Wednesday, November 13, 2019


By Nigel Bolland, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology and Caribbean Studies, Emeritus

One year ago, on a lovely October morning, my daughter came into the room and said, “Dad, don’t go for a walk this morning. There’s an active shooter outside.”

I must have been among the first people to know because my daughter, who is a physician employed by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), had been alerted by the Emergency Alert System that a gunman had opened fire in a synagogue in the city, very near to where we live.

On the morning of October 27, 2018, a quiet Shabbat morning, the Allegheny County 911 emergency operations received a phone call from a frightened man in the Tree of Life or L’Shimcha Congregation, a synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill district. A crisis team went into action immediately, with police and SWAT teams moving towards the location of the shooting and medical personnel preparing to deal with the victims. The 911 call-taker had been trained to get the necessary information about the nature and location of the threat. She calmly passed on the information and did her job to help the police coordinate their response and the specially trained medical team to prepare. Another call-taker kept a line open for 56 minutes to Rabbi Jeffrey Myers who was in a choir loft above the sanctuary, describing the shots he was hearing in his synagogue.

The gunman shouted, “All these Jews need to die.” There were reports of twenty to thirty gunshots. Eleven people were killed and six wounded, including four police officers, before the shooter was apprehended and disarmed. This, the worst anti-Semitic killing in US history, took place near where I live, in a building I frequently walk past on my way to stores or the library in Squirrel Hill.

Like many other people, I found myself asking why this had happened, and I found it hard to understand. It is a little clearer now, a year after it happened. It was even harder to explain to and to reassure the three young grandchildren with whom we live when they asked, “Are we safe?” What could I say?

The response of the communities in Pittsburgh was helpful - and admirable. Many kinds of people showed support and solidarity with the Jewish community. There were public vigils and statements of support. The first vigil, which was organized the same day by students from the neighborhood high school, was a rather surreal candlelight gathering of hundreds who met in the rain at the principal crossroads of Squirrel Hill. The day after the shooting an interfaith vigil was held at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, drawing an overflow crowd estimated by be 2,500 people, including the Mayor of Pittsburgh, and the Senators and Governor of the state of Pennsylvania. More meetings and marches took place in subsequent days, in which everyone joined in reciting the prayer of the mourners, the kaddish. Indeed, demonstrations were held all over the country and across the world.

The Pittsburgh Post Gazette included a front-page headline, in Hebrew, the opening of the kaddish. (When the paper won the Pulitzer’s prize for ‘breaking news reporting’ it donated the $15,000 to help repair the synagogue). The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra organized a special concert and sports organizations like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pittsburgh Penguins joined in showing their support. Considerable funds were quickly raised by donations to help  the victims and their families. Perhaps the person who best expressed the city’s response was Wasi Mohamed, the Director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, who was at every meeting and demonstration, when he pointed out, “Negative rhetoric against the Jewish community is poison. You know, it’s poison for our democracy, it’s poison for our country, and it’s negative to everybody, not just that community.”

This fine show of solidarity is what I have come to expect in Pittsburgh, a city with great pride in its history and a strong sense of unity, often expressed by the words, “Steeler Nation.” Since the massacre, signs appeared around the city, in store windows, on people’s lawns and on T- shirts, with the slogans “Stronger Together” and “Stronger Than Hate.” An annual meeting of the Allegheny Conference that was held soon after the massacre was attended by the city’s mayor, leaders of many religious communities, corporations and organized labor, educational and arts organizations, under a giant sign: STRONGER TOGETHER. The Chair of the Allegheny Conference Board of Directors, Bill Demchak, reminded people that “Squirrel Hill represents the best of our region in so many ways - a diverse, welcoming community…. It will always be Mr. Roger’s neighborhood,” referring to the classic children’s TV show that was created in Pittsburgh. He went on,
“Today, more than ever before, we need each other. We must move beyond the anger it is so natural to feel after an assault on our neighbors. We must take action to foster an even greater sense of community for everyone who calls our region home. And, we must come together, unified as one Pittsburgh, to stand against hate of all kinds and to ensure that our region - a region that was built on a variety of beliefs and cultures, welcoming peoples from around the world - celebrates diversity, embraces our differences, and is indeed for all.”

