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Mainstream Politics Long Has Traded On Fear Of A Non-White America


After the mass shooting that took place here on Saturday, authorities are saying that the alleged shooter posted a hate-filled anti-immigrant screed online. He is a 21-year-old white man from the suburbs of Dallas. And police believe he authored the document that was posted on the web just before the rampage. The screed, or manifesto, talks about, quote, "the Hispanic invasion of Texas." Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch podcast is with us this morning. Hi there, Gene.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So what do you think this attack here in Texas tells us about our country right now?

DEMBY: Well, as some of our colleagues at NPR have reported, the language in that manifesto is remarkably similar to the language the president himself has used. He's talked about immigrants, especially from the southern border, as invaders many times. And just to zoom out a little bit, there was a big public opinion poll from the Public Religion Research Institute last year, and it posed to respondents a question about the country's changing demographics. Now, about 60% of Republicans thought that the U.S. becoming a majority nonwhite country by 2045 would be mostly negative. So if that's a position held by most of the voters in one of the two major parties, it's clear that this feeling about the browning of America is not some fringe political position. And to be clear, I'm not suggesting that the people who feel this way want to commit violence to that end. But this anxiety over America becoming less white, that's a common powerful strain in our mainstream politics right now.

GREENE: But it seems like, we should note, that President Trump came out and did not just condemn violence. He condemned white supremacy yesterday when he was speaking about the violence that we've seen. So what should we make of that?

DEMBY: So it's actually surprising that it's notable that he's done that - right? - because it's not controversial. It's almost perfunctory for public officials to condemn explicitly racist violence after it happens. And that's been key. So the consensus that white supremacy is a destructive force in American life - that's a relatively recent phenomenon. It's a fragile consensus. And it's one of the most significant achievements of the civil rights movement, which is why it's so important when leaders affirm it and which was one reason why his response to Charlottesville, that there were good people on both sides, was so striking. And so now the president has shifted back to the sort of pro forma condemnation that comes after incidents like this. But there's the border wall - right? - and now the detention facilities on the border, all of which structurally reinforce this fear of brown invaders again with legitimate policy and law.

GREENE: Well - and Democrats have gone so far as to say that the president's words actually have incited violence in this country. Is that a fair argument?

DEMBY: I mean, you know, causality is really tricky here. And just, you know, for the record, the alleged shooter said that his views predate President Trump's election. But, you know, there's all this research that shows a significant surge in reported hate crimes across the country since President Trump's election. But, again, it's important for us to remember that this is not new, that white nationalist violence is part of the history of American politics. Like, during Jim Crow, there were 4,000 lynchings in the United States. And the lynchings themselves were an extralegal expression of this official policy position, which was that black people should be inferior and that black people should stay in their place.

And one of the reasons that anti-lynching legislation was a nonstarter in Washington - were reluctant to pick a political fight with Southern lawmakers and with Southern voters. As a practical matter, white nationalism was politically disadvantageous to confront because it was too popular. And so this dynamic of officially sanctioned white nationalism existing next to grizzly extralegal white nationalist violence, that's always been with us.

GREENE: NPR's Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch podcast. Gene, thanks so much.

DEMBY: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.