The man who mowed down anti-racist activist Heather Heyer and injured 35 others used to beat his mother. And he's far from the only white supremacist with a history of domestic violence.
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A few hours after James Alex Fields Jr., drove into a crowd protesting the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer, reporters found his mother, Samantha Bloom, and told her what her son had done.
Bloom’s reaction initially drew ire. She seemed stunned, but more blasé than deeply upset. She disavowed any knowledge of her son’s indoctrination into the racist, anti-Semitic movement that wreaked havoc in Charlottesville. “I thought it had something to do with [President] Trump,” she said. “I try to stay out of his political views.” She was criticized—and rightly so—for the half-hearted assertion that her son had a Black friend.
But then we learned more about that mother and son. Records showed that she had called 911 multiple times because he was violent toward her. Bloom, who uses a wheelchair, reported that her son spat at her and brandished a knife. She had begged the police to take him away and put him into a juvenile facility.
Violence, like charity, typically begins at home.
The connection between domestic violence and other forms of violence has long been noted. Indeed, many predicted on social media that we would find violence against women when Fields’s background was plumbed. Back in June, when James Hodgkinson shot five people, including Congressman Steve Scalise (R-LA), Jane Mayer wrote in The New Yorker about the link. In her piece, Mayer quoted Rebecca Traister, author of a 2016 New York Magazine piece titled “What Mass Killers Really Have in Common,” and Amanda Taub, whose reporting for the New York Times described the same path from domestic violence to mass murder.
There is no shortage of smart women journalists writing about this. An extraordinary number of mass murders, serial killers, and terrorists have begun their criminal careers as men who beat the women in their lives. Leaving aside the attention-grabbing killings, a recent CDC report asserted that more than half of the women who are killed die at the hands of their male romantic partners or former partners. The same report (summarized here by The Atlantic) said that just 5 to 7 percent of murdered men are killed by current or former partners.
I don’t know a single woman who was surprised to read these numbers. But it rarely gets discussed as part of an interwoven system of hatred and oppression. It’s no surprise that when the race riot’s victim was revealed to be a young woman (whose parents, by the way, have responded to their heartbreaking loss with extraordinary grace and courage), the same white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville quickly took to social media to defame her in death. A piece in the Daily Stormer—a website that has since lost its web-hosting service—disparaged Heyer as a “fat, childless” woman (they used more, worse words than that, though). And it’s being reported that neo-Nazis are now planning to come and disrupt Heyer’s funeral.
Protesting against racism can not only get you killed, but if you’re a woman it will still get you slut-shamed and body-shamed. This is because racism and sexism co-exist in a tangle of hatred (usually joined by anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and homophobia). They feed off each other, and they use each other.
This doesn’t mean that women can’t be racist. There’s no way to believe that, with 53 percent of white women having voted for Donald J. Trump, and women spotted among the same white supremacist Charlottesville marchers—but that the same DNA flows through the ideologies of white supremacy and misogyny. Even mainstream conservatism dips into that gene pool—especially when Republican politicians, even those who officially disavow the violence in Charlottesville, still go to Washington and work toward restricting voting rights and abortion rights.
Perhaps there’s no more succinct example of the way the so-called alt-right combines racism and sexism than in their frequent use of the term “cuckservative” to denounce anyone they see as insufficiently invested in their white male patriarchy. The label comes from “cuckold,” an old word—Chaucer and Shakespeare used it, and it comes up in Hamilton, too!—for a man who (willingly or unwillingly) has allowed another man to sleep with his wife. It’s also a popular term in pornography: There’s a whole genre of porn devoted to movies in which white women have sex with Black men while their white husbands watch. In other words, it’s a word that does a lot of work, carrying the heavy load of white male entitlement, racial insecurity, sexual insecurity, and hate-filled paranoia. The next time you see or hear one white man calling another white man a cuck or a cuckservative, bear in mind that while they may be insulting one another, they’re doing it by leveraging their shared racism and sexism.
What happened in Charlottesville last weekend was sparked by extremism. But that doesn’t mean these ideologies only exist on the fringes. Not with a man in the White House whose history of racism goes back to his first public action—settling a lawsuit against his company for engaging in housing discrimination. Not with a president whose first wife accused him of beating and raping her (an accusation she later recanted).
For all the handwringing summed up in the #ThisIsNotUS hashtag, all the shock and surprise many white people expressed after James Alex Fields, Jr., ran down and killed Heather Heyer, America has always been a nation built on white supremacy and misogyny. They are remarkably persistent. Hence the outrage over the removal of monuments to the Confederacy, the stated reason for the Charlottesville rally in the first place. We shouldn’t forget that the Confederacy was a machine of oppression along both racial and gender lines. The rape of Black women was one of its key components. Just ask Thomas Jefferson, a revered founding father whose statue still stands in Charlottesville.
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