“To many, our most shocking political crises appear unprecedented—un-American, even. But they are not, writes The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer in this prescient essay collection, which dissects the most devastating moments in recent memory to reveal deeply entrenched dynamics, patterns as old as the country itself. The January 6 insurrection, anti-immigrant sentiment, and American authoritarianism all have historic roots that explain their continued power with or without President Donald Trump—a fact borne out by what has happened since his departure from the White House.
Serwer argues that Trump is not the cause, he is a symptom. Serwer’s phrase “the cruelty is the point” became among the most-used descriptions of Trump’s era, but as this book demonstrates, it resonates across centuries. The essays here combine revelatory reporting, searing analysis, and a clarity that’s bracing. In this new, expanded version of his bestselling debut, Serwer elegantly dissects white supremacy’s profound influence on our political system, looking at the persistence of the Lost Cause, the past and present of police unions, the mythology of migration, and the many faces of anti-Semitism. In so doing, he offers abundant proof that our past is present and demonstrates the devastating costs of continuing to pretend it’s not. The Cruelty Is the Point dares us, the reader, to not look away.”
Adam Serwer has been a staff writer for the Ideas section of The Atlantic since 2016, focusing on contemporary politics, often viewed through the lens of history. He is the recipient of the 2015 Sigma Delta Chi award for commentary,… More about Adam Serwer
Wisconsin state judge Bruce Schroeder has presided over the Rittenhouse case from the beginning and has done nearly everything he can to tilt the scales of justice in Rittenhouse’s favor.
The trial of teenage gunman Kyle Rittenhouse begins next week, but the fix is already in. Rittenhouse, who is being tried as an adult, shot two people dead in the street in Kenosha, Wis., during the protests that followed the shooting of Jacob Blake in 2020. That he killed two people is undisputed, but Rittenhouse claims the homicides were justified acts of self-defense.
Rittenhouse is not from Kenosha. He went there, with other armed men, allegedly to defend a place called “Car Source,” which I point out just to emphasize that he wasn’t even trying to protect his own property in his own town. Once there, he began patrolling the streets with an assault rifle illegally gifted him by an older friend. I find the claim that Rittenhouse subsequently murdered two unarmed people in self-defense to be unconscionable. In a just world, Rittenhouse would go to jail for a double homicide and illegal gun possession.
But we do not live in a just world; we live in a white one. Rittenhouse has become a cause célèbre among white supremacists and their media sympathizers, who have proudly defended Rittenhouse’s decisions to kill. Rittenhouse is the very definition of an “outside agitator” who came into somebody else’s community armed to do violence, but because he murdered-while-white, he will probably walk free.
That reality is almost assured because, even if Rittenhouse somehow draws an impartial jury, he has already won the white people’s lottery and landed a very partial white judge.
Wisconsin state judge Bruce Schroeder has presided over the Rittenhouse case from the beginning and has done nearly everything he can to tilt the scales of justice in Rittenhouse’s favor. This week, in the last pretrial conference, Schroeder declared that prosecutors are not allowed to refer to the people Rittenhouse murdered as “victims” during the trial. He said “victims” is too “loaded” a term, as if there were some other word we should use for unarmed people who were shot to death.
Now, there is a progressive argument for not calling victims of homicide “victims” at trial. I can absolutely see the argument that using the term in a case where the defendant claims self-defense lacks neutrality. It’s a choice other judges have made, though I doubt that this kind of neutrality would be given to a Black teen who gunned down people at a MAGA rally. Still, I wouldn’t call Judge Schroeder biased for this ruling alone. I call Schroeder biased because at the same conference at which he decided to prohibit the prosecution from using the word “victims” to describe the people Rittenhouse shot, he said he would allow the defense to use words like “rioters,” “looters,” and “arsonists” to describe those same people.
That’s bullshit. The (ahem) victims are not on trial. Rittenhouse is. Refusing to allow prosecutors to use linguistically accurate terms for people who did not voluntarily attempt to catch a bullet with their face at the same time as allowing the defense to use prejudicial language to characterize what those people were doing at the time is the very definition of bias. There is and never will be a trial to determine whether Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum were arsonists, looters, or rioters, because Rittenhouse killed them in the street. Indeed, the sole surviving victim of Rittenhouse’s gunfire, Gaige Grosskreutz, has not been charged with rioting, looting, arson, or any crime whatsoever arising out of the protests in Kenosha. (The judge did say that the prosecutors could call Rittenhouse a “cold-blooded killer” if they could “back it up with evidence”—as if the presence of two unarmed dead people at Rittenhouse’s feet didn’t make the fact that he was a killer self-evident.)
At the same time, Schroeder announced that he will not allow prosecutors to introduce evidence of Rittenhouse’s prior disposition to shoot people to death. There is video of Rittenhouse watching from a car as people leave a CVS: He calls them “looters” and says that he wishes he had a gun to shoot them. The video was taken in August 2020, about two and a half weeks before Rittenhouse shot up the streets of Kenosha. There are also photos from January 2020 of Rittenhouse posing with members of the Proud Boys. Both the video and the photos will be excluded, but the police patting Rittenhouse on the head like a good little white supremacist will be included.
And these are just the biased decisions Schroeder has made before the trial starts. Once it gets going, once he gets to rule on objections and jury instructions, there’s no telling how much worse he’ll get. Schroeder’s actions suggest he has predetermined the case in favor of Rittenhouse, and at trial the prosecution will be fighting against that as well as against Rittenhouse’s actual defense lawyers.
All of this suggests that Rittenhouse will walk free. Schroeder appears to believe that the shooting of “rioters,” “looters,” and “arsonists” by a white teenager is a “victimless” crime. All the defense has to do is find one juror who agrees with the judge.
Two crimes, but the white justice system manages to see no perpetrators—or “victims.” Two violent white assailants to whom the system seems determined to give the benefit of every doubt. As James Baldwin once said: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time.”
As the boundaries of the unthinkable become normalized, historical consciousness is replaced by manufactured forms of historical amnesia and ignorance. As white supremacy becomes entrenched at the highest levels of power and in the public imagination, the past becomes a burden that must be shed. Disparaging, suppressing or forgetting the horrors of history has become a valued and legitimating form of political and symbolic capital, especially among the Republican Party and conservative media. Not only have history’s civic lessons been forgotten, but historical memory is also being rewritten, especially in the ideology of Trumpism, through an affirmation of the legacy of slavery, the racist history of the Confederacy, American exceptionalism, and the mainstreaming of an updated form of fascist politics.
Theodor Adorno’s insights on historical memory are more relevant than ever. He once argued that as much as repressive governments would like to break free from the past, especially the legacy of fascism, “it is still very much alive.” Moreover, there is a price to be paid with “the destruction of memory.” In this case, “the murdered are …cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can offer them: remembrance.” Adorno’s warning rings particularly true at a time when two-thirds of young American youth are so impoverished in their historical knowledge that they are unaware that six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. On top of this shocking level of ignorance is the fact that “more than one in 10 believe Jews caused the Holocaust.” Historical amnesia takes a particularly dangerous turn in this case, and prompts the question of how young people and adults can you even recognize fascism if they have no recollection or knowledge of its historical legacy.
The genocide inflicted on Native Americans, slavery, the horrors of Jim Crow, the incarceration of Japanese Americans, the rise of the carceral state, the My Lai massacre, torture chambers, black sites, among other historical events now disappear into a disavowal of past events made even more unethical with the emergence of a right-wing political language and culture. The Republican Party’s attack on critical race theory in the schools which they label as “ideological or faddish” both denies the history of racism as well as the way in which it is enforced through policy, laws, and institutions. For many republicans, racial hatred takes on the ludicrous claim of protecting students from learning about the diverse ways in which racism persist in American society. For instance, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida stated that “There is no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.” In this updated version of racial cleansing, the call for racial justice is equated to a form of racial hatred leaving intact the refusal to acknowledge, condemn, and confront in the public imagination the history and persistence of racism in American society
Bolstered by a former president and a slew of Vichy-type politicians, right-wing ideologues, intellectuals, and media pundits deny and erase events from a fascist past that shed light on emerging right-wing, neo-Nazi, and extremist policies, ideas, and symbols. As Coco Das points out given that 73 million people voted to re-elect Trump, it is clear that Americans “have a Nazi problem.” This was also evident in the words and actions of former president Trump who defended Confederate monuments and their noxious past, the waving of Confederate flags and the display of Nazi images during the attempted coup on the Capital on January 6th, and ongoing attempts by the Republican Party legislators to engage in expansive efforts at enabling a minority government. America’s Nazi problem is also visible in the growing acts of domestic terrorism aimed at Asians, undocumented immigrants, and people of color.
Historical amnesia also finds expression in the right-wing press and among media pundits such as Fox News commentators Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, whose addiction to lying exceeds the boundaries of reason and creates an echo chamber of misinformation that normalizes the unspeakable, if not the unthinkable. Rational responses now give way to emotional reactions fueled by lies whose power is expanded through their endless repetition. How else to explain the baseless claim made by them, along with a number of Republican lawmakers, right-wing pundits, and Trump’s supporters who baselessly lay the blame for the storming of the US Capitol on “Antifa.” These lies were circulated despite of the fact that “subsequent arrests and investigations have found no evidence that people who identify with Antifa, a loose collective of antifascist activists, were involved in the insurrection.”
In this case, I think it is fair to re-examine Theodor W. Adorno’s claim that “Propaganda actually constitutes the substance of politics” and that the right-wing embrace of and production of an endless stream of lies and denigration of the truth are not merely delusional but are endemic to a fascist cult that does not answer to reason, but only to power while legitimizing a past in which white nationalism and racial cleansing become the organizing principles of social order and governance.
In the era of post-truth, right-wing disimagination machines are not only hostile to those who assert facts and evidence, but also supportive of a mix of lethal ignorance and the scourge of civic illiteracy. The latter requires no effort to assess the truth and erases everything necessary for the life of a robust democracy. The pedagogical workstations of depoliticization have reached new and dangerous levels amid emerging right-wing populisms. It is not surprising that we live at a time when politics is largely disconnected from echoes of the past and justified on the grounds that direct comparisons are not viable, as if only direct comparisons can offer insights into the lessons to be learned from the past. We have entered an age in which thoughtful reasoning, informed judgments, and critical thought are under attack. This is a historical moment that resembles a dictatorship of ignorance, which Joshua Sperling rightly argues entails:
The blunting of the senses; the hollowing out of language; the erasure of connection with the past, the dead, place, the land, the soil; possibly, too, the erasure even of certain emotions, whether pity, compassion, consoling, mourning or hoping.
