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.
The word backlashgained popularity in the summer of 1963, when, after dallying on the issue for the first two years of his presidency, President John F. Kennedy proposed significant civil-rights legislation. In response, the word, which had primarily denoted the recoil of a fishing line, was repurposed, usually as “white backlash,” to refer to opposition to the increased pace of African American civil-rights activism or the Kennedy (and, after his assassination in November 1963, the Lyndon B. Johnson) administration’s legislative proposals and executive actions, or both.
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In 1966, a commentator, speaking of “the grand new word, backlash,” claimed without much exaggeration that “just about everything that happened could be (and was) attributed to some form of backlash.” The word came to stand for a topsy-turvy rebellion in which white people with relative societal power perceived themselves as victimized by what they described as overly aggressive African Americans demanding equal rights. Backlash, as the New York Times columnist Tom Wicker wrote, “is nothing more nor less than white resentment of Negroes.”
Moving beyond an opposition to civil rights, the word backlash—less frequently qualified as “white”—quickly became a synonym for a new and growing conservative force, signifying a virulent counterreaction to all manner of social movements and cultural transformations that became central to American politics. Over time, observers noted manifestations of this reaction in a “Southern backlash,” a “male backlash,” a “heterosexual backlash,” a “property tax backlash” and a “backlash against environmentalists.” Just a month after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a journalist described the United States as being in the midst of “a multitude of backlashes.” But as one commentator pointed out, “The word which gave rise to all sorts of other ‘lashes’ was coined in reference to white opposition to Negro gains.”
Backlash may have burst onto the scene as “the word of the year in American politics” in 1964, but it described one of the oldest and deepest patterns in American politics, one that is once again playing out today in the right-wing campaign against social distancing. Backlashes appear as seemingly serial and discrete events—against the civil-rights movement in the 1960s, or the women’s movement in the ’70s, or the gay-rights movement in the ’90s. But this obscures an underlying continuity: These individual backlashes are all instances of a reactionary tradition, one that is deeply woven into American political culture and that extends back to the era of Reconstruction, at least. And the backlashes are powerful not only for the fury they represent, but in the fear they instill in political leaders, even progressives, who hesitate to push things “too far.”
During Reconstruction, opponents of the black-freedom struggle deployed preemptive, apocalyptic, slippery-slope arguments that have remained enduring features of backlash politics up to the present. They treated federal support for African American civil rights, economic and social equality—however delayed, reluctant, underfunded, and incomplete it may have been—as a cataclysmic overreaction and framed it as a far more dangerous threat to liberty than the injustice it was designed to address. In 1867, not even two years after ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle decried the placement of political power “in the hands of a property-less and ignorant class of the population,” and pronounced that “the pending Reconstruction scheme must be abandoned.”
Since then, such framing has done more than merely shape the politics of reaction in the United States; it has also constrained putatively supportive political leaders, who live in fear of setting off backlashes. Responding to a moderate plan to enfranchise only free blacks in Louisiana in 1864, the Union general Nathaniel P. Banks, worrying about a negative response from the state’s whites, who were being defeated in the Civil War, said, “Revolutions which are not controlled and held within reasonable limits produce counter-revolution.” That obeisance to a defeated group in 1864 was an extreme version of a general pattern that has remained a hallmark of backlashes ever since: solicitousness to white fears.
For many white backlashers in the 1960s, the era of what the historian C. Vann Woodward called the “second Reconstruction,” the first Reconstruction remained a negative model. They viewed its reform as overly fast-paced, and felt that it foregrounded black civil rights at the cost of white people’s peace of mind. They associated civil-rights activism with what popular historians and commentators of the day called the “excesses” of Reconstruction, by which they meant a combination of “militant” African American demands for basic equality with overweening, aggressive, and hasty federal action in support of interracial democracy. Thurman Sensing of the Southern States Industrial Council, a conservative business group, described the civil-rights movement in 1966 as an effort to force “the Reconstruction of American customs,” showing the degree to which the post–Civil War campaign for racial equality remained a central metaphor for white backlashers. The journalist in December 1963 who noted the political power of those opposed to “Negro pressure for equal opportunity and the Federal Government’s pace on the Civil Rights front,” could just as easily have been describing the origins of the counterrevolution of the 1870s.
