As I have absorbed the horrors of the latest lynching of a black person by allegedly frightened white people, I have tried to give words to a thought that has been percolating for me for some time – which is, as black people arrived on these shores in chains, and have been brutalized, oppressed and subjugated ever since, and are a minority in America – what is the basis of this white irrational fear of the black body? We know the list, we know their names – a young black man, Jordan Davis, playing loud music in his car – shoot him. A black teen, Trayvon Martin, walking through his neighborhood after a trip to the store, while you drive by “policing” even though you have no authority – shoot him. A black child, Tamir Rice, in a playground with a toy gun – shoot him. A young black man, Ahmaud Arbery, jogging – run him down and shoot him. And on and on.
What is at the root of this irrational fear?
I have had two experiences that give me some insight – as I understand now more than ever that this is not at all about what black people do, this is about what white people perceive. And too often, too tragically, that perception is just wrong. There is no amount of changing behavior that can save black people from these murders – what needs to change is white people and the systems that prop up this murder and injustice.
When I first got involved with the Lynching Sites Project, a man contacted David Waters who had written an article in the Commercial Appeal about our work, and said he collected newspapers and had some that we might be interested in. What he loaned us was a stack of about 450 newspapers with articles about lynching in America in them – contemporary accounts. From all over this country – starting in the late 1800s and ending in the 1950s. I am a frustrated amateur historian, so I volunteered to go through them to find any that pertained to Shelby County (this was at the very beginning of our research work). For about 5 or 6 weekends, I set about going through all of them to find what we were looking for. There weren’t that many about Shelby County, but what I came away with was a profoundly disturbing and deeply depressing view of my country. I never really understood the phrase “losing your religion” until I went through this exercise.
There were racial terror lynchings in most every part of this country. And in places where there were no black people, there were still news reports printed of lynchings elsewhere. I was shocked to see not one, but two newspaper reports on different lynchings from Alta, Iowa, a small town in northwestern Iowa – where there are no black people for miles. A friend of mine grew up there in the ’50s and ’60s and never saw a black person until she traveled to Sioux City as a 10-year-old child to get glasses. Why were they reporting these acts in the late 1800s and early 1900s? And make no mistake, even if the report was sympathetic to the black victim, there was always a presumption of guilt.
I completed the task of going through all the papers, and what I came away with was a deep understanding of the utter depravity of mankind and also a clear understanding that the job of the American media is, and has always been, to make sure that white people are as afraid of black people as they can possibly be. And that our “justice” system has been, as it still is, structured to “protect” the rights of white Americans and white property owners.
My second experience happened before Barack Obama was elected President. A conservative friend of mine and I were talking and he said “You know what is going to happen if he wins? There will be blood in the streets.” I had read of conspiracy theories around violence and the election, but my understanding is that white people feared what would happen if he was not elected. I had heard of people stocking up food and guns for the day of reckoning. I said to my friend – don’t you mean “If he loses, there might be violence?” And he said “No – if he wins”. I was so shocked by his thinking, I asked him if he knew any black people? Because nothing in my experience with black people made me think very many black people would take to the streets in either situation. To his credit, he answered honestly and said “No.”
On reflection, I thought that this man, on some unconscious level, must understand that the treatment of black people in America has been so severe, for so long, that there is a day of retribution coming. And so, from that kind of thinking comes the logic that white people should be afraid of black people, that if black people get power, there will hell to pay.
The roots of this irrational fear are deep. We don’t even always know ourselves why we are afraid, it is on such a primal level. It is in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the news we consume. As Sherrilyn Ifill stated in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, laws like “stand your ground” and “citizen’s arrest”, laws that don’t have an overt racial component to them, are part of a justice system that makes these lynchings possible, and almost always ends up with no justice being served.
Even the most callous of observers have to concede that if black people showed up armed with automatic rifles and guns on the state capitol steps as protestors did in Michigan recently around the coronavirus lockdowns, the jails in Lansing would have been filled that day.
I have no answers, really. I grieve for the families of the fallen. I grieve for my black friends who cannot move around freely without considering these horrific crimes. I grieve for my country.