On Saturday, a white supremacist attack on Buffalo’s Black community left ten people dead and three wounded. In the following interview, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment, talks with Parkland survivor and activist David Hogg about how we got here and how to organize against the threat of white nationalism.
In preparation for their conversation, Dunbar-Ortiz and Hogg read the document that is widely purported to be a manifesto written by the Buffalo gunman. The provenance of a document from the murkiest corners of the Internet is difficult to verify, but there is reason to believe this one is what it purports to be. It is, in any case, a mélange of far-right “replacement theory,” anti-Black racist pseudoscience, and virulent anti-Semitism that lays out in detail a white nationalist ideology calling for shootings such as the one in Buffalo.
We asked Dunbar-Ortiz and Hogg to consider whether the shooting in Buffalo differs from other recent mass shootings, and how we might chart the course for a politics that would interrupt the cycle of endless gun violence.
“While there have not been many mass shootings targeting the Black community specifically, Black people being shot one by one by police is a feature of American life.”
David Hogg: Well, where do we want to start, Roxanne?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: Let’s start with guns themselves.
DH: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer came out on the Senate floor and talked about the Buffalo shooting for several minutes, and barely made a mention of background checks, or the fact that he promised over a year ago to introduce them. I’m not dumb; I know it’s not going to pass. But, you know, we still introduce legislation around Roe v. Wade that we know won’t pass. We still introduce legislation around voting rights that won’t pass. It is one of the ways that elected officials can show young people that their vote does matter, even if the legislation is not passing. So it’s hard when someone like Senator Schumer, who claims to be on our side—and historically has been, with supporting things like the Brady Bill—doesn’t show up in the way that we need him to, to show young people that our vote does matter, that the gun violence prevention that young voters want does matter.
RDO: It seems like the Democrats have at this point set aside almost everything except war. Something that has really struck me about this shooting is that it is one of the very few mass shootings in recent years to specifically target a Black community. One of the only others was the Mother Emanuel Church in South Carolina.
I haven’t read the whole 180 pages of the shooter’s manifesto—it’s such difficult reading—but from what I’ve read, he’s a bright young man who says, basically, that for the past two years of the pandemic he was bored and occupied his time by researching about these racist theories, such as replacement theory. He was a top student in his high school. He graduated with honors and got into one of the SUNY schools. He’s only eighteen. He lives near Binghamton, where there’s a major SUNY campus. His hometown is in New York on the Pennsylvania line, on the Allegheny Plateau, which is part of Appalachia. It’s kind of the heart of whiteness, you could say. You know, Appalachia is still more than 80 percent white. In his manifesto, he says he had to research to find the closest sizable Black community, and that was 200 miles away. In other words, he grew up without any kind of meaningful contact with Black people at all. And that’s significant when we think about what his research into white supremacy brought out in him, this boy who was from a “nice,” seemingly upper-middle-class home.
DH: I struggle with how to even take his manifesto, because I think that a lot of times, these mass shootings are basically the marketing budget for the shooters’ manifestos. So how can I, as somebody who has somewhat of a platform, talk about it in an ethical way? But I did read all of it minus the parts about what guns he used and such, and, you know, he says himself that he’s a fascist. And when you compare what he’s talking about to the actual policies of the Third Reich, I would say that’s not hyperbole; he really does fit that description to a large extent.
And I just don’t know what we do to combat that ideology. It’s not going to go away. I think it’s only going to get worse with climate change, as there’s billions of climate refugees. That will only exacerbate this fear of the annihilation or depopulation of the white race, a fear that clearly has a stranglehold on some people, some of whom feel empowered to act violently on it. And I have no idea how we actually address this. How do we make people realize that changing demographics aren’t something that you need to be terrified of, and that this racist pseudoscience is not accurate?
“Mass shootings are basically the marketing budget for the shooters’ manifestos. So how can I talk about it in an ethical way?”
RDO: As a historian, I don’t think there will really be any change until there’s a mass reckoning with the fact that the founders of the United States always intended it be a white republic, and that it was built on the genocide of Indigenous people. That’s the baseline, and for really the first hundred years of the United States’ existence, that was just taken for granted by those in power. It’s baked into every institution. And it explains why the United States has the biggest military in human history and is at war all the time.