It is clear is that we live in a historical period in which the conditions that produced white supremacist politics are intensifying once again. How else to explain former President Trump’s use of the term “America First,” his labeling immigrants as vermin, his call to “Make America Great Again” — signaling his white nationalist ideology–his labeling of the press as “enemies of the people,” and his numerous incitements to violence while addressing his followers. Moreover, Trump’s bid for patriotic education and his attack on the New York Times’s 1619 Project served as both an overt expression of his racism and his alignment with right-wing white supremacists and neo-Nazi mobs. Historical amnesia has become racialized. In the rewriting of history in the age of Trump, the larger legacy of “colonial violence and the violence of slavery inflicted on Africans” are resurrected as a badge of honor.
America’s long history of fascist ideologies and the racist actions of a slave state, the racial cleansing espoused by the Ku Klux Klan, and an historical era that constitutes what Alberto Toscano calls “the long shadow of racial fascism” in America are no longer forgotten or repressed but celebrated in the Age of Trump. What is to be made of a former President who awarded the prestigious Medal of Freedom to a blubbering white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, conspiracy theorist, and virulent racist who labeled feminists as “Feminazis.” In this case, one of the nation’s highest honors went to a man who took pride in relentlessly disparaging Muslims, referred to undocumented immigrants as “an invading force” and an “invasive species,” demonized people of color, and recycled Nazi tropes about racial purity while celebrating the mob that attacked the Capitol as “Revolutionary War era rebels and patriots.” Under the banner of Trumpism, those individuals who reproduce the rhetoric of political and social death have become, celebrated symbols of a fascist politics that feeds off the destruction of the collective public and civic imagination.
William Faulkner once stated “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In its updated version, we live not only with the ghosts of genocide and slavery, but also with the ghosts of fascism—we live in the shadow of the genocidal history of indigenous inhabitants, the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and systemic police violence against people of color. And while we live with the ghosts of our past, we have failed to fully confront its implications for the present and future. To do so would mean recognizing that updated forms of fascist politics in the current moment are not a rupture from the past, but an evolution. White supremacy now rules the Republican Party and one of its tools of oppression is the militarization and weaponization of history. Fascism begins with language and the suppression of dissent, while both suppressing and rewriting history in the service of power and violence.
In the age of neoliberal tyranny, historical amnesia is the foundation for manufactured ignorance, the subversion of consciousness, the depoliticization of the public, and the death of democracy. It is part of a disimagination machine that is perpetuated in schools, higher education, and the corporate controlled media. It divorces justice from politics and aligns the public imagination with a culture of hatred and bigotry. Historical amnesia destroys the grammar of ethical responsibility and the critical habits of citizenship. The ghost of fascism is with us once again as society forgets its civic lessons, destroys civic culture, and produces a populace that is increasingly infantilized politically through the ideological dynamics of neoliberal capitalism. The suppression of history opens the door to fascism. This is truly a lesson that must be learned if the horrors of the past are not to be repeated again. Fortunately, the history of racism is being exposed once again in the protests that are taking place all over the globe. What needs to be remembered is that such struggles must make education central to politics, and historical memory a living force for change. Historical memory must become a crucial element in the struggle for collective resistance, while transforming ideas into instruments of power.
 Paul Street, “The Anatomy of Fascism Denial: 26 Flavors of Anti-Antifascism, Part 1,” Counter Punch. (Feb 7, 2021).Online https://www.counterpunch.org/2021/02/07/the-anatomy-of-fascism-denial/; Sarah Churchwell, “American Fascism: It Has Happened Again,” The New York Review of Books, [May 26, 2020].Online https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2020/06/22/american-fascism-it-has-happened-here/; Masha Gessen, Surviving Autocracy, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2020); Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, [Random House, 2018); Henry A. Giroux, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (San Francisco: City Lights 2018); Carl Boggs, Fascism Old and New: American Politics at the Crossroads (New York: Routledge, 2018); Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Crown, 2017)
 Adorno, Theodor W., “The Meaning of Working Through the Past,” Guilt and Defense, trans. Henry W. Pickford, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), p. 215.
 See, for instance, Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain, eds. Four Hundred Souls (New York: One World, 2021) and Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. Democracy in Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul (New York: Crown, 2016).
 On the American origins of fascism, also see Michael Joseph Roberto, The Coming of the American Behemoth: The Origins of Fascism in the United States, 1920-1940 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2018). Henry A. Giroux, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism(San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2018).
One Capitol Police officer was caught taking a selfie with a member of the white supremacist mob that overtook the US Capitol last week. A second officer has been suspended for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat and directing insurrectionists around the building rather than handcuffing them. The storming of the Capitol has revived concerns about the ties between police and white supremacists, in part because officers arrested far more Black Lives Matter protesters this summer than they did Trump supporters who broke into the legislative building with weapons, at least one Confederate flag, and bundles of zip ties.
It wasn’t just on-duty cops who raised eyebrows: Off-duty law enforcement officers were allegedly part of the mob itself, with some flashing their badges and identification cards as they rushed through the doors, according to an on-duty DC Metro Police officer who saw them. “If these people can storm the Capitol building with no regard to punishment, you have to wonder how much they abuse their powers when they put on their uniforms,” the officer wrote later on Facebook, according to Politico.
Police departments around the country are now investigating officers who are suspected of attending the rally in DC, or were caught posting racist messages on social media. Days after the attack, New York Rep. Jamaal Bowman introduced a bill that would require a commission to examine whether Capitol Police officers have white supremacist ties.
For some experts, these investigations are far too little, too late: Police departments and federal agencies have long understood that certain cops are connected to racist groups, and have largely looked the other way. “We’ve known for decades that there are racial disparities in every step of the criminal justice process, from who gets stopped to who gets arrested to who police use force against to how they get charged,” says Michael German, a former FBI agent who now studies white supremacist infiltration of police departments as a fellow at the liberal Brennan Center for Justice, a think tank. “It’s treated as implicit bias or structural bias without an acknowledgment that there’s a lot of explicit bias driving these disparities.”
As an FBI agent in the 1990s, German went undercover with white supremacist and militia groups to thwart their bomb plots. At the time, the Justice Department warned him to be careful about sharing details of his investigations with cops, because some of them had ties to white supremacist groups themselves. Even so, in the decades since then, he says the FBI has not prioritized investigating those police officers and getting them off the streets, allowing them to continue their jobs. I caught up with German this week to ask how law enforcement agencies have fallen short in identifying and firing racist officers, and what they should be doing now, in the wake of the Capitol siege, to root them out.
Do we know roughly how many cops have ties to white supremacists?
Unfortunately we don’t have a sense of the scope of the problem because no entity has made it their mission to identify the scope. But the FBI regularly warns its agents who are investigating white supremacists and far-right militants that the subjects of those investigations will often have active links to law enforcement, and that they need to alter their methodology to protect the integrity of their investigations. Those were warnings I received in the 1990s when I worked these cases, and they appear in published leaked FBI materials, including the 2015 counterterrorism policy guide.
When you say FBI agents alter their methodologies, do you mean they’re not supposed to collaborate as much with police while investigating white supremacists?
Exactly. The counterterrorism policy guide recommends that the FBI put the subjects of these investigations on a watch list with what’s called the silent-hit function; if a police officer pulls over the subject of your investigation, a silent-hit function would not tell the officer that he’s interacting with someone who’s the subject of a terrorism investigation.
If the FBI knows this is a problem of such significance that it has to alter its methodologies of investigating cases, I would argue it also has to have a strategy to protect the public from these white supremacists and far-right militants who carry a badge. The fact that they don’t even document who these police officers are shows an inexcusable lack of attention to their mission to enforce the civil rights laws of this country as well as the counterterrorism laws.
In 2006, the FBI warned that for decades, white supremacist groups had been attempting to “recruit” police officers. Can you talk about the history of this?
It’s important to understand that the United States was founded as a white supremacist nation, so our laws enforced white supremacy, so those who were sworn to enforce the law were enforcing white supremacy. After slavery ended, you had Jim Crow. After the civil rights era, you still had sundown towns, where the police enforced unwritten rules about who could stay in town past dark. To imagine there was somehow a miraculous event that cured the police of that problem is foolish.
The most egregious are examples where police officers were actually members of white supremacist groups and would go to public events representing themselves as police officers. And their membership was known to law enforcement for years and unaddressed, and it was only when the public learned about it that the police department took action.
We do so little examination of police violence in this country, but we know it disproportionately targets people who are Black or brown. How much of that is driven from actual white supremacist ideology rather than isolated incidents that happen on the job is something the Justice Department has a responsibility to investigate.
What kind of recruitment techniques do white supremacist groups use with police?
Having spent time as an FBI undercover agent, I think the term [“recruit”] doesn’t accurately describe what’s happening. It’s not so much that this group will put a pamphlet together and make a recruiting pitch and approach officers. In many cases, these are people who grew up affiliating with white supremacists. One guy went to work as a prison guard, one guy went to work in factories, and the other guy went to work as a police officer. And they are just carrying on attitudes and associating with the same people they associated with when they weren’t a police officer.
Are there any police departments that have tried themselves to root out racist cops, and any that did a good job?
The departments tend to be reactive to public outrage. Part of the problem is that most law enforcement agencies don’t have written policies specifically addressing the issue. So when the public identifies somebody who’s operating in league with a white supremacist group or far-right militant group, they end up disciplining them under broad prohibitions against engaging in public conduct detrimental to the public interest, or similarly worded policies.
Sometimes this doesn’t stand up to the due process scrutiny that’s designed to protect innocent officers from being treating unfairly. So they end up getting their jobs back after they’re fired.
What I argue is that even where the conduct is not sufficient to terminate that officer, the police department still has an obligation to mitigate the threat they pose to the community. There are plenty of jobs in police departments that don’t regularly interact with the public. Or perhaps some extra level of supervision of that officer would be warranted.
Right. Or just the lack of policy, or disparate treatment, where other officers known to engage in racist behavior weren’t fired in the past, so it’s unfair to fire this officer. Often, if the police department knew about your involvement with this white supremacist group for five years but is now trying to fire you, you can argue: “I’m not being fired because of the conduct, because the department knew about the conduct; I’m being fired because the public demanded it, and that’s not appropriate.” That’s the problem with the way we have just turned a blind eye to this problem for so many decades.
Is there anything else that government can do to address this problem?
What we need is to empower prosecutors and defense attorneys. When these [white supremacist] officers are identified by the agency or by the public, that information should be provided to prosecutors and they [the officer] should be put on no-call lists or Brady lists. Today these no-call lists are lists of officers who are known to have previously engaged in some kind of dishonest conduct that a defense attorney could use to impeach their testimony. My argument is that racist behavior is one of those categories that should be available to the defense attorney. [This can] force those agents off the street.
In an ideal world, what do you think the Justice Department or FBI’s role would be in rooting out white supremacist police officers?
