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In the fight against white nationalism, white people are key

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The mass shooting that killed 10 Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., has renewed the focus on white nationalists and racism as a growing threat to American life. It's also left officials and the public struggling with how to fight that threat. Buffalo, it turns out, is a place where activists have been working for years to do just that by trying to use their influence as white people. NPR's Adrian Florido reports.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: When Erin Heaney learned that the white gunman in the grocery store massacre felt white people were threatened by the growth of the country's non-white population, it all sounded familiar.

ERIN HEANEY: The white replacement theory - I've heard less intense versions of that here in Buffalo my entire life.

FLORIDO: Heaney is national director of a group that mobilizes white people to support the fight for racial justice. She was born in Buffalo around the time its last steel plants were closing.

HEANEY: For those of us who are white, we've grown up with these stories that it was communities of color, not, you know, people in power or policy decisions by elected officials that has caused so much suffering in our communities.

FLORIDO: The economic decline.

HEANEY: Exactly. I mean, it's the story of Buffalo.

FLORIDO: It's the story of many Rust Belt communities struggling to recover from deindustrialization. It's a story, Heaney says, that white nationalist groups know they can seize upon to make inroads in places like this. We drove to a white working-class suburb near Buffalo and took a walk. A couple of years ago, Heaney said, the Ku Klux Klan and other supremacist groups canvassed this and other nearby suburbs with flyers.

Why are white nationalist groups flyering these neighborhoods?

HEANEY: Because this is a majority white community, they assume that they can recruit and maybe build more support in this community. It's a place where, you know, folks are working hard. Some folks are struggling, and, you know, people are trying to find a reason for why they're struggling. And a lot of these extremist groups think they have the answer to that.

FLORIDO: When they learned about this, Heaney's group, known as SURJ - short for Showing Up for Racial Justice - decided not to ignore it. The group did its own door-knocking, asking people how they felt about white supremacists coming into their neighborhoods. Some people were angry.

HEANEY: You know, some people didn't want to engage at all. And some people were conflicted.

FLORIDO: And it was those people, the conflicted ones, that SURJ knew they needed to focus on - white people who might not realize they're inching closer to white nationalist ideas, drawn in by the internet or by family or by politicians or by right-wing media, people like Brigitte Holbert. She lives in a rural community an hour north of Buffalo, and she says that until a few years ago, white nationalist ideas now entering the mainstream probably would have been an easy sell for her.

BRIDGET HOLBERT: What hit me like a Mack truck was how close to those ideas I already was.

FLORIDO: Holbert grew up in a conservative evangelical family in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

HOLBERT: Being raised evangelical, you know, persecution narratives are extremely powerful. It's me against the world. It's us against the world. You know, they hate us because of what we believe. But we are right. It's the same narrative for white supremacists and for evangelicals.

FLORIDO: That logic underpinned lots of the ideas that ran through her social circles, ideas she recognized in a more extreme form in the writings and ideologies allegedly posted online by the Buffalo shooter.

HOLBERT: We were taught that having lots of children and raising them with Christian values was the way to win the culture wars.

FLORIDO: Lots of white children.

HOLBERT: Lots of white children, yes. But I had no clue that it was based on whiteness. I had four children in order to help swing the population.

FLORIDO: With the rise of Donald Trump's 2016 candidacy, Holbert noticed the people around her grew less concerned about trying to veil their racism. When Philando Castile, a Black school cafeteria manager, was shot by a Minnesota police officer, her friends shared memes justifying his killing. That was a turning point for Holbert.

HOLBERT: That was the moment that I went, dear God, this is hate, and this is hate that - it's based on hating people because they're Black.

FLORIDO: Soon after, she had her first contact with organizers from SURJ. They drew her into the work of racial justice. A couple of years later, when there were rumors that the KKK was going to show up at a local peach festival near Buffalo, she showed up to protest. So did John Barrett.

JOHN BARRETT: We were talking to people in the festival about what that meant to have white supremacists in your community. They did not want to hear it. We were making them uncomfortable.

LINNEA BRETT: For lots of white folks, there's a powerful narrative that things like flyering or showing up at events by white nationalists, that the solution is to ignore them.

FLORIDO: Linnea Brett is a SURJ organizer and says this has been a huge challenge in their work against white nationalists.

BRETT: It's the opposite when we're ignoring them. That gives them cover to continue to recruit and build power.

FLORIDO: The philosophy that SURJ applies to its work across the country is that fighting white nationalism requires shaming and calling it out wherever it shows up. In 2017, they campaigned against the Buffalo sheriff's reelection after he refused to denounce people who waved Confederate flags during one of his speeches, and they disrupted local school board meetings demanding the removal of a board member who made racist comments.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We call for the removal...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: We call for the removal...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Of Carl Paladino.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...Of Carl Paladino.

FLORIDO: This is the sort of organizing that Black and brown people do all the time. SURJ's director Erin Heaney says white people do it less, but when they do, it's harder for other white people to dismiss them.

HEANEY: And so we think it's really important that there are white people showing another way to be white that is not racist and white supremacist.

FLORIDO: They're in a battle, she says, for white people because the far right has been pouring vast sums into winning them over to the belief that Black and brown people are to blame for their problems. But how big of a difference can it make to fight that message door to door, face to face, when your opponents are massive media and political machines?

TARSO LUIS RAMOS: It is an asymmetrical fight in terms of the resources pumped into the mainstreaming and the normalization of these ideas.

FLORIDO: Tarso Luis Ramos is executive director of Political Research Associates, a Boston-based research group that tracks white nationalism.

RAMOS: But the work of white people committed to democracy, to equality and to racial justice is not outmatched when it's on the streets, when it's in communities, because white nationalists don't speak for white people in this country, at least not yet.

FLORIDO: It's something SURJ's activists remind themselves of, organizer Linnea Brett says, when they feel overwhelmed by the fight.

BRETT: The work is emergent. It's slow. It's easier and more comfortable to maybe believe that someone or something is coming to save us. It's a lot more terrifying to reckon with the fact that we have to save each other and ourselves.

FLORIDO: That means white people have to get off the sidelines, she says, to resist the tide of radicalization that drew in an 18-year-old white man and convinced him the answer was to kill 10 people because they were Black. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Buffalo, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY DEE SONG, "THINK TWICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.