What is particularly noteworthy is that the white backlash in this case was in place before the passage of the Civil Rights Act in July 1964. The pattern is this: American reactionary politics is nearly always preemptive, predicting catastrophe and highlighting potential slippery slopes. “White backlash,” after all, got its name in 1963, just months after African Americans in Birmingham risked attacks from police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses in order to demand justice, and immediately after Kennedy mooted the idea of substantive legislation—both events taking place well before the Civil Rights Act became law. What one reporter called “white panic” was driven by fears of “favoritism” and “special privileges” for African Americans—that white “workers would be forced out of their jobs to make way for Negroes,” as one article put it that year, when Jim Crow still prevailed. “Many of my people think the Negroes want to take over the country,” a midwestern Republican politician said in a Wall Street Journal article published on April 10 of the following year, still months before the Act’s passage. “They think there are things in the bill that just aren’t there, like forced sales of housing to Negroes and stuff like that.” White backlashers imagined coercion where it did not exist. They embraced a lexicon and posture of victimization that hearkened back to the era of Reconstruction and anticipated the deceiving, self-pitying MAGA discourse that drives reactionary politics in Donald Trump’s America.
Since reconstruction, many backlash campaigns have imposed a politics of white fragility and frustration onto racial-equality struggles. Reporting on the “hate vote” in The Saturday Evening Post, in October 1964, one month before the presidential election, Ben H. Bagdikian highlighted the “churning, emotional conflict within each voter,” by which he meant white people. He noted that the backlashers “are not against a better life for the Negro, but they are strongly against this being achieved at the cost of white tranquility.” The elevation of “tranquility” over equal justice for all was a hallmark of backlash discourse, which ranked white feelings over black rights.
Backlashers understood civil rights as zero-sum, and therefore treated campaigns for African American equality as an inexcusable undermining of what they saw as deserved white privileges and prerogatives. A New York Times poll revealed, in condensed form, the emotional landscape of the white backlash: “Northern white urbanites have no sympathy for the Negro’s plight, and believe the Civil Rights movement has gone too far, while a considerable percentage believes Negroes ‘don’t appreciate what we’re doing for them.’” The extension of sympathy, such as being in favor of a “better life for the Negro,” was, then, conditional on personal convenience and easily withdrawn. “In general, the persons interviewed were mildly in favor of a better break for Negroes—as long as it wouldn’t affect them personally,” the reporter Dave Allbaugh observed in 1963.
White backlashers did not just wallow in their fear, anger, and resentment. In broadcasting these feelings widely, they shaped the limits of acceptable reform. Recommending a “go-slow course,” they could extend sympathy or not, and sought to determine when equal rights crossed the line into “special privileges.” A reporter noted “the apprehension of suburbanites and others in white neighborhoods that their residential areas will face an influx of Negroes.” In this worldview, whites presented themselves as victims, the crimes perpetrated against them by campaigns for equality were anxiety, inconvenience, and fear. Long before the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a politician told the Post’s Roberts in October 1963, “For the first time, I’m getting mail from white people saying, ‘Wait a minute, we’ve got rights too.’” The “too” was especially telling because at that time a large number of African Americans still lacked federal protection for basic civil and voting rights.
The reporting on the backlash foregrounded white fears and anxieties in a way that coverage of African Americans rarely did. Jerry Landauer’s April 1964 report for the Wall Street Journal highlighted white people’s “emotion-laden struggle,” appropriating even the word struggle to describe the psychological challenges for white Americans of adjusting to the possibility of racial equality. Landauer noted “the intense resentment of large blocs of whites in the North,” which was amplified by the likelihood that the Civil Rights Act might actually become law (which it did in July). “To them, the bill has become a symbol of fear—fear of losing jobs to Negroes; fear that neighborhood schools will be flooded by Negro kids ‘bussed in’ from across town; fear that homeowners will be forced to sell, if they wish to sell at all, to Negro newcomers.” These were fears of the consequences of African American equality, framed as unfair victimization.
Throughout what we might call the “backlash era,” African Americans offered a clear-eyed analysis and robust critique of backlashes and white defenses of them, taking them to be, as the ex-baseball star and longtime activist Jackie Robinson put it in a 1966 New York Amsterdam News article, “a great big fat alibi for bigotry.” Whereas many white observers in the early 1960s highlighted the novelty of white backlash, Martin Luther King Jr. more accurately called it “a new name for an old phenomenon” that “had always existed underneath and sometimes on the surface of American life.” Langston Hughes wrote a poem, “The Backlash Blues,” which Nina Simone later set to music and recorded.
