Fear of “Replacement” is at the Heart of Republican Politics, and It Kills People

At least 49 Muslims in worship at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand dead. That’s more worshippers than were at the church I attend last Sunday.

The gunman wore a bodycam that provided a live feed to Facebook so that he could broadcast his mass murder.

He wouldn’t have done that if he didn’t expect to be viewed as a hero by some people.

As the rest of the world grieves today, a segment of it will be celebrating his acts. Already, social media sites are fighting to take down messages praising him. Over the next weeks, he will receive fan mail in prison, letters, gifts, and promises of sexual favors when he gets out–from women as well as from men who will promise him access to women they control.

Others who think that mass murder of men, women, children, and babies is wrong will still lay some blame at the feet of Muslims and immigrants for daring to exist in a what they believe should be a white Christian nation. Whether these people believe that Muslims (or, other versions of this argument, Jews or immigrants) will “replace” white Christian Americans or they only believe that white terrorists believe this, this shooting will be invoked to justify white nationalism, the exclusion of Muslims from “Christian” societies,” and anti-immigration policies. This is a 2019 version of the argument that interracial marriage hurts the children of such marriages, that segregation is better for African Americans, that freed slaves should have been sent back to Africa. It is the logic invoked when queer victims of street violence are blamed for “flaunting” their sexuality or when someone is labeled as “rude” or “loud” or “angry” when they are just Jewish or an African American woman and then fired or bullied out of the workplace. It is the argument that white nationalism isn’t white supremacy, just a rational solution to human discord. Only it always turns out that when we divide up the world, the white people get the good stuff.

See the source image

Above, police officers respond to mass violence at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Some people will look at this picture and think, “See? Wherever there are Muslims, violence follows.” This will then justify efforts to prohibit the building of mosques, bans on immigration from Muslim-majority nations, and attacks on refugees and immigrants. 

When we accept these lesser claims–that the world would be better off if people stayed in their “place” (slaves in slavery or, better yet, in Africa; women in the kitchen and not in the workforce; gay people in the closet; immigrants in their home nations)–we are accepting white supremacy. It is at the very heart of the Trump administration, which is why the New Zealand shooter appears to have praised the American president as a “symbol of renewed white identity and purpose” in his manifesto describing his plan to kill–and it is why every single person in Congress who supports him, every single member of his cabinet, and every single Trump voter in 2016 (when we already knew this) and in 2020 is responsible for contributing to the normalization of hate. Every single dollar donated to his campaign comes from someone who, even if they denounce the slaying of Muslims at prayer, stands on the side of the hate that encourages such violence. This is true even if they denounce such violence in its specifics.

Central to Trumpism is fear of replacement–that the people who “deserve” to be at the center of America are being displaced by immigrants. That there will be taco trucks on every corner where there should be Pacific 66 stations. That black kids are taking college admissions slots that rightfully belong to white kids. That “Happy Holidays” will replace “Merry Christmas.” That colleges will teach world literature instead of only dead white men. This is the motive for mass violence like we have seen in Charleston, SC, Pittsburgh, and, now, New Zealand. It is why the shooter titled his manifesto “The Great Replacement.” It is the undergirding structure of American conservativism, whether conservatives like that or not. And it’s why the fight against hate is inherently political.


Updated: Here is just one expression of this sentiment, from a rightwing Senator from Australia:

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What does the Rapture Index Tell Us?

Earlier this week, I suggested that many evangelical Christians are both pro-Israel and anti-Semitic. For those not familiar with rightwing Christianity, it is easy to assume that  the pro-Israel talk of American conservative Protestantism is pro-Jewish, and, indeed, defenders of our hawkish policies on Israel will say that they are evidence that US political leaders aren’t anti-Semitic.

But what looks like pro-Israel theology is generally just an End Times vision that sees Israel as a setting for violence and Jews as supporting characters. While there are countless “prophetic” theories explaining what this will look like, the details are, I think, less important than the fact that Christians have been concerned with this since the establishment of modern Israel in 1948. The 1970s saw a huge boom in interest in this area with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth (ghostwritten by Carole C. Carlson, who was later credited as a co-author. The book has sold more than 35 million copies, has been translated into at least 50 languages, and was turned into a film narrated by Orson Welles. It’s theological and historical garbage, but it helped turn American Christians on to the idea of the apocalypse. Specifically, an apocalypse that we could predict and perhaps even shape through world politics. And, at the center of those politics is Israel.

