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Aug 08 2012

Oak Creek – some thoughts

This past Sunday, a man walked into a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin and opened fire with a 9 mm pistol, killing six people and wounding four others. After a firefight with police, he turned his weapon on himself and committed suicide. I learned of this story days after it happened, as I was far away from any news sources. As a result, there is really very little for me to contribute that hasn’t already been highlighted by countless others. I will briefly summarize my thoughts as best I can.

We don’t know that religion motivated these killings

Fred Allen Lucas, a Bloomington, Ind., man who served with Page at Fort Bragg, N.C., in a psychological operations battalion, recalled that he spoke of the need for securing a homeland for white people and referred to all non-whites as “dirt people.” ”It didn’t matter if they were black, Indian, Native American, Latin – he hated them all,” Lucas said.

Lucas said he met Page in 1995, the same year that the killings of a black couple in Fayetteville by two members of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg revealed the presence of a white-supremacist movement among soldiers on the base. At the time, Lucas said, Page was covered with tattoos, including one that made a reference to the “14 words,” a phrase used by white supremacists: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

“He criticized me for my attraction to (Latina) women,” Lucas said. “He’d call me a ‘race-traitor.’ He said I should change my ways because I was a blond-haired, blue-eyed white guy, and I shouldn’t be wasting myself on that.”

Pretty much everyone is looking to anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States as an explanation for Wade Michael Page, the (alleged)* shooter’s, actions. The thought process is, I suppose, that this was yet another example of a society so paralysed by its fear of Islam that it lashes out at innocent people with no Islamist agenda. Of course, in our zeal to put together a coherent explanation of why someone would commit mass murder, we reach for the closest plausible explanation – that he confused Sikhs with Muslims.

The problem is, we don’t really have any evidence whatsoever that he was especially anti-Muslim. From what his former comrade says, Page hated everybody. The gurdwara might have just been closest to his home, he might have had a specific issue with one of the congregants, or he may have just found it a convenient place where he knew that a large group of brown people was going to be.

The interesting question to ask here is not whether a specific, conscious hatred of Muslims propelled Page into his act, but rather whether the latent Islamophobia that suffuses American life has affected their (our) response to this tragedy. Do news outlets cover it differently? Do we laypeople view it as less tragic? Do we satisfy ourself with the easy explanations or treat this seriously? Does the Sikh-ness of the victims sufficiently ‘other’-ize them enough to make this tragedy somehow less important than the similar shooting a week before?

White supremacy is not the relic of a bygone era

The local Sikh community in Milwaukee had been raising concerns about racial harassment, targeting, and violence for at least the past year. The Sikh Coalition has reported more than 700 incidents of anti-Sikh hate crimes in the U.S. since 9/11. One of those was 49-year-old Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first post 9/11 hate-crime fatality. He was shot five times on September 15, 2001 in Mesa, AZ and his murderer Frank Silva Roque admitted that he killed Sodhi because he was dark, bearded, and wore a turban. White supremacy is fostered, cultivated, condoned, and supported–in the education system and mainstream corporate media, from military missions to the prison industrial complex.

The crimes of white supremacists are not exceptions and do not and cannot exist in isolation from more systemic forms of racism. People of colour face legislated racism from immigration laws to policies governing Indigenous reserves; are discriminated and excluded from equitable access to healthcare, housing, childcare, and education; are disproportionately victims of police killings and child apprehensions; fill the floors of sweatshops and factories; are over-represented in heads counts on poverty rates, incarceration rates, unemployment rates, and high school dropout rates. Colonialism has and continues to be shaped by the counters of white men’s civilizing missions. The occupation of Turtle Island is based on the white supremacist crime of colonization, where Indigenous lands were believed to be barren and Indigenous people believed to be inferior. The occupation of Afghanistan has been justified on the racist idea of liberating Muslim women from Muslim men. Racialized violence has also always targeted places of worship–the spiritual heart of a community. In Iraq, for example, the US Army accelerated bombings of mosques from 2003-2007 with targeted attacks on the Abdul-Aziz al-Samarrai mosqueAbu Hanifa shrineKhulafah Al Rashid mosque and many others. And so I repeat: the patterns of hate crimes have a sense, have a logic, have a structure – they are part of a broader system of white supremacy.

This exerpt is from Vancouver’s Harsha Walia, who I’ve talked about before on this blog. I cannot find enough positive things to say about her, and while we sometimes disagree, it is usually because I am wrong.