What I would recommend is for the Justice Department to implement a national strategy to identify these officers, document the scope of the threat, and design programs to mitigate it. It’s a matter of priorities. If the FBI heard through the grapevine that a police officer was affiliating himself with Al Qaeda or ISIS, we can be confident the FBI would react quickly. They should act just as quickly when the police officer is associated with white supremacist and far-right militant groups.
Some people have expressed the idea that we need to create a list of designated domestic terrorist groups, but that’s a silly approach because these groups change their names regularly. In other words, writing a list of groups that are banned is not going to help. Because officers can look at the list and say, “Okay, I won’t join this group, but I’ll join this other group. Or I’ll be part of a group that previously called itself the KKK but now calls itself something else.” But it’s the same people engaged in the same racist conduct. It takes an understanding of how these groups actually organize before you can write a policy.
The officers and agents within these federal, state, and local law enforcement departments know who the racists are among them. What we need to do is make sure officers who see racist misconduct or far-right militancy within law enforcement are protected when they report it. We need to strengthen whistleblower protection laws.
You wrote in a recent report about a man in Anniston, Alabama, who applied to be a police officer, and listed on his application that he was part of the League of the South, a white supremacist secessionist group. He was hired anyway. Are cops’ racist ties often that obvious?
Yes, often it is that obvious. So it’s not that they can’t be seen, it’s that nobody is looking for them.
Update (January 15): The Capitol Police officer who wore a MAGA hat claims he put on the cap as part of a plan to save some of his colleagues who were in danger, according to a new Wall Street Journalreport.
It’s tempting to think of the storming of the US Capitol on Wednesday as toxic masculinity run amok: a mob of mostly white men, carrying guns and wearing animal skins, trying to overthrow democracy on behalf of a president who once bragged about his ability to grab women “by the pussy.”
It’s even more tempting to embrace this narrative when, in a bizarre statement, that president’s campaign press secretary describes him as “the most masculine person, I think, to ever hold the White House.”
But focusing too much on masculinity obscures a crucial truth: Many women were either present at the riot or cheering on the insurrectionists from back home. There was Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old Air Force veteran and apparent devotee of QAnon ideology who was killed during the riot. There was the woman photographed with “zip-tie guy” Eric Munchel, now believed to be his mother. There was Martha Chansley, the mother of the widely photographed “QAnon shaman” who wore a horned hat and carried a spear to Congress. She wasn’t present at the riot but later defended her son in an interview, calling him “a great patriot, a veteran, a person who loves this country.”
And, of course, there were the women lawmakers who boosted conspiracy theories and false claims about the election being stolen, including Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon adherent who railed against Democrats and Black Lives Matter protesters in a speech on the House floor this week while wearing a mask reading “censored.” Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, meanwhile, described January 6 as “1776” before the riot began, live-tweeted from the House during the attack (including a mention that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been removed from the chambers), and this week, refused to allow police to search her bag after it set off metal detectors outside Congress. During her campaign, Boebert promised to bring her gun with her to the House.
White women have been part of white supremacy in America since the very beginning, experts point out, dating back to their role in slavery. “They were at the table when the system was designed,” Stephanie Jones-Rogers, a history professor at UC Berkeley and author of the book They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South, told Vox. “They were co-architects of the system.”
That remained true after the Civil War, through the birth and evolution of the Ku Klux Klan, and during the civil rights movement when white women were some of the most vocal opponents of school integration. And it remains true today, when women hold a key role in spreading QAnon ideology and sustaining white nationalist groups and movements. “Like other parts of our economy and society, these movements would collapse without their labor,” Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism, told Vox.
And if we ignore the importance of women in the Capitol riot and the groups that backed and enabled it, we can’t understand white supremacy in America — let alone dismantle it. Trying to fight racism in America without looking at white women, Jones-Rogers said, is like “addressing only the right side of the body when the left side is still sick.”
White women have been part of white supremacy from the beginning
White women’s investment in white supremacy is older than the United States itself and goes back to their role in the economy of slavery. Though white women have been seen by some historians as passive bystanders to the brutalities of slavery, they were in fact active participants, as Jones-Rogers explains in They Were Her Property. Before the Civil War, white women had little economic or political power, with one big exception: They could buy and sell enslaved people. And they did so, using enslaved people as a way of building up wealth that would not simply be transferred to a husband in marriage.
Slavery gave white women “freedom, autonomy, and agency that they could not exercise in their lives without it, so they deeply invested in it,” Jones-Rogers said.
And after the Civil War, white women didn’t simply give up on white supremacy. Instead, as Jones-Rogers puts it, they doubled down.
For many, that meant becoming active participants in the KKK, which at one point had 1.5 million female members. Some women took leadership roles, like Elizabeth Tyler, who helped revive the Klan in the late 1910s and became its “most important propagandist,” according to Darby.
Women became especially important in the Klan once they gained the right to vote. After that, white men began to see their wives, daughters, sisters, and other women in their lives “as potential allies in the effort to politicize white supremacy,” Jones-Rogers said. “They began to see them as a voting bloc.”
And it wasn’t just because of organizations like the Klan that white women invested in institutional racism. They also played a core role in lynching by making false allegations of sexual harassment or assault, which wereused as a pretext to murder Black men. And they were key players in the fight against the integration of schools, with white women using their role as mothers to legitimize their victimization of Black children, Jones-Rogers said.
Indeed, throughout the 20th century, though white women could no longer profit from slavery, they were still deriving real benefits from white supremacy — namely, a sense of social and political power in a world still dominated by white men. “Through lynching, your words have the power of life and death over an African-descended man,” Jones-Rogers explained. “Your vote can secure a place in the state, in the government, for white supremacy.”
In essence, through white supremacy, white women came to “understand themselves as individuals who wield a certain kind of power that men have to respect,” Jones-Rogers said.
Understanding white women’s role is key to fighting racism today
And that dynamic has continued into the 21st century. The landscape of white supremacy has changed, with the Klan no longer a major player (though it still exists). Today, white nationalism is less about specific groups and more about “an ideology that people subscribe to from the comfort of their own desks,” Darby said.
Because of that, it’s hard to measure exactly how many women are involved in white nationalism. It’s easier to measure attitudes. Overall, about 20 percent of white Americans of all genders “feel a sense of discontent” over the status of white people in society, Darby writes in Sisters in Hate, drawing on the work of political scientist Ashley Jardina. And white women are actually more likely than white men to hold “exclusionary views about what it means to be American, preferring boundaries around the nation’s identity that maintain it in their image.”
And while they may not always be in front at rallies or riots, women remain important “recruiters and propagandists” for white nationalism, Darby said. Erica Alduino, for example, had a key role in organizing the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. She was the one directing traffic on messaging apps and answering mundane but important questions like whether there would be shuttle buses to the rally. She didn’t speak at the event, “but that’s not the point,” Darby said. “Whether women are seen or not seen, they are such important actors in this space.”
Women have also been central to organizing pro-Trump events that spread the false claim that the election was stolen. The group Women for America First organized a “Stop the Steal” rally of thousands in November and also received a permit for a rally at the Capitol on January 6, according to the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, women have taken an even more visible role with the rise of QAnon. An ideology that began with conspiracy theories about Trump battling a “cabal” of liberals involved in child sex trafficking, QAnon has grown to include a wider array of theories and misinformation. Last year, QAnon adherents began amplifying the hashtag #SaveTheChildren, which became a vehicle for false claims about the prevalence of child sex trafficking as well as a gateway for more extreme QAnon ideas. And many of the people posting with #SaveTheChildren — including celebrities and prominent influencers — were women.
In general, QAnon has been a way to co-opt messages long targeted at women — messages about the importance of natural living or even healthy food, for example — and turn them into an indoctrination in white nationalism and xenophobia. QAnon plays into “this idea that you can cleanse yourself and your life and your family’s life of pollutants,” Darby said. Messages about avoiding genetically modified foods, for example, can slide into messages about keeping non-white children out of schools.
In the last few months, QAnon has played a key role in boosting conspiracy theories about Covid-19 restrictions and masking, and backing attempts to overturn the election. And some of the most visible proponents of QAnon have been women. Greene, for example, has been called the first QAnon member of Congress and has tweeted support for the idea of the “deep state,” a core QAnon tenet.
Meanwhile, Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was killed by police at the Capitol riot, had been posting QAnon-related content on social media for nearly a year prior to the insurrection, according to the Guardian. The day before the riot, she tweeted a defiant message full of QAnon slogans: “Nothing will stop us….they can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours….dark to light!”
Despite the participation of Babbitt and others, there’s been a tendency to view the riot as largely male-dominated — and, indeed, to erase the presence of women in white supremacy throughout history. “There has been a tendency, from the colonial period to the present, to frame and to position white women as perpetual victims, in spite of the evidence to the contrary,” Jones-Rogers said.
But ignoring the fact that women have long been perpetrators of white supremacy — up to and including violence — will hamper any effort to truly fight it. “When we discount these women and the often violent and brutal roles that these women play,” Jones-Rogers said, “we neglect and we negate the impact that their activities have on their victims.”
If, by contrast, we as a society can reckon with the way that white women have been not just beneficiaries but designers of the system of white supremacy, she said, we will be better able “to dismantle the system and to address the ways in which the system has really pervaded all of our lives.”
“No One Took Us Seriously”: Black Cops Warned About Racist Capitol Police Officers for Years
Allegations of racism against the Capitol Police are nothing new: Over 250 Black cops have sued the department since 2001. Some of those former officers now say it’s no surprise white nationalists were able to storm the building.
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When Kim Dine took over as the new chief of the U.S. Capitol Police in 2012, he knew he had a serious problem.
Since 2001, hundreds of Black officers had sued the department for racial discrimination. They alleged that white officers called Black colleagues slurs like the N-word and that one officer found a hangman’s noose on his locker. White officers were called “huk lovers” or “FOGs” — short for “friends of gangsters” — if they were friendly with their Black colleagues. Black officers faced “unprovoked traffic stops” from fellow Capitol Police officers. One Black officer claimed he heard a colleague say, “Obama monkey, go back to Africa.”
In case after case, agency lawyers denied wrongdoing. But in an interview, Dine said it was clear he had to address the department’s charged racial climate. He said he promoted a Black officer to assistant chief, a first for the agency, and tried to increase diversity by changing the force’s hiring practices. He also said he hired a Black woman to lead a diversity office and created a new disciplinary body within the department, promoting a Black woman to lead it.
“There is a problem with racism in this country, in pretty much every establishment that exists,” said Dine, who left the agency in 2016. “You can always do more in retrospect.”
