Posted on May 25, 2022

In the Fight Against White Nationalism, White People Are Key

Adrian Florido, NPR, May 23, 2022

White supporters of racial justice around Buffalo have watched white nationalist ideologies creep into their communities. They’ve mobilized to convince people that white nationalism is not the answer.


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: 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 {snip}


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.


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.