Explains journalist Timothy P. Weber in an article in the evangelical Christianity Today, describing the American politicians who turned out to celebrate an anniversary of the founding of Israel:

Most of those who gathered in Washington to show their support for Israel believe that the Holy Land will be ground zero for events surrounding the second coming of Jesus Christ. Such evangelicals read the Bible as though it were a huge jigsaw puzzle of prophecies, with Israel in the center. They believe that human history is following a predetermined divine script, and they and Israel are simply playing their assigned roles.

The “assigned roles” of Jews depends on one’s particular eschatology. In the 1800s, most American Christians believed that God was done with the Jews–that they’d had their chance and, in rejecting Jesus as the Messiah, blew it, so Christians had replaced them in God’s eyes (hence why this theory is called the “replacement theory”). Others came to believe that God still had plan for the Jewish people–maybe even that he would restore them to Israel. Christians started looking to Jerusalem, even setting up communes there, to witness what they believed would be the start of the end of time. When the Balfour Declaration–the British intention of building a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, where the minority of the population was Jewish–was announced, these Christians felt vindicated: Western politicians were making their prophesied dreams come true.

Today, thinking on the topic of Israel’s role in End Times is both muddled and precise, like all prophecy, in conservative Christian circles. Prophecy works by being broad enough that whatever happens can be read back onto it (which is how Hal Lindsey, nearly 50 years after predicting that the End was nigh still has a TV show in which he spouts predictions) and specific enough to keep believers alert. But all premillennialist theology has some elements of violence. People are going to die, for sure. Maybe Jews still have special favor with God; one common explanation is that Jesus will give Jews another opportunity to identify him as their savior, and some will do so–essentially, converting to Christianity. For Christians, this looks like love of Jews–a second chance to become Christians that people of other non-Christian faiths might not be given.

But it doesn’t look like love of Jews for many of us; it looks like coercion and condescension. And it courts violence in this life, violence that hurts Jewish people now, as well as Palestinians and others living in Israel.

Which brings me to one of my favorite places on the internet: the Rapture Index. (And, by “favorite,” I mean in like in the way that some people like celebrity gossip magazines. Rapture Index is like that for people who like trashy religion.)

Rapture Index recognizes that “no man knows the day or the hour” of Jesus’ return (“the Rapture,” which will usher in the start of the end in this framework), and you just get egg on your face when you try to guess. BUT–we can know if humanity is speeding up (Wheee!!!) or slowing down (Boo!!!) on its path toward inevitable destruction. The prophets over at Rapture Index “read” the signs of the times, assess them and award them a number value, then factor these values together to create a single number that tells us if we’re going slow (100 and below), moderate (100-130), fast (130-160), or, in the words of Rapture Index, “fasten your seatbelts” (160 and above). (Yes, these categories are not mutually exclusive, but these are prophets, not social scientists.)

As of March 11 (the last update), we’re careening along at 176 on the Rapture Index, near our all time high of 189 on October 10, 2016, when the possible election of Hillary Clinton sent those numbers very high. 

The Rapture Index considers 45 different variables, including:

  • abortion
  • arms control (bad because it’s an effort to find peace without God)
  • debt and trade
  • drugs
  • earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, droughts, etc.
  • interest rates
  • inventions (more of them are a sign that we’re headed to the End Times)
  • liberalism (bad, obvs, but good in that “fanatical opposition” to Donald Trump drives up this number and increases our pace toward the Rapture)
  • the peace process in the Middle East
  • immorality (which will eventually slow, because we’ve run out of “perversions”)
  • Islam

and, of course,

  • Israel

Here is the most recent report:


The prophets over at Rapture Index are a little concerned that, this week, “Israel remains strangely peaceful.”