Whether the Capitol Police managed to root out racist officers will be one of many issues raised as Congress investigates the agency’s failure to prevent a mob of Trump supporters from attacking the Capitol while lawmakers inside voted to formalize the electoral victory of President-elect Joe Biden.
Already, officials have suspended several police officers for possible complicity with insurrectionists, one of whom was pictured waving a Confederate battle flag as he occupied the building. One cop was captured on tape seeming to take selfies with protesters, while another allegedly wore a red “Make America Great Again” hat as he directed protesters around the Capitol building. While many officers were filmed fighting off rioters, at least 12 others are under investigation for possibly assisting them.
Two current Black Capitol Police officers told BuzzFeed News that they were angered by leadership failures that they said put them at risk as racist members of the mob stormed the building. The Capitol Police force is only 29% Black in a city that’s 46% Black. By contrast, as of 2018, 52% of Washington Metropolitan police officers were Black. The Capitol Police are comparable to the Metropolitan force in spending, employing more than 2,300 people and boasting an annual budget of about a half-billion dollars.
The Capitol Police did not immediately respond to questions for this story.
Sharon Blackmon-Malloy, a former Capitol Police officer who was the lead plaintiff in the 2001 discrimination lawsuit filed against the department, said she was not surprised that pro-Trump rioters burst into the Capitol last week.
In her 25 years with the Capitol Police, Blackmon-Malloy spent decades trying to raise the alarm about what she saw as endemic racism within the force, even organizing demonstrations where Black officers would return to the Capitol off-duty, protesting outside the building they usually protect.
The 2001 case, which started with more than 250 plaintiffs, remains pending. As recently as 2016, a Black female officer filed a racial discrimination complaint against the department.
“Nothing ever really was resolved. Congress turned a blind eye to racism on the Hill,” Blackmon-Malloy, who retired as a lieutenant in 2007, told ProPublica. She is now vice president of the U.S. Capitol Black Police Association, which held 16 demonstrations protesting alleged discrimination between 2013 and 2018. “We got Jan. 6 because no one took us seriously.”
Retired Lt. Frank Adams sued the department in 2001 and again in 2012 for racial discrimination. A Black, 20-year veteran of the force, Adams supervised mostly white officers in the patrol division. He told ProPublica he endured or witnessed racism and sexism constantly. He said that before he joined the division, there was a policy he referred to as “meet and greet,” where officers were directed to stop any Black person on the Hill. He also said that in another unit, he once found a cartoon on his desk of a Black man ascending to heaven only to be greeted by a Ku Klux Klan wizard. When he complained to his superior officers, he said he was denied promotions and training opportunities, and suffered other forms of retaliation.
In an interview, he drew a direct line between racism in the Capitol Police and the events that unfolded last week. He blamed Congress for not listening to Black members of the force years ago.
“They only become involved in oversight when it’s in the news cycle,” said Adams, who retired in 2011. “They ignored the racism happening in the department. They ignored the hate.”
The department’s record in other areas of policing have drawn criticism as well.
In 2015, a man landed a gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn — top officials didn’t know the airborne activist was coming until minutes before he touched down. In 2013, when a lone gunman opened fire at the nearby Navy Yard, killing 12 people, the Capitol Police were criticized for standing on the sidelines. The force’s leadership board later determined its actions were justified.
Last month, days after a bloody clash on Dec. 12 between militant Trump supporters and counterprotesters, Melissa Byrne and Chibundu Nnake were entering the Capitol when they saw a strangely dressed man just outside the building, carrying a spear.
He was a figure they would come to recognize — Jacob Chansley, the QAnon follower in a Viking outfit who was photographed last week shouting from the dais of the Senate chamber.
They alerted the Capitol Police at the time, as the spear seemed to violate the complex’s weapons ban, but officers dismissed their concern, they said.
One officer told them that Chansley had been stopped earlier in the day, but that police “higher ups” had decided not to do anything about him.
We don’t “perceive it as a weapon,” Nnake recalled the officer saying of the spear.
Chansley told the Globe and Mail’s Adrian Morrow that Capitol Police had allowed him in the building on Jan. 6, which would normally include passing through a metal detector, although he was later charged with entering a restricted building without lawful authority, violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. As of Tuesday, he had not yet entered a plea.
For Byrne and Nnake, their interactions with the “QAnon Shaman” on Dec. 14 highlighted what they perceive as double standards in how the Capitol Police interact with the public.
Like many people who regularly encounter the force, Nnake and Byrne said they were accustomed to Capitol officers enforcing rules aggressively — later that day, Nnake was told that he would be tackled if he tried to advance beyond a certain point. “As a Black man, when I worked on the Hill, if I forgot a badge, I couldn’t get access anywhere,” he told ProPublica.
Congress, which controls the agency and its budget, has a mixed record of oversight. For the most part, Congress has been deferential toward the force, paying attention to its workings only after serious security failures, and even then, failing to meaningfully hold its leaders accountable.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat from D.C. who is a nonvoting member of Congress, told ProPublica she believes a national commission should be formed to investigate what occurred at the Capitol on Jan. 6, similar to what followed 9/11.
“Congress deserves some of the blame,” she told ProPublica. “We have complete control over the Capitol Police. … Long-term concerns with security have been raised, and they’ve not been dealt with in the past.”
The force has also suffered a spate of recent, internal scandals that may prove pertinent as Congress conducts its investigation.
Capitol Police officers accidently left several guns in bathrooms throughout the building in 2015 and 2019; in one instance, the loaded firearm was discovered by a small child.
The agency has been criticized for a lack of transparency for years. Capitol Police communications and documents are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act and, unlike many local law enforcement agencies, it has no external watchdog specifically assigned to investigate and respond to community complaints. The force has not formally addressed the public since the riot last week.
“All law enforcement is opaque,” said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. “At least most local police departments are subject to some kind of civilian oversight, but federal police agencies are left to operate in the shadows.”
The agency’s past troubles have rarely resulted in reform, critics said.
After the April 2015 gyrocopter incident, Congress held a hearing to examine how 61-year-old postal worker and activist Doug Hughes managed to land his aircraft after he livestreamed his flight. Dozens of reporters and news cameras assembled in front of the Capitol to watch the stunt, which was designed to draw attention to the influence of money in politics. Capitol Police did not learn of the incoming flight until a reporter reached out to them for comment, minutes before Hughes landed.
Dine defended the force’s response to the incident, pointing out that Hughes was promptly arrested and no one was hurt.
Former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah, then the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, harshly criticized the department and other federal agencies for what he perceived as an intelligence failure.
“The Capitol Police is terrible and pathetic when it comes to threat assessment,” Chaffetz told ProPublica in an interview. “They have a couple people dedicated to it, but they’re overwhelmed. Which drives me nuts. … It’s not been a priority for leadership, on both sides of the aisle.” He said he is not aware of any serious changes to the force’s intelligence gathering following the debacle.
Norton, who also pressed Dine at the hearing, told ProPublica the intelligence lapses surrounding the gyrocopter landing should be considered a “forerunner” to last week’s riot.
“For weeks, these people had been talking about coming to the Capitol to do as much harm as they can,” Norton said. “Everyone knew it. Except the Capitol Police.” Reports show the force had no contingency plan to deal with an escalation of violence and mayhem at last week’s rally, even though the FBI and the New York Police Department had warned them it could happen.
Law enforcement experts said that the agency is in a difficult position. While it has sole responsibility for protecting the Capitol, it must work with other nearby federal law enforcement agencies, Washington’s Metropolitan Police and the National Guard in case of emergencies.
In an interview, Nick Zotos, a former D.C. National Guard commander who now works for the Department of Homeland Security, said that the roughly two dozen agencies responsible for public safety in Washington can cause territorial disputes, finger-pointing and poor communication.
“This is not a D.C. thing, necessarily, although it’s probably the worst in D.C.,” Zotos said. “Police departments just don’t play with each other nicely.”
Blackmon-Malloy told ProPublica that divisions within the Capitol Police could be just as dangerous, not only for Congress but for Black officers themselves. “Now you got to go to work on the 20th,” she told ProPublica, alluding to the inauguration. “And stand next to someone who you don’t even know if they have your back.”
What is racial fraud and how is it possible? The answer would be clear enough, perhaps, if race were a biological reality. But the consensus seems to be that race is a social construction, a product of human ingenuity. So why can’t you choose to be any race you want?
Rachel Dolezal, the former president of the Spokane NAACP who identifies as Black despite being born to white parents, clearly believes we are free to choose our racial identity. Her case would seem to expose the limits of thinking of race as a social construction. If races are social rather than biological, some commentators on Dolezal suggest, we are free to make of them what we will; there are no rules. Yet responses to Dolezal tell a different tale. A 2015 Rasmussen survey of 1,000 likely U.S. voters found that 63 percent believed Dolezal was being deceitful in claiming to be Black: she was engaged in a kind of racial fraud.
The subtlest version of racial fraud—the fraud of whiteness itself—is the one we should be most concerned about, for it is by far the most destructive to our polity.
Is it incoherent to believe both that race is a social construct and that racial fraud is possible? In other words, does endorsing the notion of racial fraud require believing races are biological, after all? Literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels makes this sort of argument in his 1994 essay “The No-Drop Rule,” and versions of that idea endure. Michaels’s claim basically amounts to this: in order for a charge of racial fraud to have any normative power—that is, the kind of authority we generally grant to statements about what we should and should not do—it must rely on the claim that race is an essential, biological part of who we are.
But Michaels is wrong: normative significance does not ride on racial essences. In his 2008 essay “Race, Multiculturalism and Democracy,” philosopher Robert Gooding-Williams explains the error. Following Adrian Piper, Gooding-Williams claims that racial classification is the result of being subjected to a practice that counts one as a member of a particular race. Michaels wrongly assumed that for social constructionists, one’s racial identity is determined solely by visual features. But, at least in the United States, racial identification draws on both visual and cognitive criteria: facial characteristics, hair texture, skin color, ancestry. That is why, Gooding-Williams writes, “someone who would not be classified as black on the basis of visual criteria could still be black because Americans’ conventional (though not universal) adherence to the one-drop rule cognitively identifies her as black.” In saying that Dolezal committed racial fraud, you do not have to believe that race is biological. You simply have to think that the practice of racial classification cognitively identifies her as white. In other words, social construction can be ruled-governed without appealing to biological essence.
What does this tell us about debates over racial fraud today? While people like Dolezal, former George Washington University professor Jessica Krug, graduate student CV Vitolo-Haddad, and activist Satchuel Cole dominate the headlines, there are more subtle forms of this phenomenon to which we should pay attention. The most obvious versions are often easiest to denounce, perhaps because they are more easily detected or recognized. But I think the subtlest version—the fraud of whiteness itself—is the one we should be most concerned about, for it is by far the most destructive to our polity. To understand its stakes, we must see how it differs from two other, more familiar types of racial fraud.
