Today’s New Zealand mosque shootings, which killed at least 49 people and were allegedly carried out by white supremacists, are only the latest on a long list of recent acts of white supremacist terrorism. Despite the growing and constant threat, Western governments have failed to adequately address the danger of white supremacy.
An abbreviated list of recent acts of white supremacist terrorism includes Robert Gregory Bowers’ killing of 12 Jewish worshippers at a Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2018; Alexandre Bissonnette‘s massacre of six Muslims in the Quebec City mosque in 2017; Dylann Roof’s murdering of nine black Christian parishioners in a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015; and Anders Behring Breivik’s slaughter of 77 people in Norway in 2011.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, numerous other white supremacist plots, including some that planned to kill as many as 30,000 people, have been foiled by law enforcement in the United States. Just last month, the American FBI arrested Christopher Paul Hasson, a white supremacist and lieutenant in the US coastguard, for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks against black and liberal politicians and media personalities.
All of this is to say nothing of less recent white supremacist history, including anti-black violence perpetrated by US’s Ku Klux Klan (KKK), thousands of 19th and 20th century lynchings of black Americans by white supremacist mobs, millions of black people murdered during the African slave trade, or millions of brown people killed during the peak periods of Western colonialism. Scholars and analysts have cogently and repeatedly argued that both the African slave trade and Western colonialism were carried out largely in the service of white supremacy.
Although US media and political elites spend considerable time discussing “Islamic terrorism”, far-right, white supremacist terrorism is far more common. A recent study showed that two-thirds of terrorist attacks in the US are carried out by far-right individuals and groups. Research by the Southern Poverty Law Center, meanwhile, shows that most far-right violence is unambiguously linked to white supremacy.
In spite of the obvious and continued threat of white supremacist terrorism, Western societies still arguably do not take the danger as seriously as they should. A recent New York Times report showed that for decades US’s “domestic counterterrorism strategy has ignored the rising danger of far-right extremism”, which, the report also noted, is tied explicitly to white supremacy.
Political movements may help explain why many Western societies do not take the threat of white supremacy as seriously as they should – many Western political leaders are themselves beholden to white supremacy.
White nationalism has taken firm root in both European and American political mainstreams. In Europe, white nationalists have gained political traction and influenced elections and referendums, including the United Kingdom’s 2016 Brexit vote, while in the US, President Donald Trump and numerous Republican politicians have been linked to white supremacy.
White supremacist and former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke explained why white supremacists voted for Trump in US’s 2016 presidential election, and Trump made headlines in 2016 when he refused to disavow Duke’s support. In 2017, Trump famously equivocated on the KKK and called white supremacists protesting in Charlottesville, Virginia “very fine people“. Earlier this decade, Trump spearheaded campaigns challenging the intelligence, grades, and citizenship of the US’s first black President, Barack Obama.
White supremacy isn’t always violent, at least not at the level of the individual. Some effects of white supremacy are more insidious, but also more widespread and common. Scientific studies on implicit biases show that white people view black people as intellectually inferior and more threatening, among other things.
Implicit biases help explain why, for example, black Americans have more difficulty in obtaining loans and getting jobs, even after all non-race variables are controlled for. Perhaps most relevant to today’s anti-Muslim massacres in New Zealand is research showing that large proportions of white people in western societies tend to view Muslims and other brown immigrants as subhuman.
Another problem directly relevant to today’s New Zealand massacres is media coverage. Western news media coverage of Muslims tends to be negative and highly stereotypical. Violent crimes carried out by Muslims are highlighted in reportage, while violent crimes perpetrated against Muslims are often de-emphasised or ignored.
One peer-reviewed quantitative analysis showed that acts of terrorism committed by Muslims receive 357 percent more news attention than acts of terrorism committed by non-Muslims. Additionally, the word “terrorism” is often ignored in the context of non-Muslim violence and used exclusively in news reports describing Muslim crimes.
Political elites and media coverage, then, are two factors helping to explain the largely negative perceptions of Muslims, black people, immigrants, and other minorities in contemporary Western societies. Today’s shooters in New Zealand weren’t born to hate Muslims or any other minority group. They were taught, just as all other white supremacist terrorists are taught, via bigoted discourses which have attained hegemonic status in western societies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.