And that is my point–for many conservative Christians, peace in the Middle East is what is strange. Peace doesn’t move the world forward in this terrible timeline; violence does. Israel is seen as a source of violence. Indeed, the Rapture Index calls it “a burdensome stone,” quoting from Zechariah:

On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. All who try to move it will injure themselves.*

Rapture Index provides a timeline of history that includes both Biblical stories and present-day events to illustrate how the world is moving against Israel. And, ultimately, in this view, that’s a good thing, because it brings us closer to the end.

That doesn’t look like real support for Israel or love of Jewish people to me.

The Rapture Index–and the many, many websites and YouTube channels and sermons and books–devoted to making sense of Middle East politics through premillennial dispensationalism may not be useful in understanding Israel, but reading it illuminates the thinking of many Americans.


*Rapture Index uses the KJV, but I think the NIV is clearer here.








Readings: A ‘Pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-Peace’ group tries to change the Middle East debate

Politico has an interesting piece about Telos Group, which is trying to change the evangelical discussion about Israel:

“We sort of imported this conflict into our own culture, and into our churches, into our own politics,” Deatherage told me, as two WeWorkers played table tennis nearby. “We’ve created these ways of engaging it that are very one sided—they’re zero sum. So if I’m pro-Israeli, I’m by default anti-Palestinian. If I’m pro-Palestinian I’m, by default, anti-Israeli. That’s the kind of space for engaging it right now. So we’ve come around and suggested that maybe there’s a third way.” He’s also trying to reach a pro-Palestine constituency that demonizes Israel. He argues that a good future for Israelis requires a good future for the Palestinians.

The conflict, he says, has become a domestic issue in American politics, especially among evangelicals raised with a pro-Israel narrative. “It’s the software that’s pre-loaded into us in certain segments of the evangelical church that we just kinda grow up thinking that whatever happened in the Middle East in contemporary affairs is definitely God working something out there,” Deatherage said. “And that we gotta bless Israel. We gotta stand with Israel. We gotta be with Israel because they’re God’s people, and God’s project, right?”

The group doesn’t expect to completely transform that viewpoint:

Telos isn’t looking for transformation so much as incremental change. Even if evangelicals’ support for Israel wanes just a little, Wear says, it could eventually reshape America’s approach to the conflict. “If even an additional 10 percent of the evangelical community becomes more nuanced on these issues, that drastically changes the political calculations for how beholden politicians feel to holding a certain line because their constituency will be giving them more flexibility,” Wear said.

Please read the whole thing!

Rep. Omar was talking about Republicans, not American Jews. And she was right in her assessment of them.

It probably isn’t going to surprise our regular readers that Joel and I disagree on Ilhan Omar and whether her words were anti-Semitic. As he lays out in “Sixteen Thoughts about Ilhan Omar and Anti-Semitism,” it’s wrong to hold people you agree or like politically to different standards. On that, we agree. But I don’t agree that the “plain meaning” of her words are anti-Semitic.


At the center of the controversy are two comments she made about Israel and American politics. In the first, a tweet, she responded to calls by GOP Kevin McCarthy, who has a history of for accusing rich Jews for “buying” elections (THAT one is a clearly anti-Semitic trope), the she be reprimanded for her criticisms of Israel, including support of BDS. The journalist Glenn Greenwald (himself Jewish, just as a reminder of the diversity of opinion on this issue) then tweeted, “It’s stunning how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation even if it means attacking free speech rights of Americans.”

The reference here is to McCarthy and his allies (“US  political leaders”) who were using time and energy trying to silence (“attacking free speech rights”) Omar because they prioritized support for Israel over the right to criticize Israel. More broadly, AIPAC is a leader in the anti-BDS movement, which is seen by many as an assault on free speech rights–fundamental to American democracy–by many.  The US Senate just narrowly voted down an anti-BDS effort led by Marco Rubio. But twenty-six states have passed anti-boycott laws, and even some counties are getting in the act. Supporters of the bill say it doesn’t infringe upon free speech rights (of which the right to boycott is a part) but only allows the US government to refuse to do business with businesses that engage in boycotts. But many  find that when “freedom of speech” is met with government denial of the opportunity to work, then speech is not free. (This is different from, say, a private individual refusing to hire an employee they think is anti-Semitic.) Perhaps the greatest irony in this whole mess is that anti-BDS legislation argues that such boycotts are “foreign-led”–in other words, that Americans should not engage in tactics that seek to “implement foreign policies of other nations which run counter to U.S. policy.” But mandatory participation on the policies of other nations that run counter to US interests is exactly why many people support ending our support of Israeli militarism.