I think one thing the Buffalo shooter has done that is somewhat novel is to make Black people a target in replacement theory, which has traditionally focused on immigrants. And obviously, African Americans are not immigrants. They’ve been here longer than most white people have. So, in a way he has taken this white nationalist pseudoscientific theory and made it more inclusive, which is terrifying. He also brings back a lot of old stuff that we can recognize from The Turner Diaries. And not surprisingly he is virulently anti-Semitic.
But he just comes out and says that Black Americans have to be destroyed. And it’s terrifying to imagine this as the new face of white nationalism. Although of course it must be acknowledged that while there have not been many mass shootings targeting the Black community specifically, Black people being shot one by one by police is a feature of American life.
DH: It’s terrifying. The points you make raise for me this question of how we respond to shootings, and the effect of psychological numbing. There’s this thing that happens where the more people are affected by something, the less they care about it. It’s a weird counterintuitive thing where, as has been said before, one death is a tragedy but a million is just a statistic. It presents a strategic challenge because if you demand people’s attention every single time there’s a shooting, people just get numb to it and they don’t care, like it just normalizes it to them. But at the same time, all of them need to be talked about. And we can’t act like this isn’t going to happen again. It will.
RDO: In this particular instance, it strikes me that the NRA convention is ten days away, and I think that would be a good time to really have powerful demonstrations there, as an occasion to lay responsibility for these shootings at the feet of that membership—you know, not just its organization or its money, but the people who are there.
DH: I think a lot about how we need more allies in the fight. People say a lot of horrible things to me, like in my DMs, and they’re often clearly NRA members, and I try to just have a conversation with a lot of them. I am very upfront with them that I’m not trying to convince them, I just don’t want my classmates or other people to die from gun violence anymore. And a lot of them basically end up apologizing to me because I don’t feed into the hatred.
I am trying not to generalize as much as I have in the past about who is on which side, because we need as many allies as we can get in this fight. I mean, Ben Shapiro was in the Buffalo shooter’s manifesto as a Jew who needs to be annihilated, right? So this ideology threatens a lot of people—Black and brown people obviously, and Jewish people, but it’s hard to even pin down who else might be included because he’s so ideologically mixed, but he is clear that he is against anyone he perceives to be a race traitor, which could potentially be anyone. So he—and others with this ideology—are a threat to people on the left and the right.
But I also know that nothing is going to change until Republican and moderate Democratic senators, frankly, get a soul around this issue and realize that stopping these things from happening and gun ownership don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. There are other countries in which citizens have access to guns and shootings like this don’t happen. This is something unique to our political system, and the fact that our Senate, in particular, vastly overrepresents rural white voters as part of the legacy of slavery. That’s the reality for now. I can’t wait to have Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., as states so that the demographics of who is represented by the Senate can shift some. Until then these shootings are just going to keep happening, pretty much every week at this point.
RDO: And that’s not even counting the domestic violence.
DH: Or the suicides.
“There are other countries in which citizens have access to guns and shootings like this don’t happen. This is something unique to our political system, and the fact that our Senate vastly overrepresents rural white voters as part of the legacy of slavery.”
RDO: Right. A man shoots his whole family, and then himself, for example. We should consider that kind of thing to also be a mass shooting.
DH: And a lot of these mass shootings evolve out of domestic violence incidents. Someone shoots members of their family and then goes on to shoot other people.
RDO: It seems like part of the challenge with holding the public’s attention is that the terror of experiencing a mass shooting is almost unimaginable. No one thinks it will happen to them, until it does. I was in a war zone in Nicaragua during the Contra war a lot, and we mainly had to worry about landmines, but it still wasn’t the same as worrying about getting shot for nothing. It was pretty traumatizing! But I still can’t quite imagine being the victim of a mass shooting. And I think about it all the time.
So I imagine that for most people, when they hear about a mass shooting, they think, “Oh, that’s terrible.” But then they move on. And there’s just so many things to be alarmed about in the world that it ends up just being one of many alarming issues. We’re closer to nuclear war right now than we’ve been since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that’s terrifying.