Perhaps the most familiar type of racial fraud amounts to identity theft. A classic example occurs in the 1986 movie Soul Man, in which the character Mark Watson (played by C. Thomas Howell), a white Californian, poses as a Black man in order to get a scholarship from Harvard Law School. To pull it off, Watson takes tanning pills, perms his hair, learns a few cultural references, essentially donning blackface for the sake of personal gain. He attempts to defraud Harvard and others by misrepresenting himself, the white son of a wealthy psychiatrist, as a Black man.
Racial fraud as identity theft seems to be quite clearly what is happening in cases like that of Krug as well. Krug outed herself as a white woman last fall after having claimed various Black identities over the years. She deceived others by misrepresenting herself as something she isn’t, appropriating the identities of North Africans, African Americans, and finally Bronx-based Afro-Latinx. Krug’s posing took place all while building her career as a scholar working on the history of Africa and the African diaspora. Perhaps she believed doing so would boost her credibility as a scholar.
However, personal gain is only one basis for engaging in this kind of identity theft. Another basis is fetishization. Sometimes a person’s admiration for a group of people can result in a kind of conflation where that person no longer recognizes a distinction between themselves and the group. Arguably, this is what may have happened with Dolezal. Before her true parentage was revealed, part of her identification included claiming a Black man as her father, claiming her adopted Black brothers as her sons, wearing hairstyles typically associated with Black women, and tanning her skin to make it darker. Dolezal continues to identify as Black even after being exposed. This suggests a different motivation from that of the personal gain of things like money or social status.
It is the need to protect the ultimate fraud of whiteness that imperils not only the vulnerable other, but everyone.
Perhaps a clearer instance of fetishization is the case of German model Martina Big. Once a blonde-haired, white-skinned German woman, she has since transitioned into a brown-skinned, black-haired “Black” woman. On her website, she says she changed her ethnicity in 2017 to Black and has changed her legal name to Malaika Kubwa. She also notes that she very much likes her “new African look” and will complete the transformation by changing her facial features to “African” and enlarging her buttocks. Big—along with her husband, Michael Eurwen, who has also been injecting Melanotan to darken his skin—expressed plans to move to Kenya to “be with her ‘people’ and learn how to raise a family in the African way.”
Why should we be concerned with racial identity theft? Engaging in racial fraud for personal gain is wrong because it typically cheats members of marginalized groups out of resources intended to redress historic injustices. Racial fraud motivated by fetishization, however, is more complicated. Dolezal, for instance, was certainly wrong for the lies she told in presenting herself as Black. Big, on the other hand, does not appear to have engaged in such behavior. Her actions appear more pathological than diabolical. Big is also an extreme case. Less extreme cases may provoke more debate about what exactly is at issue. Perhaps the mildest form of these cases falls into a second type of fraud—a certain kind of appropriation.
In her book White Negroes (2019), Lauren Michele Jackson thinks through the stakes of cultural appropriation. She makes clear that the “act of cultural transport is not in itself an ethical dilemma. Appropriation can often be a means of social and political repair.” What matters, in her view, is the combination of cultural appropriation with power: white people profiting from the cultural productions of Black people, all the while denying credit to the originators—resulting in the erasure of Black contributions to society. And as Jackson notes, these kinds of appropriations exacerbate and prolong our society’s inequalities.
Instances of these kinds of erasure are quite widespread. In music, Elvis Presley is a vivid illustration; Jackson alerts us to instances of erasure in the culinary world, too. Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, a white-owned restaurant based in Nashville, has become the embodiment of this distinctively Nashville cuisine. But as it turns out, Black-owned restaurants—Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack and Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish—are responsible for its creation and existence. When the mainstream culinary outlets got wind of it, Prince’s and Bolton’s were all but erased from the picture. What makes both of these cases instances of racial fraud is the consuming of the cultural productions of the group coupled with the erasure of that group’s contribution. Apportioning credit to the Elvises and Hattie B’s of the world rests on a fraud, a fraud perpetrated by the erasure of someone else.
Beyond these two types of racial fraud, however, there is a third type—less often discussed, but perhaps most consequential—that has to do with one’s relationship to one’s own history. By “history” I don’t mean exclusively, or even primarily, a person’s particular history, but more so corporate or social history: the kind of thing a person is a part of with others in virtue of being identified in a particular way. There are narratives that provide a unified sense of the various happenings to a group of people who evolve over time. But the sense of history I have in mind is slightly different. It is the notion of history found in James Baldwin’s essay “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes” (1965):
History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.
The presence of this history in our present, its impact on our frames of reference and identity, is crucial to the third type of racial fraud.
There are at least two versions of this type. The first is exemplified by the incident last year in New York City’s Central Park when Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the police on Christian Cooper, an African American man (no relation, despite the common last name), after he asked her to leash her dog. Amy became more and more irate in response to Christian’s insistence that she leash her dog. She became so upset that she called the police and claimed Christian threatened her, making sure to emphasize that he was “an African American man.” Amy signaled the urgency of the situation in her voice, sounding agitated and fearful.
What preexisting ideas and practices did Amy have available to her to make her think her indignation over being told to leash her dog was a violation worthy of police intervention and to lead her to emphasize the perpetrator was an “African American male”? It is the latter thing that is most revealing. Amy’s inclination to point out Christian’s African American maleness drew—consciously or not—on an understanding of the world as one in which African Americans stand in a particular kind of relationship to white people. Christian was out of line, out of place, in calling Amy’s attention to the park’s rules and insisting she follow them. Given the kind of person she is, as well as the kind of person he is, this was especially egregious.
The basis of white identity is a “lie of their history,” a lie used to justify dominating others.
This understanding of the world presumes a natural relationship of ruler to ruled, reminiscent of the one Aristotle describes in his Politics. To be sure, Amy Cooper and many others would likely deny believing anything like this, but her reflex to act this way hints at something present practically, almost like muscle memory. I think that Amy’s actions can possibly be linked to what Baldwin might say is her belief in being white. In “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies” (1984), Baldwin details the fraud of those who “believe they are white.” In a powerful passage, Baldwin registers a catalog of the effects of white racial fraud:
Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable populations, cheerful natives and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety. Because they think they are white, however vociferous they may be and however multitudinous, they are as speechless as Lot’s wife—looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt.
Baldwin points out that the “price of the ticket” for Europeans immigrating to the North American continent was to become “white.” What this meant, in essence, was leaving behind their history as English or Spanish or German to forge something different. But this newly forged whiteness was so monstrous that it became necessary to misrepresent it as something else—something grander, superior, innocent.
This kind of racial fraud differs from the others in that those perpetrating it do not attempt to pass themselves off as a member of another race or attempt to pass off as their own the cultural traits or mannerisms of another group. Instead, perpetrators of this fraud commit to something so disturbing that it becomes necessary to hide it even from themselves. The basis of their identity is a “lie of their history,” a lie used to justify dominating others. A stark example of this phenomenon is arguably present in our current political context. The election of figures like Donald Trump reflects, at least in part, the desperation of some to hold onto whiteness. It is as Baldwin noted: “Just so does the white community, as a means of keeping itself white, elect, as they imagine, their political (!) representatives. No nation in the world, including England, is represented by so stunning a pantheon of the relentlessly mediocre.”
A second manifestation of this type of fraud is highlighted in Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks (1952). Fanon considers the case of an Antillean who spends time in the French metropole getting educated and then returns to his homeland with a new outlook, one that has him looking down on his fellow Antilleans with disgust:
All colonized people—in other words, people in whom an inferiority complex has taken root, whose local cultural originality has been committed to the grave—position themselves in relation to the civilizing language: i.e., the metropolitan culture. The more the colonized has assimilated the cultural values of the metropolis, the more he will have escaped the bush. The more he rejects his blackness and the bush, the whiter he will become.
The fraud in this instance is in the colonized believing the deceptive history of the colonizer. The colonized Antillean who goes to France for a “civilized” education and believes the terrible lies told about him and his descendants has failed to confront his history honestly and has identified himself with a fraudulent identity. Once again, the basis of this racial identity is a lie, and to behave on the basis of that lie is to perpetrate a fraud.
The pervasiveness of the third type of racial fraud is a grave problem. Addressing it is much more difficult because it is less detectable, even by its perpetrators. It is not just dyed-in-the-wool racists, confident in their superior racial stock, who are racially fraudulent. The good white liberal is also guilty of this kind of fraud. That is, good white liberals also believe they are white. Amy Cooper’s political contributions to Barack Obama, Pete Buttigieg, and John Kerry suggest she identifies politically as a liberal.
While the Krugs, Dolezals, and Vitolo-Haddads attract all of the media attention, the focus on figuring out what motivates their behavior provides a neat scapegoat on which to load all of our anxieties, fears, misgivings, and disdain. Doing this allows us to avoid confronting turbulent histories that become repressed and, in turn, produce fraudulent identities that become the basis for destructive behavior.
Perhaps the fire James Baldwin foresaw in 1963 will be set by those who have had so much practice setting things ablaze.
Our present is full of such instances of destruction, as is our past. Rosewood, a small Black town in northern Florida, was burned out of existence in 1923 all in the service of protecting whiteness. As the story goes, a white woman, Fannie Taylor, was sexually assaulted, allegedly by a Black man. Sarah Carrier, a Black woman employed as a domestic worker by Taylor, remembered things differently. Carrier and her granddaughter were in the back of the house that day, preparing to wash clothes, when they saw a white man—an engineer who worked on the railroad and rumored paramour of Taylor—enter the house. Taylor and her lover apparently got into a heated argument that became physical. Carrier and her granddaughter both heard the altercation and saw him subsequently run from the house. Taylor then made her way into the street, screaming that she had been attacked by a Black man. What ensued was a rampage that resulted in the burning of the town and the lynching of several residents. (Estimates of how many were killed vary, with an official death toll of 8 but claims of up to 200.)
The massacre at Rosewood was made possible by the belief of so many that they were white. The need to protect “the purity of the white woman” from the advances of the ravenous Black man was a pretense used to lynch countless numbers of people. The belief in an identity boasting purity and superiority instigated murderous behavior that has created and sustained various inequalities in our land till this day. As we saw last week, when hundreds of white Trump supporters staged a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, it is the need to protect this fraud at all costs—the ultimate fraud of whiteness—that imperils not only the vulnerable other, but everyone. What happens when reality comes crashing down and the fraudsters realize the scam cannot be maintained? In 1963 Baldwin spoke of the fire to come if America did not heed the warning of the oppressed and turn from its wicked ways. Perhaps the fire Baldwin foresaw will instead be set by those who have had so much practice setting things ablaze.
