by Ellie Tivey
Last weekend saw what many believe was the most violent attack against Jewish Americans in American history. 46-year-old white supremacist, Robert Gregory Bowers, opened fire on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, killing eleven people and injuring six others.
This tragedy, if that is not too small a word for it, has foremost devastated those directly impacted and the wider Jewish community in Pittsburgh. However, it has also added even more fuel to the blistering fire that is modern American politics, all the more so with the midterm elections less than a week away. The socio-political situation in the United States has been put under a microscope once more. Many are pointing fingers at the president himself. Accusing him of, at best ignoring, and at worst fostering a racist culture that encouraged this anti-semitic act.
It is understandable that people have come to such conclusions given the innumerable accounts of Trump using racialised language to purport his own isolationist global view. He infamously once described the white supremacists involved in the deadly Charlottesville march as ‘very fine people’.
And there was, of course, his failed attempt to introduce a travel ban weighted heavily against Muslim majority countries.
Most reporting on the Pittsburgh shooting has focused on the widely ignored culture of anti-semitism, and the many ways this tragedy relates back to the president’s own misdeeds. There are, however, further racial connotations within this incident that have gone largely unexplored. The official reaction to this tragedy, and the treatment of Bowers before and since, are almost as emblematic of modern day racism as Trump himself.
In this instance, once the police had stormed the synagogue and been met with the chaos wreaked inside, Bowers managed to shoot four officers before his eventual surrender and arrest. The key detail here is that Bowers made it to being arrested. It truly is astonishing that Bowers made it out of that synagogue alive given the prolific culture of gun violence in the United States.
American policemen in particular have garnered quite the reputation for themselves as rather ‘trigger happy’ over recent years – particularly when faced with unarmed African Americans and people of colour . Thinktank The Counted released a study in 2016 which identified black males as 15-34 times more likely to be shot by the police than other demographics . This, then, raises the question of whether Bower’s skin colour protected him from the full force of American officials. Despite the fact that he was found screaming ‘all Jews must die’, armed, and in a massacre of his own making.
Additionally, something that has come to the fore since the breaking of this story is his prolific social media vendetta against Jewish Americans. Bowers had an active presence on the alt-right website Gab, where he publicly accused Jews of bringing about a ‘white genocide’. Furthermore, he pointedly accused the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society of assisting refugees who were ‘slaughtering’ Americans. If we were to place this social media activity in a different ethnic framework, specifically a Middle Eastern framework, would it not surprise you that the FBI weren’t monitoring him prior to this event? Yet, because this man was white, his racist rhetoric went seemingly unchecked and excused under the guise of ‘free speech and individual liberty’.
Essentially, Bowers got away with far more before and during this attack than an insurgent of a different race could have. Why, then, is Bowers different? Why did his overtly violent and abusive racist rhetoric go unmonitored? Why did it take a mass murder for the authorities to consider him a threat to society? It’s because he’s white. It’s because white privilege is so deeply entrenched in American society that he had to pick up all of his (legally owned) guns and shoot innocent people before he was questioned for his racist activities.
This makes the heartbreaking reality of this particular shooting all the more poignant. Not only has it exposed a form of racism that many hoped long dead, it also exposed the ugly, fatal extent of white privilege.
Ellie Tivey is a recent graduate in History and Politics from the University of Manchester. Originally from Bristol, Ellie moved to Manchester in 2015 and has no intention of leaving any time soon. She spent the final year of her degree as Editor of the university’s only historical publication, The Manchester Historian, and continues to present/produce weekly news videos for Manchester start up, Student Inspire Network. She hopes to embed her passion for politics and popular culture in all of her work.