Whether Greenwald was talking narrowly about Omar and McCarthy’s efforts to censure her or the anti-BDS movement’s support among American political leaders, the point is similar: many US politicians are giving a lot of energy to protecting Israeli businesses and organizations that support the violation of Palestinian rights (which is the point of BDS–not to eradicate Israel but to pressure the Israeli government into the pursuit of justice for Palestinians that supporters believe is the best hope for peace for all of Israel and its neighbors).

Ilhan Omar, official portrait, 116th Congress.jpg

Ilhan Omar’s official Congressional photo.

In response, Omar tweeted “It’s all about the benjamins,” along with music note emojis to indicate that she was referencing song lyrics. In response to her making a connection between Israel and money, many people declared that her comments were anti-Semitic.

Though we always have to be careful and thoughtful when speaking about Jewish people and money, merely making a connection between Israel and money is not anti-Semitic; otherwise, the entire Office of Antiboycott Compliance would be anti-Semitic. While it is not true that the BDS movement is ONLY about money (it is also about free speech and about political pressure and coalition building, and opposition to the BDS movement is also about political pressure), the BDS movement is about money in large part. That is what a boycott is about–using financial pressure to bring about change.

If we take Greenwald’s tweet as to be about more than BDS but about the larger relationship between Israel and the US, then, again, it’s not only about money–it’s also about geopolitics (which is often about money), counterterrorism, evangelical Christian theology, and our own national denial of our history as a settler colony (which is also, in part, about money, as the US government fends off claims to reparations). But it is ALSO about money, just as every relationship we have with another nation is.

And sometimes it is about more than one of these. For example, when Donald Trump moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, this aligned with the vision of one of his biggest donors (and the biggest donor of of the 2018 midterm elections), Sheldon Adelson, a fierce advocate of right-wing Israeli politics and a major player in the Israeli-American Council (IAC), which includes a lobbying arm. But it was also the vision of evangelical Christians like Mike Pence. This is why anti-Semitic evangelical pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress participated in the ceremonial opening of the new embassy, even though, for these men, Jews are basically a prop in their End Times vision of violence. How much of the movement of the embassy was about religion and how much was about donor money (Adelson’s as well as the millions that American evangelicals donate to the Republican party because they believe it will keep supporting Israel)? It’s hard to say.

I’d prefer that members of Congress not quote Puff Daddy in their tweets, and I don’t think that song lyrics make for nuanced policy statements, but I don’t think it’s anti-Semitic to say that money plays a role in why US political leaders (not American Jews, who are not alluded to at all in Greenwald’s tweet) are trying to silence Omar or why they (again, American politicians, not American Jews) support anti-BDS legislation. It is a bad choice to use the phrase “all about” in that this suggests money is the only factor, but given that she was clearly citing a song lyric, I think we can safely assume that she wasn’t providing a statistical breakdown of how much money has to do with it compared to religion, geopolitics, or counterterrorism.

Moreover, given that so much support–including financial–for reactionary policies on Israel come from American evangelicals, not the 2-3% of Americans who are Jewish (and who certainly are not united in support of reactionary policies), it seems more conspiracy-minded to think that Omar’s comments were referencing Jewish donors than to read into them the idea that she was talking about the political leaders Greenwald introduced and the American evangelicals who are more supportive of right-wing Israeli policies than are American Jews.

If you want an example of the anti-Semitic trope that Jews use their money to control American politics, here’s one:

“You’re not going to support me even though I’m the best thing that could ever happen to Israel. It’s because I don’t want your money.”

That’s candidate Trump, in 2015, in a stereotype-laden speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition. Lying about how he was self-funding his campaign, Trump told his audience of potential donors that he couldn’t be bought, which is what he assumes to be the goal of Jewish donors. Notably, he didn’t make similar declarations to other audiences. Note that he also identifies Israel as their main concern–a hint of his assumptions that American Jews have a divided loyalty.


