People hold hands as they pray outside the scene of a shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sunday, May 15. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

People hold hands as they pray outside the scene of a shooting at a supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sunday, May 15. (Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Viewpoints: When words seem to be all we have after tragedy

Talk is no small thing. Answering the hate that led to the murders in Buffalo requires words of substance.

By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post

The president and first lady went to Buffalo in their dark mourning suits to lay a bouquet of white flowers, offer condolences and speak to the families of those who were killed and injured May 14 when they went to their neighborhood supermarket.

The program, with its local officials and Washington delegation, didn’t indicate that Jill Biden would speak. First ladies so often do not. It was the president himself who informed the audience that she would offer a few words. Her sentences were tinged with emotion and were more etiquette than oratory, but they recognized the exhausting nature of grief. “I just wanted to say thank you to the families for opening up your hearts to us and for letting us be with you today,” she said. “So God bless you and thank you for allowing us to be with you.”

The task of accepting presidential condolences — the security, the entourage, the burden of being gracious or eloquent or simply standing upright and moving forward — may be welcomed, but it’s no small thing.

The president’s remarks began as they so often do when he talks of loss and remembrance. The hole torn in your heart is profound, he said, with the certainty of someone who has buried more than one child; time will eventually allow those left behind to smile through their memories rather than cry over them. And then Biden uttered the names of the men and women who had been killed, summing up each life in a sentence or two, which seems like an insult of brevity. But just the right few words can be the equivalent of a thousand.

Aaron Salter was the security guard at Tops Friendly Markets; he was the retired police officer whose bullets couldn’t penetrate the gunman’s body armor. Still, Salter heroically fought for the lives of those around him. Ruth Whitfield was the octogenarian who cared for her ailing husband with love and patience. Then Biden mentioned Andre Mackniel, who was picking up a birthday cake for his 3-year-old son. The words threw Biden off keel; they caused him to clear his throat, lower his head and fall silent for more than a beat. The enormity of the loss was succinctly summed up: “His son [celebrating] a birthday, asking, ‘Where’s Daddy?’”

The president made a point of describing the mass shooting, which targeted a predominantly Black community and killed 10 people, as “domestic terrorism,” and a hatefulness driven by white supremacy. Biden decried the lies and tribalism that feed such rage. “A hate that — through the media and politics, the internet — has radicalized angry, alienated, lost and isolated individuals into falsely believing that they will be replaced. That’s the word: replaced. By the other.”

In his modest address inside a community center, Biden didn’t promise to end all the violence or to perfect our union. He promised only that he would keep faith that the country wouldn’t give in to white supremacy; that alone may well be a heavy lift.

“White supremacy is a poison. It’s a poison running through … our body politic and it’s been allowed to fester and grow right in front of our eyes. No more. I mean no more. We need to say as clearly and forcefully as we can that the ideology of white supremacy has no place in America. None,” Biden said. “Failure in saying that is going to be complicity. Silence is complicity,” and here he paused, “is complicity. We cannot remain silent.”

What the country needs, of course, is action, legislation, a spiritual cleansing. If there was no action after Sandy Hook, then when? If not after Mother Emanuel, then when? If not after Tree of Life, when, when, when?

In the past, all the talking just seemed like a stalling tactic. But in the aftermath of Buffalo, the country needs to have some hard conversations. It’s easy to dismiss that as pablum, just another bit of reflexive rhetoric when the country feels like it’s reached its umpteenth breaking point on gun violence. No longer. The talking is no small thing. It is, in some ways, what has led the country here: the conspiracy-theory talk of a “great replacement” plot to reduce the population of White Americans through immigration and depressed birthrates, the racist chants of white nationalists marching through Charlottesville in 2017, the fevered monologues of disinformation by far-right media figures. Talk is powerful.

And truthful, substantive talk is becoming rare and precious.

Some communities work feverishly to outlaw it. In Florida, Utah, Texas and in towns all over this country, people don’t want to hear a word about historical racism, systemic racism or the kind of raw and deadly racism that just unfolded in Buffalo. Do not teach it. Don’t let the children hear about it. No talking allowed. Someone’s feelings might be bruised. As for those thoughts and prayers? We’re perilously close to being incapable of thinking clearly. It’s becoming harder to pray when even the houses of worship aren’t sacred.

Perhaps Buffalo will be the tragedy that puts the country back on track, the mass shooting that gets people to communicate in ways that are productive and honest. The Buffalo killings represent old-fashioned racism in all its nihilistic horror. It isn’t an intellectual argument that folks can dance around, no matter how much some might try. The attack wasn’t a terrible thing that accidentally happened; the authorities are building a case against the suspect, Payton Gendron, that has him planning and plotting and luxuriating in his hate. The Buffalo shooting is our collective, modern-day trauma, the one that is the responsibility of people who are alive right now. The roots of the hate run deep, but this century has nurtured new saplings into maturity.

Biden called on “all Americans” to reject the lie of the “great replacement.” But the hard truth is that the necessity is for certain Americans to reject it with full-throated clarity. The country needs to hear the voices of those for whom the American Dream has a long history of benefiting, those who have had the privilege of not considering their race in employment or housing or everyday safety, those whose generational advantages include a bounty of social capital. It takes a white person to reject white supremacy. Not a powerful person. Not an elite. Just our friends and neighbors and passersby. Anything else really is just cheap talk.

Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.

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