Page was an open and notorious white supremacist who frequented online forums that specifically advocated the establishment of America as a white homeland. He did not much care to hide his beliefs either, talking openly to friends about them. He was, more or less, the archetype of “a racist”, at least of the kind that is referred to colloquially.

White supremacy is not some kind of quaint chapter from our society’s dark past. This kind of odious, overt, explicit white supremacy is (thankfully) rarer than it once was, but there is a far more insidious and far-reaching white supremacy at work in everyday life that is rarely identified as such, aside from a handful of sociologists. Until we get a handle on learning to recognize and combat it, it will continue to fuel the rage-filled and conscious white supremacy of a guy like Wade Michael Page. This wasn’t a random and inexplicable act – it is the inevitable consequence of the insane collision-course upon which we are currently steered toward racist self-annihilation.

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*not that there is anything even approaching reasonable doubt – people saw him doing it.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Hein

    Does the Sikh-ness of the victims sufficiently ‘other’-ize them enough to make this tragedy somehow less important than the similar shooting a week before?

    Well I would be very surprised if CNN’s Belief Blog posts an article asking “Where was God during the Oak Creek massacre?”

  2. 2
    maudell

    @ Crommunist
    I might be slightly off topic here, but Harsha Walia’s piece underlines one of my biggest moral struggle regarding racism. I’m a white woman in Canada (hetero cis as well, so pretty high up the privilege ladder), and as a feminist, I make an effort to trying to understand racial dynamics and systemic repression. I think you may have had the reverse experience, i.e. your experience with racism led you to be a feminist as well. (I’m just speculating here).
    I know that sometimes the best intentions are the most insidious when it comes to discrimination (example: the “I’m not transphobic therefore I can say transphobic stuff” blogger Greta brought up this week). So I try to aim higher than “I mean well” when dealing with a type of discrimination that I don’t suffer from. But sometimes I fail. This one is a brain twister to me.

    “(…)the racist idea of liberating Muslim women from Muslim men.”

    Now, I don’t support the Afghanistan “occupation”. But I am conflicted between my anti-racist, feminist and anti-colonization values. I know that you don’t wear the flag of everything not-white, but I think you are well versed on the subject and I would appreciate your insight if you have time.

    In your opinion, is it anti-Muslim to try to “free” Muslim women from deeply entrenched patriarchal oppression? I don’t know. I feel like not helping our sisters around the world when they are treated like cattle (or worse) would be wrong. I don’t want to sink into an argument of cultural superiority, but I also don’t want to resort to relativism.

    Again, apologies for being slightly off-topic. I do wonder if I’m going through white guilt or if I’m just a bigot for “judging” (read: horrified by this religious oppression) their culture.

    Thoughts?

  3. 3
    Crommunist

    I too struggle with Harsha Walia’s writing sometimes, but as I said it nearly always turns out that I am either misunderstanding something she said or (more often) lack some important piece of information. She also tends to throw in conclusions from a lot of arguments that are well above the 101 level (or even the 201 level that I operate on), which makes life difficult for anyone who doesn’t share her depth of knowledge. You shouldn’t feel bad about being conflicted – I often have the identical reaction until I get a chance to really dig deep into what she’s saying.

    What I think she’s talking about is less the act of promoting equality in Muslim countries, and more the jingoistic wrongness of assuming that North American feminism is the ‘right way’ for the rest of the world to work. By stepping in and telling women (and men) in Muslim countries how to “fix” misogyny, we would be once again operating from a position of cultural imperialism. If we actually care about women in Muslim countries (and aren’t just using them as convenient objects in a political argument), our goal must be to help empower them to find their own solutions. Better yet, we should adopt an attitude of humility and ask them what it is they want, rather than insisting that American equality is the answer to the problem of Muslim Men(TM).

    There was an interesting backlash that came after Dr. Dawkins’ “Dear Muslima” comment that failed to make its way into the feminist response, but was nonetheless important. Women from Muslim countries are bloody sick and tired of having their issues ignored by Americans (and white Europeans in this case) unless raising a reductive version of those issues can be used to score points. Richard Dawkins hasn’t exactly made the problems facing women in Muslim countries the centrepiece of his fight (although I think the author of the piece fails to give him the credit I think he is due – he hasn’t done “nothing”). I think this is part of what Ms. Walia is identifying – the idea that we can saunter in and identify both the problem and the solution without bothering to gain a rich, nuanced understanding of what it is that is going on.

    Hopefully that was helpful.

    UPDATE: I contacted Ms. Walia on Twitter, and she said that I more or less got it right. Also, she asked me to share this article.