What is being held up as Omar’s second example of anti-Semitism came from a talk she gave at a Washington DC-area progressive bookstore. [Transcript here.] Her broader words are worth reading, as they establish context that shows compassion for American Jews and thoughtfulness about her word choice. She begins with the reminder that she represents a number of Jewish constituents. (She doesn’t mention it, but in 2014, Minnesota’s 5th district, which she represents, had 13,500 Jewish residents (20.4% of the population–a greater percent than Muslim residents).) She says that when she speaks to them, they share the experience of having a connection to a place where they have no literal human connections. Her children, she says, feel a connection to Somalia, her birthplace, even though they have no relatives there. Likewise, the Jewish people she represents often have a connection to Israel, even if they don’t know a single person who lives there. She understands the power of the idea of place. But she is concerned that, in their concerns about Israeli Jews, American Jews fail to mention the suffering of Palestinians in the region. This bothers her, she says, because she sees that they care about human suffering, but they don’t seem to extend that care to Palestinians. But instead of judging them to be Islamophobic, she returns to the process of working for her constituents.

She is fearful that the two members of Congress who are Muslim are not being given that same grace by their Jewish colleagues. She is afraid that everything she says about Israel or Palestine will be understood to be anti-Semitic because she is Muslim. She is concerned that such accusations end the discussion rather than expanding it, so no critiques about US foreign policy toward Israel are ever heard.

Then, she delivers the line that has brought charges of anti-Semitism:

So for me, I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is ok for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.

She is specifically talking about political influence, which, again, primarily comes from American evangelicals, not about American Jews. And she is specifically calling attention to exactly what Greenwald noted in his tweet–that our political leaders are silencing critics of rightwing policy in Israel, including by advancing anti-BDS legislation that many people understand to limit their right to free speech in order to protect Israeli businesses and, more broadly, to protect Israel’s presence in contested territories.

Her assessment is not wrong in that many people prioritize support of Israel over American interests. By a margin of more than 2-to-1, Republicans say that the US should support Israel even when doing so diverges from American interests. By the same ratio, Democrats say that the US should not support Israel if doing so is contrary to American interests, but that still means a portion of Democrats say that the US should support Israel even when it’s bad for American to do so. We don’t see that kind of support for another nation’s priorities over the US’s among the “America First” (an anti-Semitic slogan, please note) crowd except in support of Israel.

By a margin of more than 2-to-1, Republicans say that the US should support Israel even when doing so is at odds with what they think is best for America. This is largely because of their superstitious belief in Genesis 12:3, which declares, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on Earth will be blessed through you.”

From there, she places AIPAC, IAC, and other rightwing supporters of Israel (we assume–she doesn’t name them by name) in the context of other lobbying groups that the Democrats criticize: the NRA, the fossil fuel industry, and Big Pharma. This is EXACTLY what defenders of Israel ask American critics to do: place their criticism into a larger context so that Israel isn’t being singled out. Critics of Israel are asked why they aren’t criticizing Egypt or Saudi Arabia and instead are focusing on Israel’s human rights violation when so many other nations violate human rights (especially of Palestinians). (One answer is that the US’s special relationship to Israel gives us more sway over that nation than over, say, Syria or North Korea, so we are more hopeful about Israel being influenced to do what we think is right.) Here, Omar does a version of that by saying, Just like we ask hard questions of other lobbying groups, we need to ask hard questions about AIPAC.

In fact, she turns the question back on long-time members of Congress.

Some of them have been there before we were born. So I know many of them were fighting for people to be free, for people to live in dignity in South Africa. I know many of them fight for people around the world to have dignity to have self-determination. So I know, I know that they care about these things.

The question becomes: Have we allowed our special relationship to Israel to make it exempt from our expectations of other nations?

I think the question is fair, reasonable, and carefully articulated. It doesn’t imply dual loyalty of American Jews but inconsistent priorities of American legislators and Republican voters.

To clarify, here is what the anti-Semitic trope of “dual loyalty” looks like:

“[Evangelical Christian and Vice-President Mike Pence is] atremendous supporter — a tremendous supporter of yours. And Karen. And they go there and they love your country. They love your country. And they love this country. That’s a good combination, right?”