There’s no question for me that education can make a huge difference in terms of people being able to engage in a meaningful way with these issues. It is, at this point in the history of the United States, a tremendous privilege to get an education. Something like 65 percent of the U.S. population does not have more than a high school degree. Among developed nations, that’s really low. And it’s getting worse because of the expense, and the propaganda on the right that a college education is a waste of time and not worth the money. So at this point, most rural Americans don’t have the incentive to go to college.
Everything travels so much faster now with the Internet, but it is not new that human beings have these heavy minds, and our minds accumulate whatever comes to us. And so you take the example of this shooter: he’s a very bright guy, and he has absorbed all this conspiracy information and racist analysis. But imagine, David, if you had gotten ahold of him first—say he’d been your college roommate. He’d be a completely different person. I don’t think people are born bad seeds.
I grew up in rural Oklahoma, so I know how isolating places like that are, and how little information gets through to you—mainly through the preacher, because everyone goes to church, and the preacher transmits whatever information he wants you to have to stay a good Christian. And it’s all fairy tales and lies. I was just lucky to have some mentors, and to have come of age in a moment when there was a mass youth movement for change. There was a civil rights movement going on, and I saw it on television, you know. But now there’s not nearly as much presence in the media about social justice resistance.
A crucial exception was during the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests. That was so effective. There were people in little rural towns in Oklahoma who had Black Lives Matter signs and were demonstrating. I think that shows us what we need to do today. But then the backlash to it—we’re still living through that.
DH: I think that historians looking back on this moment are going to draw a line between the rise of Black Lives Matter, and two years later the culture wars around critical race theory, schools’ rights, things like Don’t Say Gay, and so on. History doesn’t repeat, obviously, but it does rhyme. And I’m so reminded of the backlash against busing and desegregation that happened in reaction to the civil rights movement. And parents defending their racist backlash in terms of, We’re not racist, we just want our kids to have good schools.
I just don’t know what the path forward is here, because I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be the Democratic Party itself, in case that’s not obvious. I don’t know what it’s going to be, though. And the only real thought I have for moving forward would be replicating what they did on the right with the primary campaign of Barry Goldwater and how that movement eventually gave birth to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, because right wingers built a parallel infrastructure to the Republican Party to start basically having an internal revolution. I think that’s worth trying with the Democratic Party from the left, so that we can actually elect pro-labor, pro–civil rights legislators, especially at the state level, and from there start working on the courts over the next fifty years or so, to start fixing our system from what the Federalist Society has done to it.
“During the peak of the protests, there were people in little rural towns in Oklahoma who had Black Lives Matter signs and were demonstrating. That shows us what we need to do today. But then the backlash to it—we’re still living through that.”
RDO: It has gone so far, it’s going to be hard to get it back even to the way it was. Part of the issue is that the Democrats worship the Constitution, and believe that it is a democratic document that supports a vision for a racially just society. But actually, I think they’re wrong in their interpretation about what the so-called Founding Fathers intended. I think they intended a white republic. That’s what they set up.
DH: I mean, look at Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, among other lesser-known primary sources. In it, Jefferson espouses racist pseudoscience as a justification for white domination.
RDO: U.S. leaders were also actively working to deport Black Americans as another “solution” to the fear of demographic replacement. Liberia was established as a place to send formerly enslaved Black people so they could go “back” to Africa. Many powerful whites, including many abolitionists, did not hope for integration; they hoped to get rid of Black people.
DH: President Lincoln, the so-called Great Emancipator, seriously considered so-called “colonization” solutions that would’ve involved strongly incentivizing formerly enslaved people to leave the United States and settle somewhere else. Options that were considered included Central and South America, and he continued to at least mildly entertain this possibly even after issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.
This brings me to something I’ve been wanting to talk with you about: How, in the face of this history, do we create some kind of unifying ideology without it necessarily being nationalism or religion or race, or something like that, in order to coalesce people around a shared vision? One idea that comes up again and again is that we need a Third Reconstruction, and perhaps that that’s even what we’re going through right now in the United States, and that the gun violence and the culture wars should be properly understood as manifesting a counterrevolutionary politics in response to that.
