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The Double Terror of Being Black in America

Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times / Getty

I loved strawberry shortcake as a child in New York City. The sliced strawberries, the juice, the softest of cake, that whipped cream. I loved it all individually. And together? Pure bliss.

Celestine Chaney loved strawberry shortcake too. A 65-year-old mother and grandmother of six, Chaney took strawberry-shortcake making to another level. She’d buy “those little cake cups,” her son, Wayne Jones, told The Buffalo News. “You cut the strawberries up, sprinkle sugar over them, and leave in the refrigerator overnight. The juice from the strawberries is poured in the cup, and you put whipped cream on top."

Chaney went to Tops grocery store on Saturday afternoon to purchase the ingredients for her strawberry shortcake. I’m picturing how Chaney must have intended to take her little cakes out of the refrigerator on Sunday after attending Elim Christian Fellowship. I’m picturing this grandmother closing her eyes and swaying her head as she bites into her cake. Moments feel like minutes as she swallows. Bliss suspends time—especially strawberry-shortcake bliss.

On Saturday, though, Chaney was one of 10 people whom an 18-year-old white supremacist allegedly murdered with an assault rifle. She survived the lethality of racist policy; survived breast cancer like my mother and partner, at a time when Black women are the most likely to die of that disease. But Chaney wasn’t able to survive racist violence. For Black people to survive both racist policy and racist violence is grueling. To live as a Black American is to be a survivor.

[Esau McCaulley: America isn’t ready to truly understand the Buffalo shooting]

Chaney’s killer denied all this. Racist theories deny the racist structure of American policies, the ubiquity of racist violence, and the obvious and ongoing structural violence revealed by racial disparities. The heartbeat of being racist is denial. The deeper the denial, the more diabolical the racist theory.

The most diabolical of all racist ideas operating today—the theory reaching the very depths of denialism, the theory that replaces reality perhaps more than any other—is the “Great Replacement” theory, or GRT, a white-supremacist conspiracy theory cited in a screed linked to the Buffalo shooter. But versions of GRT have also been spread by Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, and many other powerful political and media figures in the United States today. GRT denies the greatest white privilege: life itself. It denies the greatest Black deprivation: life itself.

Great Replacement theorists believe that Democrats, liberals, progressives, immigrants, Black people, Asians, Latino people, Muslims, “abortionists,” and Jews are trying to replace the “native”-born and “original” white populations in their countries. “No longer would I just accept our replacement,” the author of the Buffalo screed said. “No longer would I just accept our genocide. No longer will I willingly serve the people who are trying to end me and my race. I would have to take the fight to the replacers myself.”

What group did the Buffalo shooter choose to target? He selected “an obvious, visible, and large group of replacers.” He chose Black people, he explained, because “all black people are replacers just by existing in White countries.”

Imagine how much a white supremacist has to replace reality in order to believe that white people—who remain on the higher end of nearly every racial disparity—are being killed off, that they are being replaced, that they are being harmed, and that to protect themselves, they need to attack the very Black people who are actually on the lower end of nearly every racial disparity. The Great Replacement theory wholly replaces reality, presenting the dying as the living, and the living as the dying.

Black people are more likely than white people to die in pregnancy, before their first birthdays, and from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, strokes, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and COVID-19—eight of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States.

From 2019 to 2020, the overall life expectancy in the United States fell by a year and a half, the steepest decline since World War II. Latino Americans and Black Americans saw the largest drop in life expectancy (three years and 2.9 years, respectively), while white Americans faced the smallest decline (1.2 years), according to a report from the CDC.

[From the July/August 2018 issue: Being Black in America can be hazardous to your health]

The racial disparities in life expectancy had been narrowing for decades. In 1993, white Americans expected to live 7.1 more years than Black Americans. In 2019, the gap was 4.1 years. But the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black people reversed the trend. In 2020, white Americans were expected to live 5.8 years longer than Black Americans.

According to a preliminary analysis, life expectancy in the United States continued to decline in 2021, while bouncing back in other wealthy countries. This continued U.S. decline was almost entirely driven by deaths among white Americans, according to estimates—not because people of color are replacing them but, in part, because white people accounted for a larger share of people opposing COVID vaccines and the policies that reduce the spread of the disease, according to researchers. Some of the very people pushing the Great Replacement theory were convincing their white viewers, readers, and constituents to resist shutdowns, to not wear masks, to not get vaccinated. Why? As my Atlantic colleague Adam Serwer observed back in May 2020: “To restrict the freedom of white Americans, just because nonwhite Americans are dying, is an egregious violation of the racial contract.”

