I have a wide range of friends. It is a blessing and a curse. Specifically, in trying times when racial tensions are on the rise, I have a bit of an advantage over some of my academic friends who are more insular: a steady stream of outraged and outrageous comments from people on the opposite end of the political spectrum from me comes pouring over my facebook feed. It’s like reading the comments section of a news article. On the plus side, you get to know what a lot of people are thinking. On the minus side, you get to know what a lot of people are thinking.
For example, today I saw that several of my ultra-conservative friends were passing around a meme saying that tomorrow, July 15, is the day that Black Lives Matter protesters (“don’t call them protesters, call them terrorists,” Sarah Palin advises us) across the country have a coordinated plan to go on a 37-city killing spree. And for every person sharing that meme, there are at least a dozen comments from scared white people freaking out. If you try to tell them that BLM is a peaceful movement, they remind you that BLM has called for a moment of silence for the guy who shot all those people in Texas last week. Except that is not true, it’s just something Donald Trump has been saying in his speeches and no one anywhere has been able to find a shred of evidence to support its veracity. Or they tell you the stories of all the little children who have died all around the country because they couldn’t reach the hospital in time, due to the fact BLM protesters had blocked the interstate. Which is also totally untrue; in fact, there is evidence of the opposite, protesters expediting emergency vehicles through. Several people have deeply disappointed me by spreading memes about how funny it would be to run over protesters with a truck and kill them.
I have unfollowed or blocked a lot of people this week.
I have to be honest, for over a week now I have been suffering conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I have felt a sense of duty, as a historian of race and as an ally and as a human being in general, to speak out about what’s been going on (the shootings of two black men by police, caught on video, and the mass shooting of police and bystanders at a protest rally in Texas.)
But on the other hand, I’m tired. It just keeps coming, an endless onslaught. And with each new wave, more of my white friends, relatives and acquaintances that I thought were relatively sane have joined the cacophony of condemnation for Black Lives Matter- a movement calling for an end to unprovoked police shootings of unarmed black men. I had just steeled myself up to address this very familiar topic yet again, for the umpteenth time, when the mass shooting happened and the meager wind was knocked completely out of my sails because I knew the flames were now going to be fanned even higher.
At the same time, I realize it is my very own position of privilege that allows me to choose whether to engage with this stuff or not –it is not cast upon me against my will day in and day out, as it is for my friends of color.
But I’ve remained silent long enough. Now I am going to do my small part to try to bring historical context into the fray. I have already gone over most of the pertinent information ad infinitum. I wrote a detailed history of why white America finds male black bodies threatening HERE two years ago. I wrote a brief history of how all this started HERE, recently. So today I am going to take a different tack.
Today’s historical context will be an examination of how white America has traditionally reacted to calls to end violence against blacks.
I’ll begin with a few examples.
For the quarter-century leading up to the Civil War, abolitionists (white and black) were calling for an immediate end to slavery, highlighting the institution’s cruelty and inhumanity to the general public, by means of newspapers, slave narratives, and works of fiction such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
White Southerners, however, insisted that this was a gross exaggeration. Slaves were taken care of and quite content, until those northern troublemakers stirred them up. The plantation system was an idyllic one, with everyone being one big happy family.
As abolitionists continued to undermine that narrative by publishing the accounts of successful runaway slaves bearing tales of torture and brutality, white Southerners became resentful. You insult our honor, O Damn Yankees, by implying that our way of life –that works fine for us and which everyone is happy with, even the slaves –is immoral, somehow. How dare you. We are not the immoral ones, you are, for trying to tell us what to do and implying the federal government could make it legal for you to do so, thus depriving us of liberty and proving yourselves un-American.
And then came Nat Turner. There had been other abortive slave revolt plots in the nineteenth century, but this one had teeth and a lot of white people were killed before the rebels were caught and executed. Paranoid white slave-owners around the South killed slaves they thought were “acting funny.” Slave patrols were increased and laws made stricter. Black men out alone on the roads without their papers were surely up to no good, and plotting to murder white folks.
And then the violence got worse. More murders of slaves, then Bleeding Kansas, then a Civil War (and if you think that conflict was not about slavery, I address that HERE).
Let’s jump ahead half-a-century, to the end of Reconstruction and the dawning of the Jim Crow era… the period of time that African American historians call The Nadir, because it was the low point of African American history. By the turn of the century, lynching black men had practically become a national pastime. Whole families flocked to watch the spectacle, with snacks and postcard mementos on sale.
Brave black leaders like Ida Wells worked tirelessly to get the general public to condemn this behavior, and to get the federal government to do something about it. Race riots had also become increasingly common –and in the 19th and early 20th century, “race riot” meant a mob of white people going on a murderous rampage against minorities. In the midst of all this, a historical novel (I use both terms lightly) called The Clansman was adapted into a film by D.W. Griffith- the first blockbuster, Birth of a Nation. It not only made a fortune, it spurred the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, which by the mid-1920s was huge all around the country (by some estimates one out of every seven white men in the country were members.) The movie depicted brutish ex-slaves and their Yankee manipulators as ruining the South and wantonly raping Southern white women, with the valiant KKK arising to stop the injustice. This fed into real life, as the year after the end of WWI (in which many blacks served in France and saw a desegregated society, returning home with a military bearing and less patience for racial bullying) saw the “Red Summer” of 1919, in which black communities were attacked all around the U.S. with countless lives lost.
Half-a-century after that we have the Black Freedom Era (Civil Rights followed by Black Power). Same patterns: segregationists denied there was a problem, everybody’s perfectly happy down here until you liberals and communists start stirring them up. The segregationists got resentful. Then there was fear of social upheaval if the status quo was disrupted, especially when younger blacks like Stokely Carmichael moved from nonviolent resistance to calls for black self-defense. Then the violence escalated.
This, then, is the pattern:
1. Blacks and their white allies accuse some whites, and especially the structured status quo, of being violent against blacks (or being in favor of same).
2. Racist whites –usually not thinking of themselves as racist at all –deny that there is a problem. Or if there is, it is being caused by the agitations of blacks and their allies.
3. Racist whites start to get defensive, insulted at the accusation they could be engaging in wrong behavior.
4. Those defensive whites become increasingly paranoid and fearful, specifically that those uncontrollable blacks are going to come after them.
5. Violence –especially violence against blacks by whites –gets much worse.
6. Much like the aftermath of the Salem Witch trials, the mob starts to get a little embarrassed about the excesses they have gone to (though few would admit it), and it peters out. Some are apologetic. Then everything is back to normal, with the status quo continuing as always. The people who were so paranoid, resentful, and enraged have calmed down and take the new calm as evidence the problems have all been solved and now everything is great again. Let’s not bring it up anymore, it will only cause more trouble.
Note how much this sounds like an abusive marriage.
Note how much this sounds like events of the past four years.
The only way to ever break this cycle is for the majority of white people to step back and actually SEE what has been going on, see and acknowledge, instead of being defensive and fragile. To see what the momentum of the great American race machine has repeatedly led us into, and resolve to really do something about it. But it starts with acknowledgment, a step most white Americans somehow seem incapable of doing.
And those of us who are in that position of privilege and power who have figured it out? It is our duty to keep trying to make everyone else see, and to lend our utmost support to our brothers and sisters of color. That is not “white guilt”; that is white responsibility, the responsibility to use our very privilege in the system that intrinsically benefits us to work against that system and help dismantle it (to help do so, using our position, not to muscle our way into the role of telling our partners of color how to experience their own oppression or present ourselves as “white saviors.”)