When the last funeral was held for one of the victims in one of Pittsburgh’s historic   synagogues, Rodef Shalom, the mourners were joined by the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charlestown, South Carolina, where another racist gunman inspired by hatred had killed nine of his congregation in 2015. Manning said,  “We are part of a circle that no one wants to be a part of. What we have to do, today, and every day, is to make sure that that circle doesn’t get any bigger.” The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said, “Places of worship should be sanctuaries and safe spaces. Tomorrow I will be standing shoulder to shoulder with Jewish Londoners for their Shabbat service to show solidarity to the victims of the Pittsburgh shooting last weekend.” Pope Francis denounced the “inhuman act of violence” and asked God “to help us to extinguish the flames of hatred that develop in our societies.”

The emphasis on finding strength in unity, and that unity is achieved not by rejecting diversity but by embracing it, is a central message that is at the heart of Pittsburgh’s response to the massacre. It is also an appropriate response, given the motivation of the sole suspect, a man who had posted anti-Semitic comments online against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which is supported by members of the Tree of Life. His posting before the attack referred to Central American migrants and refugees as “invaders” who “kill our people.” This coincided with a spike in anti-Semitic activity on social networking platforms, as reported by studies from Columbia University and the Anti-Defamation League. Far-right extremists used social media to organize racist networks in the months preceding the mid-term elections of November 2018, just as they did during the 2016 election campaign. The gunman’s use of the term “invaders” to describe the people struggling to cross the southern border simply echoed the words of President Trump who persisted in publicizing the need for building a wall to exclude them. Rabbi Myers blamed politicians for a rise in hateful rhetoric and, when Trump visited Pittsburgh he told him, “Mr. President, hate speech leads to hateful actions. Hate speech leads to what happened in my sanctuary… I witnessed it with my eyes.” When Trump visited Pittsburgh on October 30, Mayor Peduto said he should not have come, and over 70,000 people signed an open letter stating that he was not welcome until he “fully denounces white nationalism.” During his visit an estimated 2,000 protestors were cordoned off a few blocks away, but we did our best to make our voices heard as we loudly chanted, “Words matter.”

A rising tide of hate crimes against Jews, Muslims, African Americans, Hispanic Americans,  and immigrants was reported by the FBI between 2016 and 2018. Led by right-wing   extremists, it appears to have been condoned and in some cases encouraged by some leading politicians. In August 2017 a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, featured Nazi signs, salutes and symbols, and racist rhetoric, along with the open participation of Klansmen and various white nationalists, under the slogan “Unite the Right.” Confederate flags were prominent because the rally was protesting the removal of Confederate monuments, including a statue honoring  Robert E. Lee in a Charlottesville park. The demonstrators clashed with counter protestors, leaving more than thirty people injured. Heather Heyer was killed when a self-identified white supremacist deliberately rammed his car into a group of counter protestors. Numerous armed right wing militia groups also appeared at the rally; while claiming to be protecting the First Amendment rights of the demonstrators, they were also trying to intimidate the counter protestors.

President Trump’s remarks about the incident were widely reported and commented on. While not condemning the supremacist marchers specifically, he spoke of the “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides” and later supported this view when he said there were “very fine people on both sides.” He was implying a moral equivalence between the white supremacists who initiated the rally, and were responsible for the death of Heather Heyer, with those who protested against them. Although he later condemned neo-Nazis, his loose talk was taken by many as a sign of his sympathy with the goals of white supremacists.

One year later an anniversary rally was held in Washington, DC, but only about twenty or thirty of the far right showed up, compared with thousands of counter protestors from civil rights groups, various religious organizations, and people who identified themselves explicitly as anti- fascist demonstrators. Between 2016 and 2018 it was clear that, along with and amplified by a spreading wave of bigotry coming from some of the nation’s leaders, the country was rapidly polarizing on social issues, such as racism, cultural diversity, and immigration.

One sign of this is the rise in hate crimes in the US. Although many of these go unreported, the FBI releases annual statistics acquired from law enforcement agencies. In 2017 the data shows that 7,175 hate crime incidents were reported, involving 8,493 victims. The crimes included murder, rape, assault, robbery, and vandalism. Most of these crimes were against persons and most were committed by white offenders. The vast majority of these were ‘single-bias’  incidents, motivated by hatred of race and ethnicity (58.1 percent), religion (22 percent), and sexual orientation and gender identity (17.6 percent). In each category of bias motivation the number of reported crimes increased from 2016 to 2017, part of a five-year upward trend. Hate crimes in the nation’s ten largest cities increased by 12 percent in 2017, reaching the highest level in more than a decade. Some of the increase may be attributed to the greater ‘incivility’ expressed in national politics, such as referring to immigrants and even refugees as ‘invaders.’ Those counties that hosted a Trump rally saw a 226 percent increase in hate crimes in this period. The USA is not the only country where this was happening, of course, but because it is so influential whatever happens here is noticed immediately around the world.

