We Can’t Talk About the Racist Massacre in Buffalo Without Talking About Capitalism

We are not being honest about the horrific racist violence that took place in Buffalo this weekend and the racial inequality throughout the United States if we ignore how capitalism brought us here.

People light candles at a memorial near the Tops Grocery store in Buffalo, New York where a gunman fatally shot ten people. (Usman Khan / AFP via Getty Images)

I was going to sit down and finish up some longer writing projects this weekend. But then the shooting in Buffalo happened, where it appears that a white supremacist eighteen-year-old drove two hundred miles to kill Black people in one of the most African-American neighborhoods in New York State.

It’s a horrifying tragedy, immediately harkening back to the 2015 mass murder at Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s church in Charleston, South Carolina. Law enforcement officials say that the murderer had researched the mass murder of fifty-one Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2018.

As a Black person, I have the biggest news-generated pit in my stomach since George Floyd’s murder. It feels as if American society is becoming unmoored from its foundations and we don’t have any coordinated approach — as people on the Left, as workers, and as Black people and people of color — for how to respond.

The central problem with the social media age is its never-ending cacophony. Silence and contemplation are never allowed. As a result, responses to mass murder almost immediately begin to conform to folks’ prior views — on gun regulation or on white supremacy, typically, but also a broader set of assumptions about how society is and should be organized. When tensions are so high, honest conversations are difficult.

And yet, those conversations must happen — and we cannot honestly talk about racist mass murder without talking about capital and the profit system.

We are not being honest about violence if we ignore the profit motive in weapons manufacturing.

We are not being honest about racism if we ignore the profit motive in the racism that makes non-rich white people identify their problems as Black people instead of the small handful of capitalists who control the global economy.

We are not being honest about the context of violence if we ignore economic inequality.

We are not being honest about media-fueled hate if we ignore the profit motive in news and social media companies that make money off outrage.

In short, we are not being honest about what’s happening if we ignore how hypercapitalism brought us to this moment.

As Martin Luther King, Jr said to his staff in 1966: “Something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

By making explicit the connection between racism and capitalism, we honor the legacy of Black thinkers who have explored this question — from Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Assata Shakur, June Jordan, Lorraine Hansberry, W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, bell hooks, and Claudia Jones, to Robin D. G. Kelley and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor today.

Papering over these links between racial and economic inequality, then, is also papering over Black American intellectual history.

By skirting around the solution to the problems that all of us in the global 99 percent face, we’re not honestly diagnosing the disease and taking steps to address it in the body politic.

Particularly in the United States — where the socialist branch of the labor movement that brought us the eight-hour workday, the weekend, and Social Security was crushed in the McCarthy era and never recovered — we must start explaining the virtues of worker control over production and worker power in politics, and how it addresses the problem we face: the rich make every economic decision in society, while treating workers as subhuman.

“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children,” King said.

The 1 percent — like Rupert Murdoch, the misanthropic owner of Fox News, and TV host Tucker Carlson — uses racism to get a portion of the white 99 percent to act against their own economic interests.

We need to reduce the 1 percent’s power if we are going to successfully fight racism.

“At Least We’d End Up Eating Lunch Together”

To do that, we must also acknowledge painful truths beyond merely the Republican Party’s open embrace of fascism. We must also acknowledge the Democratic Party’s complementary role creating fertile ground for that fascism.

As shown in Meltdown, Democrats’ Wall Street fealty under President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010 — via the foreclosure crisis, bonuses to bailed out Wall Street executives, and keeping the big banks intact — created ground for the growth of the extreme right, handing far-right Republicans a midterm election victory in 2010 that thrust white nationalist Steve King into the House majority.

In 2016, then, Obama insisted on campaigning for a hated trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Hillary Clinton failed to distance herself from as Donald Trump made opposition to the agreement a centerpiece of his campaign.

Senate Democrats’ 2013 failure — thanks to conservative Democrats, including Joe Biden allies Chris Coons (D-DE) and Bob Casey (D-PA) — to confirm Obama nominee Debo Adegbile to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division left the agency without a Senate-confirmed head to lead a push on voting and civil rights for the rest of Obama’s presidency.