That was President Donald Trump, speaking to Jewish members of the White House staff at the 2018–that’s just three months ago–Hanukah party. He told American citizens who work in the White House that America is not their country but that Israel is. And, apparently, as US president, he’s okay with that.

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Above, Donald Trump inexplicably hugs a US flag while onstage at a campaign rally. I don’t think you need to be a Freudian to see some overcompensation in this scene. Perhaps it is easy for Trump to imagine that American Jews (even those working in the White House!) are actually loyal to Israel because, like many white supremacists, he (fairly or not) views Israel as a model ethnostate, the kind of America he would be loyal to.


For the record, I don’t think Ilhan Omar is free of anti-Semitism; it is part of white supremacy, and we swim in a culture of it, so we always have to be on guard against absorbing it. Her words in 2012, during a war in Gaza, that Israel had “hypnotized” the world are absolutely anti-Semitic. But she did more than apologize for them–she recognized that they were anti-Semitic and, without excuse, went about learning more about anti-Semitism. That she used anti-Semitic language in 2012 worries me; it means, if nothing else, that she was listening to people who espoused anti-Semitic ideas, and she wasn’t able to discern that they were anti-Semitic. That’s a reason for to keep learning and listening to feedback, especially from those most knowledgeable about anti-Semitism. I think her words at Busboys and Poets, especially when she situates AIPAC, etc. in the context of other lobbying groups and the movement for Palestinian rights in the context of other liberation movements,  shows that she’s doing just that.


PS. Here’s one more: at CPAC last week, American conservatives, including Donald Trump, welcomed to the stage Candace Owens, a young African American woman who is a leader in Trump Youth Turning Point USA. In an attempt to defend nationalism last month, she told an audience, “If Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine. The problem is that he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany.” BTW, Turning Points USA is an organization that brings racist speakers to campuses, and Trump told CPAC that he would sign legislation denying funding to campuses that refused to let them peddle their white nationalism at the expense of universities. But Democrats aim their circular firing squad at Omar rather than calling out the many, many Republican politicians who shared a program with Owens.





Sixteen thoughts about Ilhan Omar and anti-Semitism


I think:

• Anti-Semitism is wicked.

• That one can criticize the government of Israel without being anti-Semitic.

• That there are many people who try to conflate the two. (See: Senator Marco Rubio as he tries to pass a bill that would punish people for BDS boycotts.)

• That many of those people would be delighted to cast one of the few Muslims in Congress as an anti-Semite.

• That that’s not a reason not to criticize a member of Congress if she’s in the wrong.

• That accusations of “dual loyalty” have long been used by anti-Semites against Jews.

• That what Congresswoman Ilhan Omar said…

“I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay to push for allegiance to a foreign country.”

…sounds very much like those old dual loyalty accusations.

Continue reading “Sixteen thoughts about Ilhan Omar and anti-Semitism”

White Women and the Misperception of Danger

A few years ago, when we lived in Arkansas, our family had a powerful encounter with white privilege. I’ve been thinking about it in light of the killing of Botham Jean, the black man killed by a white off-duty police officer in his own home when she entered it, she says, thinking it was hers, and mistakenly thought he was a burglar. Amber Guyger was originally arrested for manslaughter but was indicted for Jean’s murder about a month ago.


I was driving home from picking up my older two children from elementary school and my youngest from childcare when I saw an older white woman slowly driving a pickup truck down the street. I didn’t think much of it, as it was pouring rain, so everyone was driving slowly.

Because it was raining so hard, I did something a little unusual for me: instead of waiting for all three kids to unbuckle and get out of our van, I told the older two to stay in the car for a moment while I unbuckled the youngest, who couldn’t yet get himself out of his carseat, and unlocked the front door to our empty house. That way, they wouldn’t have to get soaked while I fumbled with a toddler, a diaper bag, my work bag, and the keys. When they saw me open the door, they could just come in, and I’d lock the van with the remote key.

I hustled inside, dropping bags at the front door, and went to a back bedroom to change the littlest one’s diaper. It took me a few minutes. When I came back, a strange woman–the lady from the truck–was in my kitchen. My older children were there, too, looking unsure of what to do.