  4. 4
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Totally off-topic: Crommunist, is that you in the About the Author photo? Because that shot looks completely different from the previous image, and with just those two in mind, I can’t square them with each other, allowing for things that cameras do or changes in your appearance.

    I’m still staring at it, and maybe starting to see the same face in both images.

    Forgive my indiscriminate tangent roving here, but these sorts of things bend my mind every time I run across them. Whatever, they are both shots of a handsome and dapper fellow. I trust they are both you. Yet I ask like a nitwit anyway.

  5. 5
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    White supremacy is not some kind of quaint chapter from our society’s dark past.

    No, it isn’t. White supremacy: You’re soaking in it. Whether you want to, or not. Whether you notice, or not.

  6. 6
    Crommunist

    Yes, that’s a picture from this past weekend. The other one was about 3 years old, and I was like 30 lbs heavier then. Also I was wearing glasses and a coat.

  7. 7
    Robert B.

    It sure helped me, since I had pretty much the same concerns as maudell and now I understand Walia much better.

  8. 8
    mythbri

    I’m glad she asked you to share this. It answered questions I didn’t even know I had, and highlighted additional areas of privilege that I wasn’t previously aware of. Still learning, thanks for helping.

  9. 9
    Robert B.

    You know, by now I should remember that logging in will make my reply not a reply.

    Meant to be a reply to Crommunist @ 2:1

  10. 10
    smhll

    the idea that we can saunter in and identify both the problem and the solution without bothering to gain a rich, nuanced understanding of what it is that is going on.

    Would it be fair to call the sauntering in and “knowing the solution” FirstWorldSplaining ?

    (I guess “first” is problematic. EuroAmerSplaining seemed awkward.)

  11. 11
    Bach-us

    In reply to smhll:

    Maybe Colonisplaining, as in the colonizers, or Imperialsplaining.

  12. 12
    smrnda

    I think racism is a lot more pervasive than people want to believe; people like this mass-murder, who was clearly an open white supremacist are thought of as rare, extreme cases, but outside of the actual push for real violence against minorities, I think lots of white Americans aren’t that much different. They clearly have an attitude that a ‘multicultural’ society is undesirable, and I’ve heard many people in the US argue that a better welfare state can’t be possible in the states because people only work towards a common goal when they ‘feel like they are all part of the same culture’ (meaning, I guess, that they would support higher taxes or universal health care as long as ‘they’ didn’t get any of it.) This is different, to me, than the mass of people who think that systematic racism doesn’t exist – it’s people who openly want it to exist.

    On feminism and liberating Muslim women, I kind of see it as a tough sell since the idea of ‘liberating Muslim women from Muslim men” reminds me of BS I hear when some white guy goes on praising say, Black women for trying so hard to get ahead or raise kids as single Moms while arguing that Black men are nothing but thugs, as if the sentiment is really just designed to create a wedge between men and women in a culture and that the whole thing is really guided by ulterior motives. I think that patriarchy is a problem, but it seems like the vision for the Muslim world is that heroic Americans will save the poor women from the terrible men, not that we’re intent on building a free and equal society for both men and women there.

  13. 13
    Leo Buzalsky

    I am glad Ms. Walia chipped in to confirm that is what she meant. I had reached much the same conclusion. On that, from my American perspective, I’ve seen the “liberate Muslim women from Muslim men” argument a bit, but it pales in comparison to the arguments of bringing “democracy” and “FREEEEEEEEDOOOOOOOM!” (think Mel Gibson in “Brave Heart”) for all that were used as justification on this south side of the border for both Afghanistan and perhaps more so for Iraq. (At least that is my recollection.) Still racist for much the same reasons, though.

  14. 14
    Crommunist

    It’s a combination of overtly good intentions but myopic thinking that is a hallmark of privilege (especially, I find, among majority-status liberals). They recognize that there’s a problem, and they want to go in and FIX that problem, but fail to entertain the possibility that they might be missing important information. Kony 2012 (remember that?) was a textbook example: everyone recognized a problem, and demanded that someone “do something” without bothering to consider ANYTHING that wasn’t in a Youtube video. And those of us who cautioned that this reductive thinking was likely to cause more harm than good were derided as “killjoys” who would rather see children murdered.

    Fuckin’ liberals…

  15. 15
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Yeah, glasses, weight differential, but sometimes my brain just sees different images of the same person as different people. Even when the images were taken at roughly the same time.

    Well, never mind, but thanks for taking the time to satisfy this idiopathic bit of curiosity and confirm that yes, the photograph is is, indeed, of yourself.

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