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Republicans Use Strategic Racism to Exploit Horrific Murder in Political Attacks and Advance Deadly White Nationalist Conspiracy

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Last week, there was a tragic murder in Athens, Georgia. A young woman, Laken Riley, was killed and the suspect charged with murder, Jose Antonio Ibarr, is a recently arrived migrant from Venezuela. This was a horrific crime. 

Unfortunately, Republicans and right-wing media are exploiting this horrific murder in a textbook definition of strategic racism. In his book “Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class,” Ian Haney Lopez defines the dog-whistle as a “strategic manipulation of racial ideas for the pursuit of power and material wealth.” What Republicans are doing with this horrific crime is the same dog-whistle tactic that was used in the notorious Willie Horton political attacks in 1988. Lopez writes “dog-whistle racism is racism – indeed, it is racism’s most poisonous core – because it legitimizes, energizes, and stimulates the entire destructive project of racial divisions.”     

The cynical partisan politicization from the right of the recent murder in Georgia is both predictable and dangerous. They are taking an isolated crime to paint  a larger community of immigrants using a racialized politics of fear and division to advance their own extreme anti-immigrant agenda. Worse, they are citing the murder in their promotions of the white nationalist replacement and invasion conspiracy contributing to a climate that courts political violence.    

Whenever gun massacres occur in the U.S., which happen so frequently it is hard to count, we are often told not to politicize those events and that there can be no discussion of public policy considerations, and those calls of “now is not the time” come from  the same politicians who are exploiting this murder. If a crime happens involving an undocumented immigrant, the right-wing springs into action and all policy options are front and center. 

To be clear the right isn’t politicizing this murder to advance a policy agenda to protect the American people. No, they have rushed to politicize this murder in a manner that is perpetuating long-debunked racist tropes about immigrant criminality and to bolster their pernicious nativist disinformation narratives.  

This is a heinous criminal act and this crime has one suspect. It was a specific and tragic incident, with the culpability falling on that individual who committed the act – not the larger immigrant community. To suggest otherwise – that this individual crime is indicative of migration to the U.S. – pulls from long-debunked bigoted stereotypes. The data conclusively shows there is no correlation between immigration and crime. In study after study, and study, and study, and study, and more study, the facts are clear: immigrants have lower crime rates than the rest of the population. 

In yet another look at this data, Alex Nowrasteh at the Cato Institute published “Illegal Immigrants Have a Low Homicide Conviction Rate: Setting the Record Straight on Illegal Immigrant Crime” he writes:

More importantly, nobody should expect the statistics to comfort individuals affected by violent crime. Murderers should be arrested, tried, convicted, and punished to the fullest extent of the law, regardless of their immigration status. At the same time, we should understand that more enforcement of immigration laws will not reduce homicide rates.

Nowrasteh concludes his report “If Ibarra murdered Laken Riley, then he should be punished to the maximum that the law allows. Still, the statistics do tell us that deporting all illegal immigrants, ending parole, curtailing asylum, or any combination of those policies would not reduce homicide rates.”

“This murder was a violent, heinous act,” Kelly Girtz, the mayor of Athens-Clarke County, told the New York Times, “and it rests squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator.” The Times characterized Girtz’s remarks as saying, “The conversation should be focused on mourning the victim and blaming an individual rather than a group.” Officials have noted: “This was a very isolated incident.” An article from CNN notes several other suspected murders in recent months on other college campuses across the country, underscoring the crime is not related to immigration status.

Changing the subject to the perpetrator’s race or immigration status also distracts from very real concerns about violence, especially violence against women. That is getting lost.

But per their reliance on strategic racism, the immigration status of the murder suspect is all that the right can focus on.  

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA), exemplified many on the right who are rushing to manipulate the horrific crime into a political attack directly blaming the Biden administration for the murder. In one post, Speaker Johnson wrote that the crime was “a direct result of the open borders policy choices of Biden & Mayorkas”.  The border is, in fact, not open, and this pernicious disinformation only fuels challenges at the border.  Moreover, Speaker Johnson, at the behest of Donald Trump, killed a Republican negotiated Senate bill stacked with Republican priorities and this bit of strategic racism helps Johnson divert attention from his active hostility to finding legislative solutions. Instead, Speaker Johnson has focused the House on impeaching the head of Homeland Security, which is a further distraction from legislative work and is a wholly symbolic measure that will not even cost Secretary Mayorkas his job. But at the same time, this crime in Georgia, despite its horrific nature, is not a result of any particular policy of the Biden administration. 

Commenting on the murder Governor Brian Kemp repeated the often used GOP nativist slogan in a post on X, “Joe Biden’s failed policies have turned every state into a border state.” Like Speaker Johnson, Governor Kemp is politicizing an isolated crime to create the perception that immigrants represent a criminal element that presents an urgent threat to personal and public safety, which is a racist lie told in hopes of garnering a political advantage.   