What the hell is happening? What could I say to my grandchildren that would help them to understand this when I was not sure how much of it I understood? I could not simply lie and tell them they were safe because no place in the country is safe, not nightclubs or shopping centers, schools or places of worship. There is no single definition of a ‘mass shooting’ that everyone agrees on, and the number of fatalities from such incidents are only a small fraction of all gun murders. What happened in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018, was one of the worst such incidents, but some resulted in even more casualties. And there seems to be no end of them. It is even harder to explain why so little is done to stop these atrocities.

On February 14, 2018, seventeen people were killed and seventeen others wounded at a high school in Parkland, Florida; ten were killed and fourteen wounded at a similar school in Santa Fe, Texas, on May 18; and on November 7 a man entered a bar in Thousand Oaks, California, and shot at least 25 people, killing twelve of them, before he killed himself. In the previous year, 27 people, including the perpetrator, were killed at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and 59, including the gunman, were killed and over a hundred wounded at a concert in Las Vegas, Nevada. That was the deadliest mass shooting by an individual in US history, so far, and no clear motive was discovered.

Many of these massacres have been hate crimes, however, like the one in an African American church in Charlestown, Virginia, in 2015, when a young white man who was inspired by white nationalism killed nine people. In Orlando, Florida, in 2016, an American of Afghan descent who had pledged allegiance to ISIS shot 99 people, killing 49 of them, at a night club. This was also a hate crime, inspired by racial and ethnic or religious hatred. It has frequently been pointed out that there are many parallels between Islamic terrorism and white supremacist terrorism. Most massacres in the US have been carried out with semi-automatic weapons (generally acquired legally) that are designed to kill as many people as possible in a short period of time - designed, in other words, for mass shootings. Such massacres have tripled in frequency since 2011.

As I write this in October, 2019, one year after the massacre in Pittsburgh, it appears possible there will be more mass shootings in this year than there are days. Two of these occurred  within 24 hours of each other, one in Dayton, Ohio, where nine people were killed and 27  injured on August 4. The other occurred on the previous day, at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, in which 22 people were killed and at least 24 wounded. The police say that the gunman in El Paso posted a white nationalist and anti-immigrant ‘manifesto’ online shortly before the attack. It cited the massacre at a mosque in Christchurch, NZ, and the right-wing ‘white genocide’ conspiracy theory called “Great Replacement” as his motivation.

This ‘theory,’ or fantasy, which spread in far-right movements since the late twentieth century, claims that white European populations are being replaced with non-European peoples through a combination of a decline in the birth rate of the former and an increase in mass migration of the latter. As ironic as this theory may sound to the indigenous people of many parts of the world, including the Americas and Australasia, it is adhered to by many prominent people and their followers in Europe and the US. It should be understood as part of a larger and older conspiracy theory of ‘white genocide’ that was popularized in the US by a neo-Nazi, David Lane, in his 1995 White Genocide Manifesto. He claimed that the white people in Western countries were being ‘replaced’ through the connivance of governments that allowed mass migration of non-Europeans and miscegenation. White people, he warned, would become an extinct species. Similar to older anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, this is now often presented as a confrontation between civilizations, in this case Muslim and Christian ones.

A wide-ranging network, including the Identitarian movement in Europe, promotes and popularizes these ideas. In the month before the Pittsburgh massacre, Steve King, a Republican Congressman serving his ninth term, endorsed the Great Replacement theory. In an interview, he said, “If we continue to abort our babies and import a replacement for them in the form of young violent men, we are supplanting our culture, our civilization.” King had helped to set the white nationalist and anti-immigrant agenda long before Trump, and Iowa keeps electing him. King has long been an admirer of white nationalist Europeans, such as the leaders of the Austrian Freedom Party who joined him to celebrate Trump’s inauguration. He said of Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician, “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” This extreme right-wing ideology that has already inspired massacres such as those in Pittsburgh, Christchurch, and El Paso, is entering the mainstream political discourse.  References to the Great Replacement theory, promoted by the far-right networks, are rising online, exponentially. Two encouraging events have shown that the far-right terrorist threat is at last being recognized officially for what it is: a congressional resolution was passed condemning white supremacy, and the Department of Homeland Security has added white terrorism to its list of threats. However, the Trump administration has reduced the resources of that department to combat white terrorism, which suggests that it is not one of his priorities, like building a wall and reducing the number of refugees coming here.