My heart jumped into my throat, of course, but I wasn’t the only one who was scared. The woman, in her 60s, I think, looked terrified with a dawning realization that she was in the wrong house.  I was glad that she realized it and rushed to explain it before I had to ask. But there was a moment when we looked at each other, before she spoke, when we both recognized the possibility of real danger.

She was trying to visit her niece, she explained, but she hadn’t seen her in a few years. She knew she lived around here (In fact, she lived next door.) and had young children, but she wasn’t sure which house. When I got out of the car, she thought she recognized me as the other woman, my neighbor. She pulled in after I’d got inside, so I didn’t see her truck in the driveway or, over the rain, hear her pull in. Thinking that my two older children were her great-niece and -nephew, she asked if their mother was home, and they politely told her “yes” and opened the door for her to our house. It was only as she got herself a drink from the refrigerator and settled in for a visit, waiting for me to return from changing the baby, that she realized she’d made a mistake. At that moment, I reappeared.

Arkansas, like many states, allows people to use even lethal force without a duty to retreat if they are facing a home intruder who appears dangerous. That puts a lot of authority on individuals to determine what is a violent threat. At the time, the state didn’t have a Stand Your Ground law, though it may if legislation currently filed passes. But did this woman know the law? And would it matter, if she thought she was in the right?

The experience left me with a lot of what-ifs:

  • What if she had been a man instead of a woman? Would I have frozen? fled? fought?
  • What if she hadn’t realized that the mistake was hers but thought, somehow, it was mine–that I was the person in the wrong place? Would she have felt justified in using violence against a person she perceived as a home invader?
  • What if she had been a black man? Would I have trusted him if he said, “Oh, I’m so sorry! I’m in the wrong house!”? Would I have recognized the expression in his face as fear, which I saw in hers, or would my own fear have crowded out my ability to for compassion?
  • What if she had found a black man in my house instead of a white woman? Granted, her mistake was predicated on my white womanhood, but what if, upon entering the house, she saw something that our culture tells white women to fear. Would she have been afraid? What kinds of violence become available to white women when we feel justified in fear of men of color?
  • And even if the mistake is yours, if you feel threatened, would you shoot someone–even if you were the one who was wrong? If you made this kind of mistake, even if you realized it, would you let someone else shoot you because they felt threatened, if you had a gun and could shoot them first?

If you haven’t faced this exact scenario, ask yourself: Have you ever tried to open the wrong car in a parking lot? (Have you ever come out of a Utah childcare center, frazzled and with a cranky child, to a row of gray Toyota Siennas?) Many states consider a car an extension of the home, which is often (though not in all states) a place where people have more authority to use violence against a perceived threat. What would the details of that situation have to be for the person in the car to use violence against you–or, if the roles were reversed, for you to use violence against them?

White privilege means that I’m unlikely to be accused of being a danger if I make that mistake. It also means that if I use violence against someone I misperceive as a danger, I’m more likely to be excused and forgiven (not charged, not brought to trial, not found guilty, not punished), especially if that person is a person of color.

Image result for botham jean

Above, Botham Jean, a 2016 graduate of Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. Yesterday, the university announced a scholarship fund to honor the student. The priority use of the funds will be to support a student from the Caribbean, as Jean was from St. Lucia.

White women can’t trust that racist stereotypes won’t cloud our judgment in a moment of panic. When we are under duress, we do things that reduce our cognitive load and provide us with quick–if incorrect–answers, and stereotypes do this. Becoming a better decision maker is work, so we have to practice it every day so that we can do it correctly even when we’re scared. Culture is effective, and people are learning animals. White women learn fear because our culture tells us to be scared. But that is still our fault–for believing that lie and for continuing to repeat it.

In their civil suit against the city of Dallas, the family of Botham Jean argues that the police department trains officers like Amber Guyger to use lethal force  “even when there exist no immediate threat to themselves or others.” This is part of the problem. The other part is that our culture teaches white women, in particular, that men of color, are always an immediate threat. That Guyger felt threatened is central to her case. If we believe her, the fact that she, an armed police officer who had no right to be where she was, felt threatened by a black man watching TV in the comfort of his own home, is evidence that our culture continues to use white women to justify the murder of black men.