Trump’s easily preventable 2016 victory is inseparable from the growth of the extreme right in America. A man who launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and demanding a Muslim ban, before praising an apocryphal story about genocidal General John Pershing, calling violent Nazi protesters “very fine people,” and retweeting white nationalist Twitter accounts as president is sure to massively embolden extreme white nationalists, and that’s exactly what has happened.

Joe Biden is not some innocent bystander. The author of the racist 1994 crime bill, who made common cause with segregationists, won his party’s presidential nomination against a civil rights protester.

As recently as 2015, Biden bragged about his relationship with white nationalist senator Jesse Helms, who was a fierce defender of vicious white minority rule in Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), sending two aides to a conference in 1979 to urge Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith to “stiffen his spine” against the guerrilla movement leading the independence struggle.

Dylann Roof, who killed nine people in a Black church in South Carolina in 2015, titled his blog “The Last Rhodesian.”

Lest you think Biden’s behavior is ancient history, the president earlier this month pined for the old days when he and his party got along with virulent racists.

“We always used to fight like hell — and even back in the old days when we had real segregationists, like Eastland and Thurmond and all those guys — but at least we’d end up eating lunch together,” Biden said.

For reference: Senator James Eastland of Mississippi often spoke of Black people as “an inferior race,” according to his obituary in the New York Times.

Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina ran as an independent third party candidate in 1948 on an unabashedly pro-segregation platform and led the longest filibuster in history against the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

Biden’s history of downplaying the dangers of white nationalism in favor of an elite collegiality might explain why his administration has been so reticent to take action on policies that would take some of the wind out of the sails of a rising extreme right, frothing at “critical race theory” and Great Replacement delirium.

Actually Doing Something Might Help

As Andre Perry at the Brookings Institution wrote last year, Biden canceling all student loan debt would go a long way toward addressing the racial wealth gap and economic inequality.

It has been sixteen months since Biden took office, and there’s still no action. Biden won’t even release an unredacted version of the legal memo on his authority to cancel student debt.

It’s a time-proven axiom that rising economic inequality creates political openings for the extreme right. This is apparent in the rise of Trump, Marine Le Pen, and far-right parties in Spain, Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Reflecting this reality, the polling organization Data for Progress noted at the beginning of April that, 56 percent of young voters from ages eighteen to thirty-five in the battleground states of Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin “say they would be more likely to vote should all student loan debt be canceled.”

Extremist Republican candidates are set to be nominated in all of those states. As just one example, all of the top Republicans in Arizona have embraced Great Replacement language echoed by the Buffalo shooter, with Arizona attorney general Mark Brnovich saying recently that migration is the “constitutional definition of an invasion.”

Defeating them should be a high priority. Given Biden’s abysmal current approval ratings, that only seems possible if Biden cancels student debt. Yet again, economic inequality and the extreme right are inseparably intertwined. We can’t solve one without the other — and yet there is still inaction.

That intransigence is reflected throughout Biden’s party.

Take New York governor Kathy Hochul (D), who is from Buffalo. On Sunday at a church service in the city, she said: ​​“Lord, forgive the anger in my heart but channel that into my passion to continue to fight to protect people, get the guns off the streets and silence the voices of hatred and racism and white supremacy all over the internet.”

Meanwhile, Hochul has failed to endorse Good Cause Eviction legislation, which would disproportionately help Black and brown households that are facing eviction.

And both Hochul and Biden are failing to lift a finger to help the Amazon Labor Union, the Black-led movement that nonetheless built majority support for the union from workers of all races — the most effective antidote to white nationalism. The generous tax breaks for Amazon in New York are still in place, despite the retail giant’s alleged labor law violations. Biden just gave Amazon a $10 billion contract, after pledging to deny contracts to companies that fail to remain neutral in union elections.

Hope should still spring eternal. I often reflect on the not-so-prophetic words of white abolitionist Wendell Phillips around 1856:

The government has fallen into the hands of the Slave Power completely. So far as national politics are concerned we are beaten — there’s no hope,” he wrote. “We shall have Cuba in a year or two, Mexico in five. . . . The future seems to unfold a vast slave empire united with Brazil. I hope I may be a false prophet but the sky never was so dark.

Less than ten years later, America’s second and much further-reaching revolution — in Emancipation, the general strike of people formerly in coerced bondage, and Reconstruction — was in place, Slave Power crushed, and hundreds of Black people and their allies were elected on land reform and anti–Wall Street platforms.