On May 14 in Buffalo, New York, Peyton Gendron, a white 18-year-old, killed 10 people in a mass shooting at a grocery store frequented by Black shoppers. He left behind a 180-page manifesto that outlines his belief in the Great Replacement Theory.
According to an analysis of the manifesto by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, the theory is twofold.
“On the one hand, non-white people intentionally move to white-majority countries and reproduce with people in order to make them produce non-white babies,” the organization states.
“On the other hand, efforts are made to ‘weaken’ the existing white race by promoting sexual and gender diversity, which would discourage white people from settling into a family structure that is focused on producing children.”
My gut reaction to the Buffalo shooting is disgust and pain for the victims and their families, but my brain tells me that there is more truth in Gendron’s conspiratorial manifesto and his sick act than President Joe Biden’s robust denunciation, which echoes that of other white folk who want to act all high and mighty, as if the social and cultural heritage that Gendron would kill for is not theirs.
“White supremacy is a poison,” Biden said during a May 17 visit to Buffalo. “It’s a poison running through our body politic, and it’s been allowed to fester and grow right in front of our eyes. We need to say as clearly and forcefully as we can that the ideology of white supremacy has no place in America.”
This is rich coming from the man who proudly quarterbacked the 1994 Crime Bill, who was one of the most vocal anti-busing Democrats in the country, and who facilitated the vile racist and sexist shaming of Anita Hill. And that’s the short list (there’s a lot more).
Biden’s passion notwithstanding, far from a perceived fault, white supremacy is America’s default setting. It is not a poison, it is her plasma. The sooner people accept this reality, the sooner they’ll start the work of actually changing it — as opposed to acting out “colorblind” and anti-racist rituals designed to mask this reality.
In the meantime, let’s consider the symptom. Within Gendron’s explanation for his heinous act is at least an acknowledgement from which most white people would rather hide than confront and that’s the fact that, just like everyone else, white people are raced, they are socially constructed, and this reality comes with historical, psychological and socio-emotional baggage.
“The truth is my personal life and experiences are of no value,” Gendron wrote. “I am simply a White man seeking to protect and serve my community, my people, my culture, and my race.”
Extremists like Gendron and theories like the Great Replacement have all kinds of historical precedents that genteel white people would rather set aside than consider part of a cultural continuum. But I encourage white people to tease the connection between Replacement Theory and, for instance, the pioneering work of University of Chicago sociologists.
In the early 1930s, sociologists like C. Newcomb and E.W. Burgess “divided Chicago for the first time into seventy-seven communities,” writes John Betancur and Janet Smith in Claiming Neighborhood: New Ways of Understanding Urban Change.
“These ‘natural areas’ were derived by applying the principles of human ecology to the city using existing U.S. Census tract boundaries.” The authors add that “human ecologists assumed there was a natural order to the city” and used racial homogeneity “as the central criteria to identify neighborhoods.”
Another University of Chicago sociologist, Homer Hoyt, developed a hierarchy of “racial and national groups in order of their least (1) to most (10) detrimental effect on land use values: (1) English, Germans, Scotch, Irish, and Scandinavians.” North Italians were second, Poles were fourth, “Russian Jews of the lower class” were ranked seventh while “Negroes” were ranked ninth and “Mexicans” were ranked 10th.
According to these sociologists, a community was “stable” when it was mostly white and middle- to upper-class. The concept of “invasion” defined the moment when a particular community gave way to “lower-grade” racial and national groups and non-whites.
I should note that these weren’t merely academic exercises. The work of these sociologists would be used to guide federal policy, “which affected real estate investment and neighborhood planning, and that justified and reified a hierarchical order of homogenous space based on income and race/ethnicity,” Betancur and Smith write.
During research for this column, I found on the Internet Archive a 25-minute documentary produced in 1976 called “Oak Park All American,” which is about the village having achieved the status that year as an “All-America City.”
Pierre de Vise, a professor of Urban Science at the University of Illinois Chicago, whom the Chicago Tribune once called the “Windy City’s Socrates,” is shown speaking to a class of adults. De Vise predicted that, by 1980, Oak Park would be 25% Black, likely introducing what sociologists call a “tipping point,” which would prompt whites to flee the area at an accelerated pace, taking their accumulated wealth and resources with them.
“This shows the situation in about 1968 to 1970 and I predicted a coalescence of these two major ghettos — Chicago’s West Side culminating in Austin and Maywood, to the corridor between the Congress ‘L’ and the Lake Street ‘L’,” de Vise said.
De Vise points out that his prediction did not come true, “largely because the village took the prediction seriously and acted on the prediction in the program of managed integration,” the effort, led by energetic personalities like Oak Park Regional Housing Center founder Bobbie Raymond (who is also featured in the film) to encourage whites and Blacks to live next to each other.
We might as well call “managed integration” what it was — managing whites’ fear of Blacks, which meant very closely monitoring the number of Blacks in Oak Park. The village practiced other, less genteel management strategies, Betancur and Smith point out, including proposing “an ordinance that would limit the number of black households on a block to 30 percent, since this was the threshold commonly found in the empirical research at which a neighborhood would become all black.”
Among the people featured in that 1976 documentary, James Shannon stood out. Shannon, a Black resident of Oak Park who moved from Chicago, emerges as the Oak Park whisperer. He speaks truths that most white people would rather cloud in euphemisms.
“My experience in Chicago is that when the whites move out, then also the police leave, the garbage service leaves, the school starts getting full of [substitute] teachers. That’s the basic reason I moved,” Shannon says. “I had to find a good school for my kids.”
Shannon adds that when he “first moved, the first thing the people on my block want to make me is chairman of the block club. And while I’m being chairman of the block club, they calling the Mayflower, getting they stuff together and moving. So, if it really gets down to the nitty gritty, when they move I’m leaving too. I’m not going to get stuck, you know what I mean? Wherever they going, [I’m going].”
Shannon shrewdly and lucidly points out the paradox of what you might call the Oak Park Dream. On the one hand, the village is open, inviting, multiracial and democratic.
“The secret is that the people here make things work,” Shannon says. “Without the people nothing happens.”
That’s still true nearly five decades later. Oak Park is probably one of the most civic-oriented suburbs in the country. But it’s also closed to those who can’t afford to live here and that means, by definition, it is closed to most non-whites. This is where things get messier and less black-and-white.
“Basically, they just don’t want poor people in Oak Park,” Shannon says. “Color doesn’t have nothing to do with it. I don’t see nothing wrong with it, because let’s face it, this is a class society.”
“I’ve never felt that race was the issue,” Eugene Callahan, then a village trustee, says in the documentary. “I think class is the issue in any interracial community and it’s just as much an issue for Blacks as it is for whites and there’s no reason to feel guilty about it.”
It’s easy to condemn Payton Gendron. In fact, we all should — wholeheartedly. But after we’re done, we need to examine the system that created the racially and economically segregated poor Black community Gendron traveled 200 miles to terrorize.
It’s the same system that created Oak Park.