I think the U.S. left is kind of like—forgive the metaphor here—but we’re kind of like a bomb. We’re extremely good at tearing stuff down and blowing it up, because we’re a very diverse coalition. So it’s easy for us to be against. But you can’t build something with a bomb. Right? So how can the U.S. left be more proactive, larger, inclusive, and build an actual better future for everyone in a way that really hasn’t been done before? Because if we look back at programs like even the New Deal, we can see now the detrimental effects it had on many Indigenous communities, because of the agricultural policies; and from the Federal Housing Administration we got redlining. So how do we take those lessons from the past and create some sense of unity? And build a better future?
RDO: From a strategy perspective, I think one way to answer that is to look to the grassroots organizing of the sixties. That’s something missing today. When the movement weakened, philanthropists came in and kind of transformed that movement into an ecosystem of nonprofits and NGOs organized around activism. And I don’t necessarily want to criticize that, but it has to be said that it has created this sense that organizing is a career instead of, you know, a sacrifice. Activists in the sixties were mostly flat broke, and we worked in gas stations and as taxi drivers and housekeepers, and it was a revolutionary movement. So I think we have to find a way to get back to that spirit of grassroots organizing, block by block.
The revanchist right that arose in response, such as the John Birch Society, studied our movements, and they knew that the heart of their organizing had to be around local chapters. The NRA could die tomorrow, and its chapters would still be vibrant. They organized locally. They organized to take over school boards, and they succeeded, even in California. Orange County was controlled by them for decades. And then you get to educate a generation.
So now we should study them, since they studied us, and they’ve been more successful than we were. Maybe we should start with the local and the state.
DH: I agree.
“Young people voting at the highest rate in U.S. history and still seeing basically no change is a huge canary in the coal mine for what’s coming for the future of democracy.”
RDO: And not so much the federal. The Supreme Court is gone, you know. Congress is probably gone. The presidency. I mean, the electoral system just doesn’t allow for any meaningful success for the left at the federal level, not right now.
DH: After this election cycle, my plan is to spend about 90 percent of my time and effort on state legislative races, and 10 percent of it on Congress and the presidency, because we’re not going to get better than we are right now. Frankly, Democrats have let us down a lot, and you can blame that on the filibuster all you want. But the reality is even if we didn’t have the filibuster, we still wouldn’t pass anything. And it’s a damned shame.
When me and my classmates started being activists in 2018, I was seventeen years old, and I said, you know, We’re the kids. You’re the adults. You need to do something. And then the adults responded to us, OK, you’re about to be adults. Go out and vote. And we did. Young people voted at one of the highest rates in U.S. history in a non-presidential midterm in 2018, voting out dozens of NRA-backed politicians, and passing over fifty gun laws since then at the state level. Then 2020 saw the highest youth voter turnout in 120 years.
So at this point I feel like I can say that the movement isn’t broken so much as our government is broken, and the Democratic Party is broken. And that’s a much bigger problem than what I initially thought we were setting out to fix. But if that’s what it takes, I’m willing to do my part as one citizen. But it’s scary, you know. Young people voting at the highest rate in U.S. history, twice, and still seeing basically no change is a huge, huge canary in the coal mine for what’s coming for the future of democracy, because young people aren’t going to stop trying to create change, because we’re dying.
People are going to get this change by whatever means necessary. Even if it’s not democratic. And that keeps me up at night. Young people have attempted to work with the system to change things, and older people repeatedly tell us—obviously, Roxanne, you’re an exception, and there are many exceptions—but, I cannot tell you how much the main response we get boils down to: Nothing’s going to change until you guys vote. And I’m like, we have been. We voted at higher rates than all of you have, and nothing has changed. I feel like we’re screaming into a void right now, and nothing is changing. And we’re basically on a train that’s going off a cliff, and it has been since 2000, when I was born. And now we’re only realizing that we’re going off a cliff. And I don’t know what we do now, because there is no parachute.
RDO: I think that’s a good way to end.