In another of the many examples, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), released a video highlighting coverage of the murder in Georgia with the tagline “open borders kill.” This nativist propaganda stacks lies to demagogue non-white immigrants for Rubio’s own selfish political aims.  A Fox News chyron on “The Five” employed a similar strategic racist slogan – “Open Border Murder.” The Fox clip garnered 357,518 views in less than 24 hours after being posted to YouTube.  Meanwhile, Republican House Members are making the gruesome accusation that Biden has “blood on his hands.” 

Linking this crime and vivid imagery to the ongoing coded and uncoded attacks on non-white migrants adds to a dangerous climate that threatens to stack one tragedy on top of another. This comes into sharper focus as figures like Donald Trump and Elon Musk cite the murder in Georgia in their  promotion of the white nationalist replacement and invasion conspiracy. Musk weighed in, citing a coded version of the white nationalist replacement theory as the reason for the crime, writing in part, “Dems won’t deport, because every illegal is a highly likely vote at some point.” 

The replacement and invasion conspiracy is rooted in white nationalist and antisemitic ideas and has inspired multiple deadly terrorist attacks in recent years. And just weeks ago, the FBI foiled a plot by three men looking to bomb and shoot federal agents and migrants at the border in a terror attack they hoped would kickstart a civil war that was inspired by the white nationalist invasion conspiracy.  

Despite repeated warnings from the Department of Homeland Security about an increase risk to national security when Members of Congress amplify the bigoted conspiracy Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) linked the white nationalist conspiracy to the Georgia murder writing “Americans like Laken Riley are being murdered by illegals and Mayorkas orchestrated the Biden admins border invasion.” While Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL)  employed the deadly racist fiction as he uplifted another individual horrific crime. Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Good (R-VA) and Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-MT) are linking the crime to the white nationalist invasion conspiracy to justify their calls to shut down the government.

Donald Trump similarly couched the horrific crime in his promotion of the bigoted conspiracy, calling to end “Biden’s Border INVASION,” and reasserted his day one promise to “begin the largest deportation” in “American History!” 

Trump is also looking to brand the disinformation of immigrant criminality exacerbating the dangerous dehumanization already at play. The Washington Post’s Philip Bump reported that on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, Trump said, “I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but I came up with this one. Migrant crime. This crime — there’s violent crime, there’s migrant crime. We have a new category of crime. It’s called migrant crime. And it’s going to be worse than any other form of crime.” He peddled this “migrant crime” category branding in his CPAC speech last weekend, saying: “it’s called migrant crime and it’s far more deadly than anybody thought. They will actually have fist fights with police in the middle of the street…it’s a new category of crime, and I wanted to call it Biden migrant crime… it’s going to be more severe…it’s the silence of the lambs, Hannibal Lecter.” And we should expect he will continue to push this pernicious narrative that not only are non-white migrants inherently criminal but their criminality is more vicious.  

The racialized component is obtuse only to those willfully attempting to ignore the issue. “They make our prisoners look nicer,” Trump said in his CPAC speech. “They’re coming from Asia, they’re coming from the Middle East. They’re coming from all over the world, they’re coming from Africa. They’re destroying our country.”

New research provides a disturbing warning sign that this pernicious lie about immigrant criminality is sticking, particularly amongst identified Republicans. The Pew Research Center  found that 57% of Americans agree with the disinformation that a “large number of migrants trying to enter the country is leading to more crime in the country.” That number is driven by 85% of Republicans, where 63% of Democrats disagree with the sentiment.  A new Monmouth University poll found similar numbers writing, “The shift in opinion that illegal immigrants are more prone to violent crime has grown most dramatically among Republicans – from just 29% in 2015 to 45% in 2019 and 65% in 2024.” This trend, while alarming, is not entirely surprising given the amount of significant investment and high profile the disinformation has received. 

The pervasiveness of such a harmful lie should be an urgent warning sign of a problem at hand. Unchecked, the strategic racism the right is engaging in exploiting individual crimes will only make this problem worse. 

Unfortunately, we fully expect that Republicans will manipulate this crime to push their extreme anti-immigrant agenda throughout their campaigns because of the unique particularities of this crime that fit into their ongoing narrative. It is critical we name the cynical political tactic for what it is. 

Yes, there was a horrible crime committed and our justice system must do its job. But the heinous severity of the crime is not justification for racist dehumanization. Nor is condemning the strategic racism at play in any way downplaying the seriousness of the horrific crime. 

Moreover, those attaching the Georgia murder to promotions of the white nationalist replacement and invasion conspiracies create a climate for racist political violence and a threat to public safety.