Perhaps Lorraine Hansberry most directly put her finger on the issue in a June 1964 talk titled “The Black Revolution and the White Backlash,” which she gave at the Town Hall in New York City. She spoke during an event organized by the Association of Artists for Freedom, a group of African American artists and intellectuals, about two weeks before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Pointing to the long history of the black-liberation struggle, Hansberry said, “The charge of impatience is simply unbearable.” Her request to the “white liberal to stop being a liberal and to become a radical” was largely a call for those liberals to recognize that the true victims of racism were not resentful white Americans but African Americans demanding equality.
In the short run, the media spotlight on the white backlash of 1963–64 appeared to have been spectacularly misplaced. The movement proved to be an electoral failure, one almost immediately demonstrated to have been on the wrong side of history. Not only did the Civil Rights Act pass in 1964, but later that year, Lyndon B. Johnson won an overwhelming election victory, leading him to speculate that a “frontlash” of civil-rights support was far more significant than what he labeled the “so-called backlash,” which suffered crushing double defeats that year. Johnson predicted at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City that “for every backlash that the Democrats lose, we pick up three frontlash [votes],” and his shellacking of Barry Goldwater on Election Day seemed to prove him correct.
But, as Johnson was also well aware, the forces of backlash were far from defeated. “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,” LBJ told Bill Moyers, his press aide, shortly after he signed the Civil Rights Act. With the hindsight that history offers, we can see that Goldwater’s campaign was less a sign of the backlash’s vanquishing than a harbinger of modern conservatism. In 1966, the influential columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak called white backlash “a permanent feature of the political scene,” where it has remained ever since.
Using the same phrase that General Banks had employed a century earlier, but to different purposes, a columnist wrote that the proper way to understand white backlash was as “a counter-revolution against the black man.” Counterrevolution is a phrase that Americans rarely use to describe our politics. But it is not unfair or inaccurate to apply this label to white backlash, whose explicit goal was to slow or halt the civil-rights revolution.
The backlashers lost a number of key political battles in the 1960s, the decade in which they got their name. From Reconstruction to the New Deal, they had been vanquished before, and they’ve been defeated more recently, too, in a variety of areas—LBGTQ rights, for example. But both before and since, the preemptive politics of grievance and anti-egalitarianism they championed, whereby the psychology of privilege takes center stage while the needs of the oppressed are forced to wait in the wings, has left a deforming and reactionary imprint on our political culture. It has done so not just by emboldening reactionaries but by making the fear of setting off backlashes a standard element of the political conversation.
Consider, as examples, when last year the economist Larry Summers tweeted about the dangers of a wealth tax “boomerang,” and David Brooks warned about the “ugly backlash” that would likely follow an impeachment trial. Or, in a similar vein, when the columnist Ross Douthat wrote that if the Democrats adopt the Green New Deal, it “will empower climate-change skeptics, weaken the hand of would-be compromisers in the GOP” and “possibly help Donald Trump win re-election.” In this way, backlash politics has become a constraint on modern liberalism.
Backlash dynamics have played out over and over again through the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st. They appeared in the reaction against the women’s movement—which, as Mary Wiegers wrote in 1970, faced a “built-in backlash” before it even got started—that culminated in the successful campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment as it came close to becoming law. Such dynamics remained central to campaigns against social provisions, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in the 1980s and ’90s, and have been reflected in the genre of “angry white male” movies, including Falling Down and Gran Torino. More recently, and more consequentially, these forces helped elect Donald Trump, who framed his campaign and continues to treat his presidency as a backlash against his predecessor, Barack Obama, the first African American president.
The backlashers have been out in force at recent anti-social-distancing protests, which have been dominated by white people proclaiming that public-health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are robbing them of their birthright of liberty. Making the connection to prior backlashes explicit, some protesters have waved Confederate flags and held signs that read give me liberty or give me death. While in some ways laughable, given their complaints about being unable to get a haircut or having to “get two iced teas in the drive thru,” some of the protesters also incite fear, with their ostentatious weapon-wielding and threats of violence, to say nothing of their willingness to potentially infect others with the coronavirus. Drawing upon the template of the backlashes of earlier historic moments, these protesters, too, combine the paranoia and insecurity that have long warped our political culture with acclamations of freedom for some at the expense of freedom for all. As during Reconstruction and the civil-rights era, we face once again the danger that a politics of freedom and equality may be eclipsed by the psychology of white resentment.
