Once again our nation grieves mass shootings perpetrated by young white men. In our horror we desperately try to understand. Yes, it’s because of too many guns. Yes, it’s because of the violence the president emboldens with his racist rhetoric. Yes, it’s because of a culture of toxic masculinity. But these are not the only reasons.
It’s also because of what’s happening in the homes of white families. More accurately, it’s what’s not happening in our homes.
Most white American parents want to believe that white youth who spew and act on racist hate are the product of a few bad parenting apples. Surely white nationalism only emerges from homes where it’s explicitly taught.
That would be easier. But, it isn’t the way it works.
Some youth are groomed at home, of course. We should get familiar with stories like Derek Black’s — godson of David Duke — not least because we learn how some of these youth might manage to get out.
But think of parents like Pearce Tefft who was horrified to discover from the news that his son marched with neo-Nazis at Charlottesville. The truth is, white youth living under roofs with parents who find racism and white supremacy repugnant can as easily be radicalized, and are.
What most concerns me most: many of us white parents wouldn’t know it if they were.
Why not? Well, most of us don’t even know what our white children think or believe about race and racism. Studies repeatedly show white parents don’t talk to them about them.
Many of us teach our children “everybody’s equal” and “embrace difference.” But sharing abstract ideals doesn’t qualify as actual race-talk. And because of the way brains develop children literally don’t know what such lofty platitudes mean.
Add to such white silence the fact that most white youth are living deeply segregated day-to-day lives. Mix in the truth that our kids are growing up in social structures where racial injustice abounds.
This recipe doesn’t result in anti-racist white youth. It couldn’t possibly. More likely it’s a recipe for potential disaster.
All of America’s youth are currently growing up in a nation where the racist divide of “us versus them” is being normalized — perpetuated by the most powerful figures in the land. To be clear, the “us” is white people and the “them” is everyone else. In this political climate, it gets harder and harder to pretend white folks have the luxury of standing on neutral civic ground. The choice is increasingly stark. We either support white supremacy — even if by staying silent — or we robustly and publicly stand up against it.
Black and brown youths’ lives are at the greatest risk in this climate, of course. But they have something white youth don’t.
African American youth can find adults in close proximity — people in their own families — who are actively working for racial justice and have long done so. They can point to deep, visible communal legacies of anti-racist commitment — think of Black church traditions, for example. Latino/a youth can do the same. Their elders talk about their legacies of labor organizing and liberation movements. Today, they organize to support Dreamers, stand with the undocumented, create sanctuary networks, and publicly insist on the dignity of all — including those who have always been “documented” but rarely treated as such.
In short, youth of color are embedded in racial communities where they are supported in building a sense of identity and belonging that includes anti-racist practices and justice visions.
Few white youth have a single white adult in their lives — let alone several — actively committed to anti-racist organizing or modeling a daily commitment to racial justice. For sure, many have good people around them. They may even be able to point to family legacies of volunteerism and charity. But rarely are white racial justice organizers in close proximity.
If we’re honest, many white kids can’t even count on white adults in their lives to interrupt racist remarks at extended family and friend gatherings. White silence has a long legacy in white communities.
Yes, there have always been individual white people (the John Browns, Anne Bradens, Heather Heyers) who have stood with people of color against white supremacy. But white youth don’t have a communal anti-racist legacy to draw on. We white U.S.-Americans have yet to create anything close to what communities of color have long since created.
So where does this leave white youth?
It leaves them vulnerable.
It leaves them without elders and caretaker who can help them knit anti-racism and justice-commitments into their self-understanding as they form their identities and a sense of belonging.
It leaves them open to the lies of white supremacy. White nationalists would love to talk to our kids about race. They live for the chance to help white youth form a sense of identity and belonging.
No, my fellow white U.S.-American parents, I’m not suggesting there’s one simple cause of mass shootings nor that every white child raised without explicit racism-talk and anti-racist modeling will turn into a gun-wielding mass murderer.
But, yes, I am clear that there are no sidelines. We each have a choice to make.
We step into the void for the sake of white youth. We participate with communities of color for justice, in the process beginning to create legacies of antiracism and activism that show our white children what white identity can look like.
Or we leave our young people prey for recruitment by white supremacists (who are organized).
The “us versus them” divide in this country is real. But isn’t between white people and people of color. It’s between those of us, of many different racial groups, who would publicly challenge and stand against emboldened racism and those who seek to further it.
White youth need us. They’re hungry for help forming their identities in this “us versus them” world.
So as a white person committed to antiracism, I’m ready to show up and recruit them. Which means, I’m also recruiting you.
Let’s come fully and loudly to the side of active antiracism and justice for all. In the process we may save the lives of all of the beautiful young people in this grieving nation.
-Jennifer Harvey, PhD is the author of Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America (Abingdon Press, 2018) and Professor of Religion at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.