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News / Nation & World

These deadly racist attacks should be impossible, but they’re becoming more common

By Jaweed Kaleem, Los Angeles Times
Published: September 2, 2023, 6:00am

A young white man wielding a weapon marked with a swastika. A trail of manifestos espousing far-right ideologies. Victims killed because of their race.

It’s a situation that should be impossible, or at least uncommon.

“We have three people who are dead because they are Black,” Democratic Florida state Sen. Tracie Davis said at a vigil in Jacksonville, Fla., this week after the gruesome attack at a Dollar General store. “Shopping. In our community. Gunned down. Because they were Black.”

But the shots fired by a 21-year-old — leaving families grieving and a community at loss over yet another act of gun violence — are no longer so unusual in America, say experts who study gun violence and racist extremism.

In fact, data show that racist shootings are becoming more common.

In a report released this year, the Anti-Defamation League tallied extremist mass killings and attempted ones, finding that 46 took place since the 1970s. Each was at the hands of extremists motivated by far-right, far-left or radical Islamist ideology, with a small number connected to lesser known extremist ideas. But since 2011, it’s been right-wing extremists behind the majority of attacks. Most of those were carried out by white supremacists.

“We not only have an epidemic of gun violence in this county but rising activity by white supremacists trying to spread their ideas, which can also be seen in more white supremacist attacks,” said Oren Segal, director of the ADL Center on Extremism. “Since 2011, excluding Jacksonville, there were 26 mass casualties tied to extremism. In the 40 years before that, it was 20.”

The ADL found two recent years — 2021 and 2020 — when no deadly mass shootings or violent attacks spurred by extremism took place. Still, the civil rights group found that right-wing extremist violence and activity grew overall each year.

In Jacksonville, officials said the gunman attacked an employee and shoppers in the parking lot and in the store. At a news conference this week, Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters said the shooter drove to Edward Waters University, a historically Black college, where he was seen putting on a bulletproof vest before leaving for Dollar General.

Sheriff Waters said the extremist writings left behind along with a suicide note by the shooter made clear his intentions. “He hated Black people,” the sheriff said. The sheriff said that the man was not affiliated with a group and acted alone.

After the attack, some Democratic elected officials angrily criticized state policies pushed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential hopeful, including one that restricted the teaching of Black history in Florida.

A federal hate crime investigation into the attack is underway. If the shooting is found to be a hate crime, which experts said is likely, the violence would be an additional act in a decades-long trend in which anti-Black incidents have topped the list of hate crimes counted by the FBI each year.

In 2022, the FBI found that nearly two-thirds of hate crimes targeted a person’s race, ethnicity or ancestry. Of the 10,840 hate crimes the agency counted that year, nearly a third targeted Black people.

“These shootings are getting to the point where they are sadly not surprising but all too common,” said Omekongo Dibinga, a professor at American University and author of “Lies About Black People: How to Combat Racist Stereotypes and Why It Matters.”

“There is so much racist violence in this country that we don’t even really see it in the news anymore unless it is a mass shooting or in a place where we believe it’s not supposed to happen, like a mosque, a church, a middle school or a store,” he said.

Below are a few of the most prominent recent shootings of the last decade connected to racist or antisemitic ideology.

  • Buffalo, N.Y.

May 14, 2022

10 dead

An 18-year-old man entered a Tops Friendly Markets store, where he shot 13 people. Eleven of them were Black and two were white. The 10 people who died were Black.

Investigators said the shooter, who streamed part of his attack on Twitch before the platform shut it down, had a manifesto detailing his white nationalism and belief in “great replacement theory,” a racist far-right ideology that says politicians are promoting laws and policies that will increase the number racial minorities while the white population declines.

The shooter pleaded guilty on Nov. 28 to charges including hate crimes, murder and domestic terrorism. In February, he was given multiple life sentences for the crimes. A federal trial is pending.

  • El Paso

Aug. 3, 2019

23 dead

A 21-year-old high school dropout walked into a Walmart with a semiautomatic rifle and fired dozens of times, injuring 22 people and killing 23. The vast majority of those who were shot were Latino. They included American and Mexican citizens.

In his manifesto, the shooter said he was inspired by the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, in which 51 people died. He claimed there was a “Hispanic invasion” of Texas, echoing language of some state and national politicians.

The gunman, who faced dozens federal charges of murder and hate crimes, pleaded guilty in February and was sentenced in July to 90 life sentences. A state trial is pending in Texas.

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  • Poway, Calif.

April 27, 2019

1 death

A 19-year-old man targeted the Chabad of Poway, an Orthodox Jewish congregation outside San Diego, and aimed his AR-15-style rifle at worshipers on the last day of Passover. He killed one person and injured three more, including the synagogue’s rabbi.

Although the Poway shooting ended in one death, many civil rights and anti-gun-violence groups count it as a mass shooting because the gunman intended to kill more people. Officials said that, after firing up to 10 rounds, the shooter’s gun malfunctioned.

Investigators said he posted online about an antisemitic conspiracy theory that Jews were behind a “meticulously planned genocide of the European race.” In late 2021, he was sentenced to multiple life sentences in state and federal courts.

  • Pittsburgh

Oct. 27, 2018

11 dead

A gunman bent on killing Jews attacked members of the Tree of Life synagogue in the worst antisemitic attack in U.S. history on Oct. 27, 2018.

The 46-year-old truck driver who carried out the assault during Shabbat morning service posted antisemitic and anti-immigrant statements on social media, including one just before the attack. He wrote on the social network Gab about his hatred of an organization with Jewish origins that resettles refugees into the U.S.

Facing dozens of federal charges, the man was found guilty of all of them on June 16. On Aug. 3, he was sentenced to death, the first federal death sentence during the Biden administration.

  • Charleston, S.C.

June 17, 2015

9 dead

A 21-year-old white supremacist joined a pastor and congregants during a Bible study at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and then opened fire on them as they prayed. His victims — nine who died and one who was injured — were all Black. The dead included the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a Democratic state senator and pastor at the church.

The killer wrote in a journal and online about his anti-Black views and praised the Confederate flag. He was found guilty on 33 federal charges, including hate crimes, on Dec. 15, 2016. He was sentenced to death the next month. His state criminal proceedings concluded on April 10, 2017, when he pleaded guilty to murder charges and was given nine consecutive life sentences.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Stephen Curran told jurors during federal proceedings that “violent racism still exists. … There are still people who will murder, still people who will kill, because of the color of someone’s skin.”

The shooter’s attorneys appealed the federal case. On Aug. 25, 2021, a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., upheld the lower court’s conviction and death sentence.

“No cold record or careful parsing of statutes and precedents can capture the full horror of what [the killer] did,” the judges said in their decision. “His crimes qualify him for the harshest penalty that a just society can impose.”

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