “Step left, step left if you know what’s good for you.” Urbanski killed Collins when he refused to take a white man’s order.

While the Trump administration has directed considerable public attention toward terrorist acts committed by radicalized Muslims, it has not done so toward similar acts of violence committed by home-grown white terrorists. As many are aware, Trump has a history of enabling rather than combatting racial hatred.

And there have been many white terrorist attacks. Mathis-Lilley, for example, lists 31 acts of white terrorism  that took place after the Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995. Hamilton and Owen list ten plots and attacks by white people that should be (but aren’t) on the White House’s terrorism list. The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps track of White supremacist hate groups and acts of terror.

I am hardly the first to argue that white terrorism is a problem at least as great as that terrorism inspired or perpetrated by the Islamic State. Sherrilyn Ifill, for example, argues in her discussion of Dylan Roof and other white killers of people of color, that white home-grown terrorism needs to be named and dealt with as such, rather than as something else such as mental illness. People murdering others because of their race or religion may indeed be mentally ill, but they also terrorize peoples who already have long histories of being terrorized.

As an educator, I am concerned about the multiple ways white supremacy continues to pervade our system of education. While education can help to counter white supremacy, terrorism, and hate, on the whole, it does not do so. Here are examples:

  1. When they study U.S. history, children and youth rarely learn how racism was built and institutionalized, and how Indigenous peoples were violently colonized, murdered, and forced from land that was then given to white people. Thumb through any U.S. history textbook, for example, and look for an explication of racism. Look in the index. You won’t find much. As a result, young people (particularly young white people) grow up thinking racism is a thing of the past that was solved with the emancipation of slaves, and that the movements for rights — including the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s — were orchestrated by people of color demanding special privileges. In my experience as a university professor, most white students find learning about the institutionalization and perpetuation of racism and colonization interesting once they get past the shock to their beliefs, which can take a while. Such learning helps them understand inequalities and social issues they already see, and can help them learn to work for racial justice. What we need are textbooks that explicitly address racism and colonization, and more teacher professional development in how to teach about these issues.
  2. The teacher workforce remains about 82% White, despite the fact that students of color are now a majority in U.S. schools, and despite the existence of successful efforts to diversify the teaching force at the levels of teacher credentialing and teacher retention. Having worked on this issue for years, I have concluded that the greatest barrier to diversifying who teaches is the belief among white educators that not much can be done about it, and that it isn’t important enough to work on. One result of an overwhelmingly white teaching force and a white-oriented curriculum is that white sensibilities and perspectives continue to dominate what happens in classrooms. Judgments teachers make about things like learning abilities of their students, reasons why students behave as they do in the classroom and how to respond to students, what is most worth teaching, and how to engage with parents (or not), continue to be filtered overwhelmingly through white points of view.
  3. Education resources continue to favor students who are white and from affluent backgrounds, something that white people grow up not thinking about or seeing as normal. Accord to Gillian White, both poverty and race correlate with school funding. “If you color code the districts based on their racial composition you see this very stark breakdown. At any given poverty level, districts that have a higher proportion of white students get substantially higher funding than districts that have more minority students.” Funding has an impact on the quality of education students receive. Students who attend predominantly white schools, particularly affluent schools, have access to a richer funding formula, on the average, than do those who attend schools that serve mainly students of color. So when students coming from predominantly white schools seem better prepared for college than students who attended schools populated mainly by students of color — well, the opportunities weren’t equal. But typically white students do not see that disparity, and resent measures taken to address it (such as affirmative action), viewing them as biased against whites.

These are just some examples of how schools typically institutionalize rather than confront white supremacy. What does any of this have to do with home-grown white terrorism?

For one thing, a whole lot of white people remain incredibly ignorant about racism, but don’t know they are ignorant, viewing racial disparities as either no longer existing or as resulting from differences in character, culture, and effort rather than racial discrimination. So, for example, when African Americans protest the murders of young men by police officers, many white people lack a frame of reference that enables them to connect those murders to the long history of racial violence directed against African Americans and particularly men, and assume African Americans are causing the problem. As another example, white students on college campuses who think it’s okay to display racist paraphernalia like bananas hanging from nooses demonstrate both ignorance as well as resentment toward what they perceive as unearned privileges granted to students of color.

You see, the whiteness of schooling — the curriculum, the teaching force, the college preparatory classes and schools — are part of a larger constellation that makes white supremacy seem normal, especially to young white people. It’s what kids see and experience every day. Some white people lash out when they believe the normalcy they grew up is threatened.

While I do not lay the whole burden of confronting and preventing home-grown white terrorism on education, I do see things educators can do that matter. 

Teachers can nurture anti-racism among white students, and do so without making white students hate themselves. White students can learn to explore their ethnic backgrounds for cultural contributions and expressions, for models of white people who stood for justice, and for ways in which their ancestors benefitted from racism. Critical family history can help. For example, check out Rachel Shaw’s discussion of her own un/learning of how benefits of white supremacy were passed on to her, or Janet Carter‘s discussion of discovering and confronting the KKK in her own family history.

White students can learn what institutional racism is, how it was constructed historically, and how it is maintained. White students can also learn to become empathetic listeners, and allies in work for racial justice. Jamie Utt offers five actions white educators can take to help make schools anti-racist. The National Association for Multicultural Education offers suggestions for teachers working in all-white schools, such as helping students grapple with differences between as well as overlaps in European cultural heritage and white privilege. 

Home-grown white terrorism is a national problem. It is not, however, inevitable and it can be confronted and addressed.

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