*A photo caption in this article previously misstated the date the photo was taken. It is from the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Lawrence B. Glickman is a history professor at Cornell University. He is the author, most recently, of Free Enterprise: An American History.
The old African-American aphorism “When white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia” has a new, morbid twist: when white America catches the novel coronavirus, black Americans die.
Thousands of white Americans have also died from the virus, but the pace at which African-Americans are dying has transformed this public-health crisis into an object lesson in racial and class inequality. According to a Reuters report, African-Americans are more likely to die of covid-19 than any other group in the U.S. It is still early in the course of the pandemic, and the demographic data is incomplete, but the partial view is enough to prompt a sober reflection on this bitter harvest of American racism.
Louisiana, with more than twenty-one thousand reported infections, has the largest number of coronavirus cases outside of the Northeast and the Midwest. When the state’s governor, John Bel Edwards, announced recently that it would begin to provide data about the racial and ethnic breakdowns of those who have died, he included the grim acknowledgement that African-Americans, thirty-three per cent of Louisiana’s population, comprise seventy per cent of the dead.
The small city of Albany, Georgia, two hundred miles south of Atlanta, was the site of a heroic civil-rights standoff between the city’s black residents and its white police chief in the early nineteen-sixties. Today, more than twelve hundred people in the county have confirmedcovid-19 cases, and at least seventy-eight people have died. According to earlier reports, eighty-one per cent of the dead are African-American.
In Michigan, African-Americans make up fourteen per cent of the state’s population, but, currently, they account for thirty-three per cent of its reported infections and forty per cent of its deaths. Twenty-six per cent of the state’s infections and twenty-five per cent of deaths are in Detroit, a city that is seventy-nine per cent African-American. covid-19 is also ravaging the city’s suburbs that have large black populations.
The virus has shaken African-Americans in Chicago, who account for fifty-two per cent of the city’s confirmed cases and a startling seventy-two per cent of deaths—far outpacing their proportion of the city’s population.
As many have already noted, this macabre roll call reflects the fact that African-Americans are more likely to have preëxisting health conditions that make the coronavirus particularly deadly. This is certainly true. These conditions—diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and obesity—are critical factors, and they point to the persistence of racial discrimination, which has long heightened black vulnerability to premature death, as the scholar Ruthie Wilson Gilmore has said for years. Racism in the shadow of American slavery has diminished almost all of the life chances of African-Americans. Black people are poorer, more likely to be underemployed, condemned to substandard housing, and given inferior health care because of their race. These factors explain why African-Americans are sixty per cent more likely to have been diagnosed with diabetes than white Americans, and why black women are sixty per cent more likely to have high blood pressure than white women. Such health disparities are as much markers of racial inequality as mass incarceration or housing discrimination.
It is easy to simply point to the prevalence of these health conditions among African-Americans as the most important explanation for their rising death rates. But it is also important to acknowledge that black vulnerability is especially heightened by the continued ineptitude of the federal government in response to the coronavirus. The mounting carnage in Trump’s America did not have to happen to the extent that it has. covid-19 testing remains maddeningly inconsistent and unavailable, with access breaking down along the predictable lines. In Philadelphia, a scientist at Drexel University found that, in Zip Codes with a “lower proportion of minorities and higher incomes,” a higher number of tests were administered. In Zip Codes with a higher number of unemployed and uninsured residents, there were fewer tests. Taken together, testing in higher-income neighborhoods is six times greater than it is in poorer neighborhoods.
Inconsistent testing, in combination with steadfast denials from the White House about the threat of the virus, exacerbated the appalling lack of preparation for this catastrophe. With more early coördination, hospitals might have procured the necessary equipment and staffed up properly, potentially avoiding the onslaught that has occurred. The consequences are devastating. In the Detroit area, where the disease is surging, about fifteen hundred hospital workers, including five hundred nurses at Beaumont Health, Michigan’s largest hospital system, are off of the job with symptoms of covid-19. Early in the crisis, at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital, nurses were reduced to wearing garbage bags for their protection. Across the country, health-care providers are being asked to ration face masks and shields, dramatically raising the potential of their own infection, and thereby increasing the strain on the already overextended hospitals.