Tragically, white people are still dying of racist whiteness and blaming their deaths on Black and Latino people, who are dying at even higher rates from the same racist whiteness—its structural violence, its unending terror, its vicious neglect. The most prominent Great Replacement theorists, who claim to care about white lives, don’t seem to care about white lives as they pour toxic disinformation and racist ideas into white communities, causing many white people to hardly care about people of color. If there’s anything white people should have learned from the pandemic, it is this: To not care about people of color is to not care about people.

“Before I begin I will say that I was not born racist nor grew up to be racist,” the screed said. “I simply became racist after I learned the truth.”

[Kathleen Belew: White power, white violence]

The Buffalo killer started to be racist when he learned to deny the truth. The historical truth is that racist policy has allowed white Americans to enjoy remarkable unearned privilege. Efforts to roll back racist policy, to create equity, are not an attack on white people but an attack on racism. As white privileges are rolled back, the privileges of living in a democratic, healthy, safe, equitable, and just society are rolled forward for everyone in the society, including white people.

But no: Great Replacement theorists refuse to acknowledge all the porous conditions and policies causing white people to die at high rates from all the leading causes of death—and people of color to die at even higher rates. They refuse to discuss racial disparities in mortality, in life expectancy.      

But if communities of color are particularly vulnerable, they have also responded to death and harm and disease by caring for others. Latino Americans (21 percent), African Americans (20.3 percent), and Asian Americans (19.7 percent) have a higher reported prevalence of caregiving than White Americans (16.9 percent). African American caregivers are more likely to experience high burdens from caregiving than their white peers, and on average, spend 10 more hours per week on caregiving.

Ruth Whitfield, the 86-year-old mother of a retired Buffalo fire commissioner, visited her husband at a nursing home, a visit she made every day without fail. After her visit on Saturday, she stopped by Tops for groceries. She was killed. Roberta Drury, 32 years old, shopped all the time at Tops for her brother and his family. “We don’t really have family in the area, so it was just a great help that she could do something for us like that,” her brother, Christopher Moyer, told NPR. Moyer needed this help because he is recovering from leukemia. His sister was killed too.

Black and Latino people with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) are more likely to die of the disease than white people. “Structural racism assessed by census tract variables accounts for nearly all Black-White and Hispanic-White disparity in AML survival,” researchers found in a recent study in Blood.

Structural racism killed Black people in east Buffalo and then the gunman killed the survivors. In 2018, a local report found the Buffalo-Niagara region to be one of the most segregated in the nation. “Segregation imposes a wide range of costs on people of color, impairing their health, education, job access, and wealth,” the Partnership for the Public Good concluded. “Individuals living in segregated neighborhoods tend to have less access to services that allow adequate standards of living, and their economic mobility is severely impaired.” The neighborhood that the white supremacist targeted had long experienced food apartheid; the Tops grocery store was the “only nearby source of fresh, nutritious food,” reported The Buffalo News.

The victims of this white supremacist had been striving to address the effects of racist policy and make up for the lack of goods and services in this Black community. Deacon Heyward Patterson often drove people to this sole grocery store and had gone to the soup kitchen before going to Tops on Saturday. The white supremacist killed Patterson as he helped someone put packages in their car.

[Helen Lewis: The intersectionality of hate]

Pearly Young—Miss Pearly, as the 77-year-old was known—ran a food pantry in the area for 25 years. At church, she taught Sunday school, worked with youth, and often cooked large pots of vegetable soup for everyone. Katherine Massey, a 72-year-old member of a group called We Are Women Warriors, had written several letters to Buffalo publications calling for stricter gun-control measures to keep her community safe. She was killed by a man armed with an assault rifle and the lethal idea that Black people like her were the replacers. The horror is unspeakable, like when enslavers cast themselves as benevolently paternal, and cast the enslaved, who they tortured, as violent beasts.

It is one thing to deny the racist policy structure harming and killing Black people and other people. But the depths of racist denial are reached when white supremacists frame Black people as the primary perpetrators and white people as the primary victims of racial harm. This ideology stirs and justifies white-supremacist terror (and the terrible veiling of lethally racist policy structure). Black people are facing the double terror of racist policy and racist violence. Victims of racism are being mass murdered again and again.

But through it all, through all the pain and mourning, through all the Great Replacement theories replacing reality, Black people have been like the victims of this latest mass murder: finding bliss with strawberry shortcakes, caring for the sick and shut in, and never wavering in our anti-racist resistance. Black people have never wavered in our efforts to abolish the double terror, have never wavered in our struggle to live, have never wavered in allying with other people facing similar racist terrors, have never wavered in the human pursuit of joy, of peace, of beauty. And we never will.