The Rev. Dr. Kejuane Artez Bates was a big man with big responsibilities. The arrival of the novel coronavirus in Vidalia, Louisiana, was another burden on a body already breaking under the load. Bates was in his 10th year with the Vidalia Police Department, assigned as a resource officer to the upper elementary school. But with classrooms indefinitely closed, he was back on patrol duty and, like most people in those early days of the pandemic, unprotected by a mask. On Friday, March 20, he was coughing and his nose was bleeding. The next day, he couldn’t get out of bed.
Bates was only 36, too young to be at risk for COVID-19, or so the conventional wisdom went. He attributed his malaise to allergies and pushed forward with his second full-time job, as head pastor of Forest Aid Baptist Church, working on his Sunday sermon between naps. Online church was a new concept to his parishioners, and during the next morning’s service, he had to keep reminding them to mute their phones. As he preached about Daniel in the lion’s den — we will be tested, but if we continue to have faith, we will come through — he grimaced from the effort. That night he was burning up with fever. Five days later he was on a ventilator; five days after that, he died.
While COVID-19 has killed 1 out of every 800 African Americans, a toll that overwhelms the imagination, even more stunning is the deadly efficiency with which it has targeted young Black men like Bates. One study using data through July found that Black people ages 35 to 44 were dying at nine times the rate of white people the same age, though the gap slightly narrowed later in the year. And in an analysis for ProPublica this summer using the only reliable data at the time accounting for age, race and gender, from Michigan and Georgia, Harvard researcher Tamara Rushovich found that the disparity was greatest in Black men. It was a phenomenon Enrique Neblett Jr. noticed when he kept seeing online memorials for men his age. “I’ll be 45 this year,” said the University of Michigan professor, who studies racism and health. “I wasn’t seeing 60- and 70-year-old men. We absolutely need to be asking what is going on here?”
To help illuminate this gap in knowledge and gain a deeper understanding of why America has lost so many young Black men to COVID-19, ProPublica spent months gathering their stories, starting with hundreds of news articles, obituaries and medical examiners’ reports, then interviewing the relatives and friends of nearly two dozen men, along with researchers who specialize in Black men’s health. Our efforts led us to a little-known body of research that takes its name from one of the most enduring symbols of Black American resilience.
In interviews about the young men who died from the virus, a portrait emerged of a modern John Henry: hard-working, ambitious, optimistic and persistent, trying to lift others along with themselves. They were the very people communities would have turned to first to help recover from the pandemic: entrepreneurs who were also employers; confidants like coaches, pastors and barbers; family men forced into a sandwich generation younger than their white counterparts, because their parents got sick earlier and they had to care for them while raising kids of their own.
They were ordinary men. Time and again, it was their fight that was remarkable.
Bates, the only child of a single mother who supported him as a teacher’s aide, made it to Alcorn State University on football and choir scholarships. When his mother got sick with breast cancer, he had to drop out; after she died, he was almost destitute. Over the years, he built himself into multiple men at once, each a pillar to many others: the pastor whose flock depended on his counsel; the mentor known to school kids as Uncle Officer Bates; the assistant football coach and band director; the adoring father to 5-year-old Madison — his “heartbeat,” he called her. Recently he and his wife, Chelsea, a second grade teacher, had launched One Love Travel, organizing excursion packages and cruises as part of their long-term plan to build generational wealth.
He carried the stress of his efforts in his blood vessels, in his kidneys, in the extra pounds that accumulated with each passing year; he had diabetes and hypertension and at 6-foot-6, he was more than 100 pounds overweight. His official cause of death, on April 1, was COVID-19-related pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.
But Chelsea knows that the virus, no matter how powerful, didn’t kill her husband on its own. It was the years of working nonstop, taking care of other people more than himself, that wore his body down. And when the virus attacked, he couldn’t fight back.
In the summer of 1978, the social epidemiologist Sherman James, then a 34-year-old researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, met the man who would shape his life’s work. At 70, John Martin was a retired farmer who suffered from debilitating osteoarthritis and hypertension. He had peptic ulcers so severe that doctors had to remove 40% of his stomach. Recounting his story in his backyard rocking chair, his cane resting on his lap, the old man had no doubt why his health was so bad: “I worked too hard.”
Born in 1907, Martin grew up in a family of sharecroppers who were only paid half of what their labor in the tobacco fields earned. Throughout the South at the time, most Black farmers lived at the economic mercy of landowners who were employers, landlords and vendors all at once. Martin watched as the system ruthlessly exploited his father; after one particularly harsh winter spent hungry, Martin vowed he would be different. Borrowing $3,725 in 1941, he purchased 75 acres. He had 40 years to settle the mortgage but accomplished the near-impossible: He paid it off in five. “That’s the reason my legs [are] all out of whack today,” he told James.
James listened, spellbound, until Martin’s wife called out, “John Henry, it’s time for lunch.” At that moment, something clicked. Holy cow, James remembers thinking. “It was just like the ancestors were speaking to me.” The power of Martin’s story wasn’t simply that it echoed the legend of John Henry; it also echoed the life experiences of most of the working-class African American men James knew.
Five years out of graduate school, James was among a small group of researchers focusing on one of the most enduring public health problems in the United States: why health outcomes for Black men are so poor. Black men live shorter lives than all other Americans — 71.5 years versus 76.1 years for white men — and have for generations. Black men’s life expectancy didn’t reach 65, the eligibility age for Medicare, until 1995, 30 years after the federal health program for the elderly became law; white men were living into their mid-60s by 1950. The shorter lifespans reflect a broader disparity: Black people have much higher rates of hypertension, obesity, diabetes and strokes than white people do, and they develop those chronic conditions up to 10 years earlier. The gap persisted this year when the Brookings Institution examined COVID-19 deaths by race; in each age category, Black people were dying at roughly the same rate as white people more than a decade older.
For generations, public health experts mostly ignored the disparities. When they did pay attention, they invariably blamed the victims — their “unhealthy” behaviors and diets, their genes, the under-resourced neighborhoods they “chose” to live in and the low-paying jobs they “chose” to work. Their chronic illnesses were seen as failures of personal responsibility. Their shorter life expectancy was written off to addiction and the myth of “black-on-black” violence. Many of those arguments were legacies of the slave and Jim Crow eras, when the white medical and science establishment promoted the idea of innate Black inferiority and criminality to rationalize systems built on servitude and segregation.
Pondering the lessons of John Henry Martin, James began to see what many of his colleagues had been missing. It wasn’t just living in poverty that wore down Black men’s bodies, he hypothesized, but the struggle to break out of poverty. It wasn’t just inequality that made them sick, but the effort to be equal in a system that was fundamentally unjust. “It’s this striving to make something of themselves … to live their lives with dignity and purpose and to be successful against extraordinary circumstances,” James said. “They’re trying to make a way out of no way. It’s the Black American story.”
America has changed profoundly since Martin’s day. Yet the machinery of racial inequality continues to be omnipresent. It’s in the hospitals where Black newborns have significantly lower mortality if they’re cared for by Black doctors rather than white ones. In the redlined neighborhoods where poverty and pollution are concentrated — but not affordable housing or grocery stores or reliable internet. It’s in the crumbling, exploitative economies that force parents to risk their lives working long hours for low pay without sick leave. In mass incarceration and voter suppression. In the innumerable hurdles, one piled upon another, that make Black Americans’ climb up the socioeconomic ladder more daunting than ever, their successes more fragile and their setbacks more consequential.
“Everyone thinks about racism as something that is personally mediated, like someone insulting me,” said Linda Sprague Martinez, a professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work who conducts community health research with adolescents and young adults. “But the way in which it’s really pervasive is how it disrupts life chances and opportunity. … These are systems that are designed for you to fail, essentially, and for you to be erased and to be maintained in a certain position in our society.”
Challenging such a relentless machine, through “high-effort coping,” James concluded, requires three categories of personal traits that are major themes of the John Henry legend: tenacity, mental and physical vigor and a commitment to hard work. To measure them, he developed the John Henryism scale, with scores determined by how strongly people identify with 12 statements, including: “Once I make up my mind to do something, I stay with it until the job is completely done,” and, “It’s not always easy, but I usually find a way to do what really needs to be done.”
To score high in John Henryism, you don’t have to be Black or male or economically disadvantaged. But over the years, James and other researchers have found that Black people, especially those who are poor and working-class, do score high and tend to suffer greater cardiovascular risks, perhaps because the innumerable hurdles in their paths require greater effort to overcome. “The stress,” James said, “is going to be far more overwhelming than it has a human right to be.”
Stress is a physiological reaction, hard-wired in the body, that helps protect it against external threats. At the first sign of danger, the brain sounds an alarm, setting off a torrent of neurological and hormonal signals that whoosh into the blood, stimulating the body to fight or give flight. The heart beats faster and breathing quickens; blood vessels dilate, so more oxygen reaches the brain and muscles. The immune system’s inflammatory response is activated to promote quick healing. When the threat passes, hormone levels return to normal, blood glucose ebbs and heart rate and blood pressure go back to baseline. At least, that’s how the human body is designed to work.
But overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can cause the gears to malfunction. “Your body’s over-producing, always working hard to bring itself back down to the normal level,” said Roland J. Thorpe Jr., a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and founding director of the Program for Research on Men’s Health at the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions. The constant strain “resets the normal,” he said. As blood pressure remains high and inflammation becomes chronic, the inner linings of blood vessels start to thicken and stiffen, which forces the heart to work harder, which dysregulates other organs until they, too, begin to fail. “Your body starts to wear down,” Thorpe said — a phenomenon known as weathering.
The cumulative effects of stress begin in the womb, when cortisol released into a pregnant woman’s bloodstream crosses the placenta; it is one of the reasons a disproportionate number of Black babies are born too early and too small. Then, exposure to adverse childhood experiences — anything from abuse and neglect to poverty and hunger — continues the toxic stream; too much exposure to cortisol at a critical stage in development can rewire the neurological system’s fight-or-flight response, essentially causing the brain’s stress switch to break. The more stress a youngster endures, the more likely he or she is to have academic, behavioral and health problems from depression to obesity.
Weathering isn’t specific to race, but it is believed to take a particular toll on Black people because of the unique, unrelenting stress caused by racism that wears away the body and the spirit, “just like you have siding on the house, and the rain or the sun beats on it, and eventually it starts to fade,” said Dr. Jerome Adams, the U.S. surgeon general under the Trump administration. Shawnita Sealy-Jefferson, a social epidemiologist at Ohio State University, says the human body isn’t designed to withstand such biological and emotional assaults: “It’s the same thing as if you revved the engine of your car all day, every day. Sooner or later, the car is going to break down.”
