Last week, controversy erupted over an edited clip from a 2016 Al Jazeera interview with U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) when she was a state assemblywoman. In the video, while answering a question of whether conservatives have legitimate fears of Islamic terrorism and therefore justification for measures to stop it, she appears to say that white men are in fact a greater threat.
Here is her full answer: “I would say our country should be more fearful of white men across our country because they are actually causing most of the deaths within this country, and so if fear was the driving force of policies to keep America safe, Americans safe inside of this country, we should be profiling, monitoring, and creating policies to fight the radicalization of white men.”
Over at Reason, Robby Soave argues that this context shows that Omar is not saying anything racist, but instead that conservatives are being hypocritical when analyzing the threats from different groups. I agree with Soave that the remarks are not racist, but I think he’s being a bit too generous in his full-throated exoneration of the statement. The comments are not racist, but they are dangerous.
Omar was using an ironic rhetorical tool to make her point. In 2016 and the years leading up to it, this was an extremely common rhetorical device among progressives on social media. In 2016 I described it, and how it transforms into actual beliefs:
In the past year, all of the following headlines have appeared, in well-read publications:
- The White Guy Problem
- White Men Must be Stopped: The Very Future of Mankind Depends on It
- I Don’t Know What To Do With Good White People
- Ten Things White People Need To Stop Saying
- Dear White People: Here’s a List of Things We’d Wish You’d Stop Doing
What is new is the direct indictment of white people as a race. This happened through a strange rhetorical transformation over the past few years. At first, “white men are our greatest threat” postings tended to be ironic, a way of putting the racist shoe on the other foot. They were meant to show that blaming an entire race for the harmful actions of a few individuals is senseless.
Then the tenor changed. What started as irony turned into an actual belief that white people, specifically white men, are more dangerous and immoral than any other people. Loosely backed up by historical inequities and disparities in mass shootings, this position has begun to take a serious foothold.
One of the tricky things about irony as a rhetorical device is that it only works if there is some element of truth in the ironic statement. Although Soave might be correct that Omar is talking more about conservatives’ hypocrisy than the violent tendencies of white men as a group, she is pretty clearly doing both.
As Soave also goes on to point out, it is not at all clear that the facts back up her claims about the dangers of white men. Either way, this is a dangerous way to talk about problems of crime and violence. Her claim that white men are more violent than Muslims legitimizes the idea that there are implicit tendencies in racial groups as a whole towards crime and violence.
Just as claiming that higher murder rates by percentage committed by black men suggests some implicit truth about black men, Omar’s argument suggests that something is going on with white men, writ large, that should be addressed. In fact, race is clearly not a determinative factor in violence. There are myriad other factors, such as class, education level, having two parents, neighborhood, etc., that affect whether men of all races commit violent acts.
Racial profiling in law enforcement is a complicated issue. When battling Islamic terror it makes sense to focus on Muslim communities, just as when battling the Italian Mafia or MS-13 it makes sense to focus enforcement energy on Italian and Central American communities. This is especially true when the criminal enterprise itself embraces or enforces ethnicity or religious identity as part of their core mission.
Where people on all sides go off the rails is when they look for traits or inherent qualities in entire groups — be they Italians, Central Americans, Muslims, or white men — to explain why certain, but very few, men in those groups resort to violence. Yes, in targeting white supremacist violence we should focus on white men, but this doesn’t suggest, as Omar does, that there is something inherently more violent about white men.
As the anti-white male articles listed above, and many more in the years since show, the ironic aspect of statements like Omar’s are quickly cleaved from the false assertion that “white men are our greatest threat.” This leaves the entire country more tribalized, not less, and tends to set groups against each other.
Perhaps Omar can be forgiven for not knowing that the ironic device she was employing was metastasizing into real beliefs about some amorphous threat from white men. After all, that phenomenon was relatively new in 2016. But it should be obvious by now that this construct is not a helpful one. It’s much the opposite, actually.
This is a rhetorical device that the left should put to bed. Pretending that the answer to white supremacist violence is to find some fault or underlying cause in the nature of all white men is silly and counterproductive. As we have seen, however, it has become all too common. Violence, intolerance, and hatred know no race or religion, and it is these vices that should be targeted, not some vague notion that entire demographic groups are somehow are inherently more prone to them.