We know a lot about racially motivated violent extremists. Yet we have done little to prevent people like Payton S. Gendron, 18, who traveled 200 miles from Conklin, New York to massacre Black people in Buffalo.
We know, for example, who is most likely to become radicalized — socially isolated white men with bleak economic futures, criminal records, substance abuse and mental health issues.
We also know that the problem of racially motivated attacks is a growing danger.
Last year, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, upon releasing the Biden Administration’s plan to counter domestic terrorism, said: “In the FBI’s view, the top domestic violent extremist threat comes from racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, specifically those who advocated for the superiority of the white race.”Garland added that the threat was “rapidly evolving.”
Dylann Roof was only 21 when he announced to attendees of a Bible study that he was there “to kill Black people” and fatally wounded nine people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.
Patrick Wood Crusius, a 21-year-old from Allen, Texas, drove 650 miles to an El Paso Walmart, where he killed 23 people and injured 23 others. He set out to kill Mexicans, because he claimed they were invading America.
James Fields Jr. was only 20 years old in 2017 when he drove from Ohio to Virginia to join the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, one of the largest white supremacist rallies in the United States in recent history. The high school graduate, described as a loner with a deep admiration for Adolph Hitler, had a long history of abuse toward his mother and was suffering from schizophrenia. Like many far-right violent extremists, Fields was struggling with social mobility, working as a security guard for $10.50 per hour. He became infamous for plunging his car into a group of peaceful counter protesters, killing 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer.
Social media has been a welcoming place for racist influencers whose mission is to reestablish white supremacy through the use of hate speech, microaggressions, coordinated harassment, and weaponization of emojis, GIFS and memes. Social media has the power to connect people who were once loners with their ideological partners, and it speeds how quickly white supremacist ideology can spread, thus encouraging and emboldening copycats.
As a former child therapist, I know that any isolated men with low educational attainment, under employment, mental health and substance abuse issues, criminal backgrounds should sound an alarm. Prevention works.
In 2017, 31-year-old Benjamin McDowell was taken into federal custody after writing screeds on Facebook, saying that he wanted to target Jews, people of color, and Muslims “in the spirit of Dylann Roof.” McDowell talked to an undercover FBI agent about his plans for an attack, and bought a gun through him.
Prosecuting a culprit after families and a community has been forever devastated shouldn’t be this country’s preferred choice for dealing with racially motivated extreme violence.
Several years ago, during a House of Representatives hearing, former white supremacist Tony McAleer, cofounder of Life After Hate, best described the boys who grew to become our nation’s mad men. “When we peel away the labels, we find vulnerable human beings. And they are human beings. And when we’re talking about hate crimes that are happening in schools, we’re talking about children, too.”
If we want men to disconnect from extremist activity, we will have to first identify those most at-risk of indulging and then invest in mental health services, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and job and education services. Helping isolated men create positive life events — through finding a better, more meaningful job and connecting with less extremist friends, for example — is the only insurance we really have to reduce the number of devastated communities like El Paso, Charleston, Charlottesville — and now, Buffalo.
Chad Dion Lassiter is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and the 2021 PA Social Worker of the Year.
Published May 16, 2022