The effects of stress can be seen at the cellular level. Researchers have found that in Black people, telomeres — repeated sequences of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes by forming a cap, much like the plastic tip on a shoelace — become shortened at a faster rate, a sign of premature aging. In a 2018 study examining changes in seven biomarkers in cardiac patients over a 30-year period, researchers found that Black patients weathered at an average of about six years faster than whites. And it was the extraordinarily high rates of hypertension in the Black community that prompted scientists to look at the impact of stress in the first place. By age 55, about 76% of Black men and women develop high blood pressure, versus 54% of white men and 40% of white women, which increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Sustained stress has strong links to obesity, which Black children and adults have at much higher rates than whites. Some of this is physiological: The interplay between cortisol and glucose is complex and insidious, triggering metabolic changes that can lead to diabetes and other chronic diseases. Some of it is psychological and behavioral: Stress is strongly associated with depression and other mental health disorders. “The way that people deal with stress is by strategies that make us feel better,” such as comfort eating, said Thomas LaVeist, dean of Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Stress and anxiety cause sleeplessness, which itself is correlated with weight gain. The result is often a cascade of health problems — hypertension, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome — that strike early and feed off of each other.
Because Black Americans experience many forms of stress, often at once, researchers have more questions than answers about the specific role John Henryism plays in these outcomes. The study of Black men’s health remains an under-examined frontier, with little in the way of funding or will because “Black men are not viewed as sympathetic,” said LaVeist, and because so few go into the health research professions. He and Thorpe, the Johns Hopkins professor, co-founded the Black Men’s Health Project, the first large-scale national study focused solely on Black men’s needs, with a goal sample size of 5,000. They hope to learn how stressors like segregation and adverse early life experiences impact health outcomes.
If this segregated body of emerging knowledge were to grow and infiltrate the mainstream medical and research communities, James can only imagine how beneficial that would be. Health professionals could build deeper relationships with their patients by better understanding the sources of stress that wreak havoc on their cardiovascular systems. They could test for high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol levels more frequently and at younger ages. “Until we can have a society that is more just racially,” James said, “we do need to find these intermediate steps.”
As ProPublica examined the lives lost to COVID-19, themes emerged in the pressure points faced by many young Black men. The wearing down typically begins when they are boys and must become little John Henrys to navigate white spaces or push through the adverse experiences endemic to Black communities. It continues when they grow into men, as most need to navigate the public’s projections of danger with unwavering vigilance. The more they succeed, the more responsibility they feel to lift their families and communities with them, and with that, comes more stress.
As James listened to the stories ProPublica was gathering, he instantly recognized the cycle of striving and succumbing that he has been writing about for 40 years. “They could have done so much more had the struggle not been so intense,” James said. “They were cut down too soon.”
Thomas Fields Jr. was barely a year old when his father first went to prison. The loss altered the trajectory of his life in ways that many children wouldn’t have been able to overcome. His mother, just 17 when he was born, moved with him from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to Detroit, where her own mother had recently relocated. The city was in freefall: manufacturing jobs were disappearing; crime was surging; middle-class and white flight was stripping away the city’s tax base, eroding vital services and causing schools to fail. Just waiting at the wrong bus stop could get you robbed or shot.
“When you’re a young male living in Detroit, if you live past 18, it’s like you’re 50 years old,” Fields, then 31, said on a Facebook Live chat last year. “I swear that’s how it feels.”
Mitigating childhood adversity requires deep wells of resilience; researchers say one of the best ways to build those reserves is having a nurturing caregiver. In this, young Thomas was exceptionally lucky. His mother worked two jobs and still managed to watch him like a hawk; she told him constantly that she loved him. His grandmothers looked after him after school and during summer breaks. His father, Thomas Sr., did his best to be involved from behind bars, urging him to not make the same mistakes. “I wanted this Thomas Fields to break the mold,” he said.
To do that, Thomas became a little John Henry. He got decent grades, stayed out of trouble and taught himself to cook — healthy food, not the junk so many of his peers ate. After high school, he attended Grambling State University in Louisiana for a couple of years, then joined the U.S. Navy, where he went from being a talented amateur chef to a trained professional. He also became a father. When there were setbacks, he was already planning his next move. It’s a strategy that Black adolescents absorb like the air they breathe and the water they drink, Sprague Martinez said. “The mentality is: ‘Even if this system is not designed to work for me … I’m going to win this game. I haven’t gotten the prize yet? I must not be working hard enough.’”
High-effort coping can confer mental health benefits even for children raised in the direst of circumstances. Dosha DJay Joi endured the kind of trauma that dooms many children — beatings, neglect, sexual abuse. Born in Chicago, he spent much of his adolescence in group homes in the Wisconsin system. For years he was afraid to talk about the abuse and scared to tell his birth mother he was queer. He learned to channel himself into education and advocacy, helping other LGBTQ and foster kids; he especially wanted to make sure children remained connected with their siblings. He was inspired to study social work because of what he’d been through, said his mother, Kecha Kitchens. “Then a family member got sick, and he didn’t like how the nurses were treating the other patients in the nursing home, so he wanted to become a nurse.”
By the age of 28, Joi had a bachelor’s degree in human services, he had trained as a substance abuse counselor and he was working toward his nursing degree. He served as a court-appointed special advocate for kids aging out of foster care and lobbied lawmakers in the Wisconsin capitol and Washington D.C., forming a special bond with Rep. Gwen Moore, who represents Milwaukee in Congress. But the years of hardship took an enormous physical toll; Joi suffered from hypertension, heart and lung problems and at his heaviest, he weighed more than 500 pounds. When COVID-19 arrived in the Midwest, he was particularly vulnerable. He died on May 14.
For young John Henrys, the psychological benefits of high-effort coping seem to be complicated by what’s happening inside the body. “Typically when you study resilience in any group, and [subjects are] doing well by our typical metrics” — going to college, getting a good job, not taking drugs — “we say, ‘Woo-hoo,’” University of Georgia researcher Gene Brody said. “Logically, we thought this would transfer to have health benefits.” But for Black young adults trying to climb the economic ladder, they found just the opposite. “When you look under the skin, doing blood draws and using other kinds of measures, they look like their health is starting to suffer.”
In more than 25 years spent tracking the health of Black families in rural Georgia, Brody and his colleagues found that adolescents identified by their teachers as being success-oriented already had higher “allostatic loads” — science jargon for wear-and-tear on the body — at age 19 than their peers. By age 25, those from more disadvantaged backgrounds who scored high on the John Henryism scale were more likely to have metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that are precursors to diabetes and heart disease, than people from less disadvantaged backgrounds. Brody and his colleagues have dubbed this phenomenon“skin-deep resilience.” The same effects are not found for young white strivers.
In his late 20s, Fields was diagnosed with such a severe case of diabetes that his military career came to a screeching halt. When he returned to Detroit last year, he was a little brawnier, with more tattoos. “Diabetes was something that he was going to beat, because he wasn’t going to lose to anything,” said the Rev. Torion Bridges, one of his best friends for 20 years. He became a personal chef and motivational speaker, started a podcast and wrote a cookbook. He helped out his mom, who had multiple sclerosis. And he took a job as a “school culture facilitator,” working with kids who had discipline problems, at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy, the pioneering Afrocentric public school he had attended. He was especially good with troubled boys who didn’t have a father at home, said principal Jeffrey Robinson, his onetime homeroom teacher, later his boss. “He could identify with the feeling of the loss.”
In March, Fields and his mother caught the coronavirus at the same time.
She recovered. He did not.
To navigate life as a Black man is to be constantly vigilant. The ubiquity of racism means that everyday interactions, while driving or shopping or birdwatching, can have potentially dangerous outcomes. So John Henrys live in a heightened state of awareness, continually adjusting. It might mean placing family photos near the front door to quickly prove your son belongs should police ever respond. It often means being able to “strategically assimilate” — to assume a public identity aimed at neutralizing stereotypes of blackness and defusing irrational white fears. This, W.E.B. DuBois explained more than a century ago, is “double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
New York Times columnist Brent Staples would whistle Vivaldi in graduate school to signal that he was too cultured to be threatening. Darrell Hudson, who researches health disparities at Washington University in St. Louis, scans the closet each day before teaching class to select what he calls his “Non- Threatening Black Guy Uniform.”
“What’s not appreciated fully, I think, is how much energy it takes,” said Derek M. Griffith, professor and director of the Center for Research on Men’s Health at Vanderbilt University. “All of these different things that you have to do to modulate your body and so forth, all that additional attention that you have to pay to that, is a burden that most people don’t have to bear. It is a cause of weathering that we don’t fully appreciate.”
A 2014 study found that vigilance was positively associated with the prevalence of hypertension for Blacks but not whites. The more vigilant Black people were, the more the disparity grew. And researchers have found that Black people who are on guard against anticipated discrimination have higher blood pressures while they sleep. “When you experience racism or discrimination and it could cost your life, it’s good to be vigilant; but a prolonged and heightened state of vigilance is not good,” the University of Michigan’s Neblett said. “It can kill you in the end.”
Leslie Lamar Parker grew up in the Minneapolis suburbs, in a state that was 84% white. Like many John Henrys in this story, he was large — tall and wide — in a way that made him stand out to cruel classmates and clueless teachers. Bigness can be perilous for Black boys, who are often seen as older, stronger and less innocent than their white counterparts, stereotypes that underlie higher rates of school discipline and police violence. Parker learned to play the class clown and questioned authority. “School couldn’t hold his attention, not because he wasn’t smart. He wouldn’t go,” his mother, Tyuon Brazell, said. Because he wasn’t on track to graduate, she did what other parents might not and suggested he drop out his junior year. That’s when he started to thrive, earning his GED, graduating from college and becoming an IT specialist in his old school district, where he mentored students of color, ordering them lunch from DoorDash and supervising the tech club. “That was really important to him,” said his wife, Whitney, “making sure they didn’t fail any other brown kids like they failed him.”
One key to his coping was overcorrecting for how he might be perceived. Strangers would approach him to say how lovely it was to see him with his son and daughter, a microaggression masquerading as a compliment. He was so sensitive to stereotypes about absent Black fathers, his wife said, he was “a present parent on steroids.” To walk through the world as a Black man is to be simultaneously hypervisible and invisible, under surveillance yet never really seen. So he turned his wardrobe into a “conversation starter,” an expression of his irreverent personality but also armor against snap judgments about his imposingness. He carried a Spongebob SquarePants backpack to work and often wore a pro-wrestling or superhero T-shirt during off hours.
Parker was constantly scanning the horizon for threats against his family and his kids at school, wondering whether there was something more that he could do for them. He projected a cool demeanor, his argumentative wit camouflaging worries that his mother knew kept his head in overdrive. “I kept telling him: ‘Son, you need to rest. You don’t have to do everything in a day.’” He was diagnosed with high blood pressure at just 27 and worried it, and the extra pounds, would keep him from seeing his two children grow up. He died in May from COVID-19 at the age of 31.