The early wave of disproportionate black deaths was hastened by Trumpian malfeasance, but the deaths to come are the predictable outcome of decades of disinvestment and institutional neglect. In mid-March, Toni Preckwinkle, the president of the Cook County Board in Illinois, which encompasses Chicago, lamented the covid-19 crisis and proclaimed that “we are all in this together,” but, weeks later, she closed the emergency room of the public Provident Hospital in the predominantly black South Side. Preckwinkle claimed that the closure would last for a month and was a response to a single health-care worker becoming infected with the virus. Leave aside the fact that nurses, doctors, and other health-care workers have been testing positive for covid-19 across the country, and their facilities have not been shuttered. It is a decision that simply could not have been made, in the midst of a historic pandemic, in any of the city’s wealthy, white neighborhoods on the North Side.
Meanwhile, in Cook County Jail, three hundred and twenty-three inmates and a hundred and ninety-six correctional officers have tested positive for covid-19. Not only have officials not closed the county jail as a result but they also have yet to release a significant number of jailed people, even though the facility has the highest density of covid-19 cases in Chicago. These are the kinds of decisions that explain why there is a thirty-year difference in life expectancy—in the same city—between the black neighborhood of Englewood and the white neighborhood of Streeterville. They are also just the latest examples of the ways that racism is the ultimate result of the decisions that government officials make, regardless of their intentions. Preckwinkle is African-American, and the chairperson of the Cook County Democratic Party, but her decisions regarding Provident Hospital and Cook County Jail will still deeply wound African-Americans across Chicago.
The rapidity with which the pandemic has consumed black communities is shocking, but it also provides an unvarnished look into the dynamics of race and class that existed long before it emerged. The most futile conversation in the U.S. is the argument about whether race or class is the main impediment to African-American social mobility. In reality, they cannot be separated from each other. African-Americans are suffering through this crisis not only because of racism but also because of how racial discrimination has tied them to the bottom of the U.S. class hierarchy . . .
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HARTFORD, Conn. — On a sweltering Saturday afternoon last June, Crystal Carter took a deep breath as she walked toward the red “for rent” sign.
Shaded by tall oak trees, the three-story duplex looked cozy. The first floor siding was painted yellow, with white railings leading to the front door. The windows appeared new, the lawn freshly cut.
Although the property was in Barry Square, on the edge of a struggling area in southern Hartford, the family outside buoyed Carter’s spirits. Four children giggled in a recliner in the front yard, singing along to the radio while their father packed a moving truck. Across the street were Trinity College’s dignified brick pillars, the entry to the elite school’s 100-acre campus.
Carter tried to tamp down her excitement, but this looked like the kind of place the 48-year-old single mother so desperately wanted for her five kids: no mouse traps, no chipped paint trying to camouflage mold.
He put down a crate and offered her a tour of the first-floor, four-bedroom unit. Inside, she marveled at the modern kitchen, finished hardwood floors and large closets.
“This is a lot of space. When are you putting this on the market?” she asked.
“It’s ready, if you want to do the application,” he told her. Rent was $1,500 a month.
“I’ll be paying with a Section 8 voucher,” she said.
“Yeah,” the man shot back. “I don’t do Section 8.”
Officially called Housing Choice Vouchers, Section 8 rent subsidies were supposed to help low-income people find decent housing outside poor communities. But, for the better part of a year, Carter had found the opposite. This was easily the 50th place she had toured since her landlord sold her last apartment and evicted her. Nearly all of them were in poor areas. They had holes in the wall, uncovered electrical outlets, even roaches and mice. When she hit upon something clean, she learned not to ask too many questions. She complimented the landlord, talked about her children and emphasized that she didn’t smoke. None of it seemed to matter, though, once she uttered two words: Section 8.
Now, as Carter showed herself out of the first-floor rental, she felt panic welling within. “There really are no doors open for people that have a voucher,” she said afterward. “It makes you feel ashamed to even have one.” Typically, vouchers come with a time limit to find housing, and Carter had already won three extensions. She wasn’t sure she’d get another.
She had just 40 days left to find a place to live.
As the federal government retreated from building new public housing in the 1970s, it envisioned Section 8 vouchers as a more efficient way of subsidizing housing for the poor in the private market. They now constitute the largest rental assistance program in the country, providing almost $23 billion in aid each year to 2.2 million households. Local housing authorities administer the program with an annual budget from Washington and are given wide latitude on how many vouchers they hand out and how much each is worth. The bulk of the vouchers are reserved for families who make 30% or less of an area’s median income. That is $30,300 or less for a family of four in Hartford.