Many of King’s supporters, like Trump’s, deny that he is racist, perhaps in part because extremist ideologies are becoming more mainstream and ‘racist’ sounds extreme. Racism, however, is as mainstream American as apple pie. We should not point to the use of online resources by people like Trump as the cause of widespread bigotry when he is only one recent manifestation of it. Racism has a deep history in the US, as in Europe, and it is so central to the political culture and to the feelings of identity that it is not even visible to many people. It is part of the culture that affects everyone, including those who most frequently and loudly deny its importance, or even its existence. Most Republicans, for example, do not think that the   remarks of politicians like King and Trump are racist. When Trump refers to immigrants from “shithole countries,” which in his view include Haiti, El Salvador and African countries, not Norway, or when he tells four non-white Congresswomen to “go back” to where they originally came from, even though three of them were born in the US, Republicans generally close ranks to support him. They assume that white Americans are ‘the norm’ and that ‘others’ are  therefore less ‘American,’ and so white supremacy is to be defended. When Trump calls  himself “the least racist person there is anywhere in the world” his supporters do not doubt   him, because it is how so many of them see themselves.

There is as long a history of denials of racism in the US as there is of the ideology itself - indeed, they seem to have grown together. Even during the Jim Crow period between the  1870s and the 1960s, most white people claimed that blacks were treated fairly. Between 1944 and 1956, when there was still widespread legal discrimination, including segregation, disenfranchisement, and lynching, the national Opinion Resarch Center found that over 60 percent of whites said that most African Americans were “treated fairly.” In 2018 a Cooperative Congressional Election Study survey revealed that 53 percent of whites said that blacks did not face a lot of discrimination and this view was found to be especially prevalent among those  with the most prejudiced attitudes. Most notably, the hostility towards African Americans and the denial of racism has increased among Republicans since Obama’s presidency and Trump’s inauguration. It seems to be only among white people that there is a myth of a ‘post-racial’ society.

US political culture remains divided not simply on how to deal with racial discrimination but   also on whether it even exists. The recent increase in overt white nationalism, of anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-Hispanic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant prejudices, is deeply rooted in the center of the political culture because white supremacists have always denied the effects, and even the fact, of racial discrimination in order to try to legitimize pervasive and persistent social inequalities and their own dominant position. “White Power” seems ‘natural’ to so many people that they cannot see it for what it is. In that way it is similar to patriarchy, to which it is closely related. It is to be expected that people who believe they are inherently superior will think they should be privileged and ‘in charge.’ If their social position and authority is challenged they retaliate, and will define themselves as an exclusive group, and even as one that is threatened by ‘others,’ however unrealistic their fear may be.

This dialectic lies behind what we are seeing today; it provides much of the motivation for persistent widespread prejudice and discrimination, and even for numerous atrocities. The new social media simply amplify the message and enable it to spread more quickly and widely, but the content remains much the same. These bigoted and prejudiced beliefs persist in the US, along with patterns of discrimination and privilege, as they have since colonial times. But they exist in a continual struggle with aspirations for social equality and justice, and for unity   through embracing diversity. This is what I have seen in Pittsburgh since that October morning in 2017, the good reacting against the bad, because they are part of the same universe.

Last Sunday, on the anniversary of the massacre, there was another overflowing gathering at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, with many of the same people who had been there last year. This time the hall was again filled by women, men, and children, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and people with no religion, not only for a solemn tribute to remember those who died a year ago but also looking forward. It was part of a city-wide commemoration: “Remember, Repair, Together Day.” Perhaps this was epitomized by a man who had grown up in the Tree of Life Congregation and was on that day a volunteer with the Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh helping to supply things like bags of crayons, and coloring books, and blankets to refugee families. He said that at first he had thought of what happened a year ago as attack on the Jewish community, “But then, everyone in Pittsburgh saw this as an attack on all of us.”

So, how can one explain this complex picture of history, politics, culture, and social psychology to one’s grandchildren? They are frequently bombarded with simple messages that deny this kind of explanation, and that even deny the difference between facts and opinions. Can we  even comprehend why we ourselves think differently, ‘against the grain’ of this bigotry and cultural exclusivism?  To  do that we need to examine ourselves for the roots of what has shaped differing ways to think about and to relate to our neighbors and to other human beings on our planet. Such self-examination cannot be achieved simply by looking in the mirror, but requires a close study of history and culture, aa well as biography, and the ways these intersect in society. We may begin, and perhaps need to begin, by acknowledging that the struggle between rejecting and embracing human differences lies within us all.

Nigel Bolland

Oct. 31, 2018