Joshua Bush, who died in April of COVID-19, slammed up against racial stereotypes in his work as a nurse in South Carolina. There were funny looks from people who didn’t expect to see a Black man when he arrived at job interviews and white patients who refused to let him touch them. He told them, “That is your choice, but you’re missing out on great help,” his mother, Linda, recalled. He and his wife, LaKita, saw the health care industry as their route to upward mobility. She worked in hospital administration; at 30, he was studying to become a registered nurse, working as an LPN.
Bush also suffered from a rare enzyme abnormality that caused severe muscle cramps from overexertion, and because of it, trips to the emergency room weren’t uncommon. He’d come to accept that the first image doctors and nurses saw — someone Black and overweight — influenced their bedside manner. They treated him like he had no medical knowledge and lectured him about diabetes, though it had nothing to do with why he was seeking care. His experience informed the way he cared for his own patients, part of his “fight against the system,” his wife said. At the same time, she could see her husband’s stress “all over his body.”
Lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go. Words that started as a call-to-action at the rise of the Jim Crow South have become an enduring part of the African American experience — and can serve as a unique form of stress. The proverb was born of Black suffragist Mary Eliza Church Terrell’s belief that it was incumbent upon the growing Black middle and upper class to use their position to fight racial discrimination and help others rise through education, work and community activism. It is why Thomas Fields was told as a boy that he was “duty-bound” to give back to the community once he got an education. Why Dosha Joi advocated for young people in the system “because someone helped bring out the sunshine in me.”
“You’re socialized to say it’s not just about you. It’s really about what you’re going to do for your broader community and for your family,” Washington University’s Hudson explained. “People take it very seriously, trying to light a path for those behind them — even when they’re not necessarily in the most stable situation themselves. … But they’re lifting as they climb. That’s taxing. That’s a visceral stress.”
In the Brookhaven, Mississippi, of Eugene Thompson’s youth, Black business owners understood that Brookway Boulevard — at least the stretch that ran through downtown — was for white businesses. The election of Barack Obama was a turning point; Thompson figured if a Black man could become president of the United States, surely he could rent a modest space on “the Boulevard.” Publicly, his goal was to grow his client base by cutting white people’s hair, too. His family knew his aspirations were grander. “He wanted to do something in Brookhaven to help Black people to get off their knees,” his mother, Odell Edwards, said. “We are on our knees.”
It’s not easy earning a living in Mississippi, where the single most common job is working as a cashier and the $7.25 minimum wage hasn’t budged in a decade. Cutting hair came naturally for Thompson, who started on himself at 12. He attended a local beauty academy before he could afford to go to barber school and over the years took the same methodical approach to growing his business — buying secondhand equipment, doing the construction himself, all without bank loans, mentoring or government support.
But Thompson’s real ambition was to start his own school. “He always tried to encourage the boys in the community, or people who had been in prison and couldn’t find a job — ’I can teach you how to cut hair and you can have your own business,’” his younger sister, Dedra Edwards, said. After three years spent earning his teaching credential, Thompson opened his TaperNation Barber Academy for students last fall. Then he realized graduates needed places to work, so he launched his next project: renovating a second shop nearby where other barbers and hair stylists could rent chairs.
“It was running him ragged,” Odell said.
At 46, Thompson was severely overweight and suffered from lifelong respiratory problems as well as anxiety and sleeplessness. High blood pressure and diabetes ran in his family, but Thompson’s true health status was unclear — like more than 15% of Black people in Mississippi, he wasn’t insured and avoided going to the doctor except in an emergency. When he started feeling symptoms of COVID-19 in late March, he shrugged them off at first; he’d been having heart palpitations and panic attacks, which his family attributed to stress from work.
After he died in early April, leaving behind six children, TaperNation had to shut down. “You have to have a barber’s instructor license to keep it going, and no one else in the family has one,” his sister said. “We had to sell almost everything.”
Recent disasters — Hurricane Katrina, the Great Recession — have shown that Black communities aren’t just more vulnerable than white populations to economic and social dislocations; they recover more slowly. The impacts of the pandemic are likely to be magnified because so many deaths have occurred among Black people under age 60, the peak earning years when people raise families, start businesses, amass social capital and create lasting legacies. In addition to the lives it took, COVID-19 has robbed wealth that John Henrys were only beginning to accrue and toppled what they had begun to build for themselves and those around them.
In many cases, they were the structural beams, holding everything up. “These are people who help pay bills for people who aren’t their biological family members,” said Sealy-Jefferson, the Ohio State social epidemiologist. “They bring food when somebody dies. They watch kids when a single mother has to work.” Some of the biggest losses are intangible, she said: “social support, emotional support, resource sharing, encouragement, storytelling, role modeling— all of these things that are vital for African Americans in particular, given our history in this country.”
Fields couldn’t comfort students reeling from a crisis that has killed more than 1,600 of their loved ones and neighbors. “It’s a tremendous loss,” said Robinson, his principal. Bates’ wife, Chelsea, was too bereaved to go back to work when school resumed, which meant living off of her husband’s death benefits and savings; she focused on trying to help Madison process a grief she’s too young to understand. “Sometimes she lays on the floor and kicks and screams that she wants her daddy, that she misses daddy and why did he have to leave?” she said. “I tell her, I’m sorry, I wish that mama could do something to bring him back. I really do.”
Weekday mornings have been quiet without Kendall Pierre Sr. puttering around the house before sunrise so he could open his barbershop by 5 a.m. That’s when workers from nearby chemical plants would stop in for a cut or shave after their graveyard shifts. Sundays are different without his sermons at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, in the little town of Ama, Louisiana, followed by a family breakfast his son always looked forward to. “My grandmother would come. Some of my aunties and cousins. He would put Aunt Jemima batter in the waffle iron and say: ‘See? This is better than Waffle House!’”
Since his dad died in May of COVID-19, Kendall Pierre Jr., a 20-year-old student at Louisiana State University, has felt an overwhelming absence and, at the same time, his father’s equally consuming presence. “I can still hear him,” he said.
Don’t drive with your hoodie on.
Work twice as hard.
Real men don’t wear slippers in public; put on some shoes.
The only child of a single mother, 45-year-old Pierre Sr. took his role as father figure seriously. To nieces and nephews, he was Uncle Dad. To his sons’ basketball teams, he was Coach Kendall with the pep talks.
If a task has begun, never leave it until it’s done.
Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.
When players couldn’t afford uniforms or travel for tournaments, he would pay. “Their parents would send them with all they could, which was sometimes only $5,” Pierre Jr. said. They could count on him for food, deodorant, even a haircut. “He would bring his clippers to make sure all the players looked nice.”
When the killing of George Floyd roiled the country, Pierre Jr. had no doubt about how his father would have reacted. He would have talked to officials at the sheriff’s office, school board administrators, government leaders. He would have organized community meetings at the church.
We’re living in troubled times.
His son thought about that when his friend texted him about organizing a Black Lives Matter protest. “Since my dad passed, I’ve had this newfound courage, and this urge to act on things … to just do things outside of my comfort zone,” he said.
On a Saturday morning in June, 400 people joined in the 2.6-mile march from Westbank Bridge Park to St. Charles Parish Courthouse. A local reporter covered it and interviewed Pierre Jr. for a story. “If we don’t speak about systemic racism and police brutality, no change will ever happen,” he said. “I feel like it’s something that I have to do and be a part of something bigger than just me.”
He knows his father would have been proud. His mother was. But she worries, too. Her husband didn’t make enough time for doctor’s appointments to monitor his Type 2 diabetes, nor did he get much sleep. “I would tell him, ‘Kendall, you need to rest,’” recalled Sabrina, his wife of 24 years and a registered nurse. “He would say he could rest when he’s dead and gone.”
She knows how much goes into taking care of yourself as a Black man and thinks about that every time her sons walk out the door; her daughter, too. “Lord, I pray for them. … I tell them: ‘Put the seat belt on, drive the speed limit. Make sure you don’t get any tickets.’ I don’t want them to get stopped by a cop.” Her husband’s stature in the community conferred a kind of protection. “Because of my husband and who he was, people would be looking out for my sons. We don’t have that anymore.”
Zipporah Osei and Mollie Simon contributed reporting.
Art Direction by Lisa Larson-Walker.
About the Art
Elliott Jamal Robbins, 32, is an artist who works in a variety of media, including drawing, printmaking, sculpture and video/animation. He has exhibited artworks in group and solo exhibitions in New York, Chicago, Miami, Berlin and the Netherlands. This is how he described his thinking behind the art in this story:
For me, the story of John Henry presents problems. Namely, its focus on the physical attributes of the man and celebrating the labor that killed him. In the original tale, John Henry is almost Christlike in his willingness, if not gleeful, in sacrificing his own body. In my own work, I’m always more drawn to the mundane scene. Rather than consider the figure of John Henry as a type or didactic prop to expound the ills of systemic racism, I decided to focus a narrative as though from the point of view of the subject, and we witness his day-to-day experiences as he does.
Beginning on the bus, we are reminded of this as the site where African Americans fought for the basic human right to sit where they chose. From one mode of transportation to another, the horseback rider recalls the notion of the American west, which most often represents a connection to the land, and freedom. In contrasting the horse from the rider, we see that while one figure experiences a kind of liberation, another body is at work which propels this motion. This relationship between horse and rider is a corollary for the relationship between John Henry and the train, a mechanical achievement that would bring with it the promises of cross country travel, commerce and economic prosperity.
The story of John Henry is a means of making visible the unseen labor, exploitation and oppression of nation building. In this way I want to consider the real impact of systemic racism on those experiencing it daily, as well as decentralize the notion of racial violence from images of murdered black men and women. Instead, I want to consider how violence is enacted everyday, and its key actors are those who participate in systems which are propped up by the degradation of others.
Clarification, Dec. 24, 2020: This story was updated to clarify a figure on Black infant mortality.
This year, as LDF entered its 80th year of commitment to racial justice and civil and human rights, we faced one of the most unpredictable and challenging years in our nation’s history. A year that began with LDF challenging the Trump Administration over its Muslim Ban and Law Enforcement Commission ended with suing President Trump and his campaign over attempts to disenfranchise Black voters. In between, LDF was forced to add a new category of policy and litigation work focused on the impact of COVID-19, championed the rights of protesters during a historic summer full of demands for change and accountability, and fought to protect Black voters and their ballots, while also helping recruit over 40,000 poll workers. LDF was able to do so by building off its 80-year legacy — the lessons learned, the victories earned, and the lives changed.