For years, researchers and policymakers have lamented the program’s failure to achieve one of its key goals: giving families a chance at living in safer communities with better schools. Low-income people across the country struggle to use their vouchers outside of high-poverty neighborhoods.
In Connecticut, the problem is especially acute. An analysis of federal voucher data by The Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica found that 55% of the state’s nearly 35,000 voucher holders live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. That’s higher than the national average of 49% and the rates in 43 other states.
The segregation results, at least in part, from exclusionary zoning requirements that local officials have long used to block or limit affordable housing in prosperous areas. As the Mirror and ProPublica reported in November, state authorities have done little to challenge those practices, instead steering taxpayer money to build more subsidized developments in struggling communities.
Dozens of voucher holders in Connecticut say this concentration has left them with few housing options. Local housing authorities often provide a blue booklet of Section 8-friendly properties, but many of the ones listed are complexes that have a reputation for being rundown and are in struggling communities or have long waitlists. Many recipients call it the “Black Book” because “you are going to the dark side, for real. The apartments in that black book are nasty and disgusting,” said Janieka Lewis, a Hartford resident whose home is infested with mice.
Josh Serrano also lives in one of the state’s poorest neighborhoods. After landing a voucher in 2018, he tried to find a place in the middle-class town of West Hartford, where his son lives part time with his mother. He also looked in nearby Manchester and Simsbury. At each stop, the rent was higher than his voucher’s value or the landlord wouldn’t take a voucher.
“There is an invisible wall surrounding Hartford for those of us who are poor and particularly have black or brown skin like myself,” he said. “No community wanted me and my son.”
Nearly 80% of the state’s voucher holders are black or Hispanic and half have children. Their average income is $17,200 a year and the average amount they pay in rent out of pocket is $413 a month.
The federal government has taken a mostly hands-off approach to ensuring the Section 8 program is working as it was originally intended. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development typically leaves it up to each housing authority to determine how much a voucher is worth, which essentially determines the type of neighborhood a voucher holder can afford. And when HUD assesses the work of housing authorities — to decide whether to increase federal oversight — only a tiny fraction is based on whether local officials are “expanding housing opportunities … outside areas of poverty or minority concentration.” (And even at that, nearly all housing authorities receive full credit.)
Moreover, federal law does not make it illegal for a landlord to turn down a prospective tenant if they plan to pay with a voucher, so HUD does not investigate complaints of landlords who won’t accept Section 8 vouchers.
Connecticut goes further. It is one of 14 states where it’s illegal to deny someone housing because they plan to use a Section 8 voucher. And the state allocated more than $820,000 in the last fiscal year to help pay for 10 investigators to look into complaints of all types of housing discrimination and provide legal assistance. “There has been an effort to try to change” housing segregation, said Seila Mosquera-Bruno, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Housing.
But those efforts have done little to prevent landlords from continuing to reject voucher holders. The groups charged with investigating housing complaints say they lack the resources to be proactive and believe they are only seeing a fraction of what’s really going on.
“Housing providers keep coming up with ways to rent to who they want to rent and find ways around housing discrimination laws,” said Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, which investigates complaints. “There is a lot more discrimination going on than what we are investigating.”
In 2018, fewer than 75 complaints were made that accused the landlord or owner of refusing to accept a voucher or some other legal source of income, such as Social Security. The Connecticut Fair Housing Center said that figure isn’t low because discrimination is scarce but rather because prospective tenants are fearful that complaining could hurt them and know that it will do nothing to help them with their immediate needs; investigations can take longer than the time they have to find a house with their vouchers.
“In order to make it a real priority and address the real effects of discrimination in society, the government should dedicate more resources to ferreting it out,” said Greg Kirschner, the group’s legal director.
A Hartford native, Carter reluctantly moved back to her hometown in 2011 to escape an abusive relationship. She had delayed relocating, she said, because she worried she’d be taking her children from a quiet neighborhood in Florida to a “war zone” in Connecticut.
“They not from the streets. Their heart is trying to be goofy-cool,” she said of her three sons, now 10, 17 and 18, and two daughters, ages 13 and 14. “They don’t have that fight in them. I do.” (Worried about her children’s privacy, Carter asked that they not be named in this story.)