White women’s role in white supremacy, explained – Vox

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.

Many women were either present at the riot or cheering on the insurrectionists from back home.
 Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images
If we ignore the importance of women in the Capitol riot, we can’t understand white supremacy in America.
 Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

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.”

Women members of the Ku Klux Klan from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, arrive in Washington, DC, for a KKK parade, circa 1920.
 Bettmann Archive via Getty Images
A group of Ku Klux Klan women next to a parade float in Miami, circa 1940.
 Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images

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 were used 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.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) campaigns for Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue alongside President Trump on January 4.
 Brynn Anderson/AP

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!”

Trump supporters arrive for the “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6.
 Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Women have been central to organizing pro-Trump events that spread the false claim that the election was stolen. 
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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.”

Source: White women’s role in white supremacy, explained – Vox

The GOP Must Choose Between Conspiracy and Reality – The Atlantic

The GOP Must Choose Between Conspiracy and Reality

QAnon Is Destroying the GOP From Within

Until last week, too many in the Republican Party thought they could preach the Constitution and wink at QAnon. They can’t.

“The violence that Americans witnessed—and that might recur in the coming days—is not a protest gone awry or the work of “a few bad apples.” It is the blossoming of a rotten seed that took root in the Republican Party some time ago and has been nourished by treachery, poor political judgment, and cowardice. When Trump leaves office, my party faces a choice: We can dedicate ourselves to defending the Constitution and perpetuating our best American institutions and traditions, or we can be a party of conspiracy theories, cable-news fantasies, and the ruin that comes with them. We can be the party of Eisenhower, or the party of the conspiracist Alex Jones. We can applaud Officer Goodman or side with the mob he outwitted. We cannot do both.

If and when the House sends its article of impeachment against Trump to the Senate, I will be a juror in his trial, and thus what I can say in advance is limited. But no matter what happens in that trial, the Republican Party faces a separate reckoning. Until last week, many party leaders and consultants thought they could preach the Constitution while winking at QAnon. They can’t. The GOP must reject conspiracy theories or be consumed by them. Now is the time to decide what this party is about.”

Source: The GOP Must Choose Between Conspiracy and Reality – The Atlantic

Whiteness Is the Greatest Racial Fraud | Boston Review

Whiteness Is the Greatest Racial Fraud

The Krugs and Dolezals dominate the headlines, but they are distractions from the fraud that imperils us all: believing oneself to be white.

LUVELL ANDERSON

Image: Boston Review

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Source: Whiteness Is the Greatest Racial Fraud | Boston Review

Toward a Global History of White Supremacy | Boston Review

Toward a Global History of White Supremacy

The simultaneous success of Trump and Brexit was no coincidence: white supremacist politics are international in scope and often share entwined histories.

DANIEL GEARYCAMILLA SCHOFIELDJENNIFER SUTTON

Image: Twitter/Nigel Farage

Editor’s Note: Adapted from Global White Nationalism: From Apartheid to Trump edited by Daniel Geary, Camilla Schofield, and Jennifer Sutton.


From promulgating the racist birther conspiracy theory to exhorting vigilante Proud Boys to “stand by,” Donald Trump has amplified white nationalist ideas in the United States. But neither Trump’s emergence nor his impact can be understood fully by looking at the United States in isolation. Rather, Trump must be understood for his place in a long line of Anglophone leaders who claimed to speak for besieged whites, with precedents including Ian Smith, the leader of the white minoritarian regime of Rhodesia, and Enoch Powell, the British MP who infamously warned of “rivers of blood” if Britain did not halt non-white immigration. Moreover, white nationalism is global not only in its history but in its present manifestations: white nationalists worldwide have hailed Trump’s actions and would be emboldened by his reelection.

White nationalists worldwide have hailed Trump’s actions and would be emboldened by his reelection.

While his authoritarian response to a season of Black Lives Matter protests has brought renewed attention to Trump’s racist politics, his investment in global white supremacy is long-standing and was instrumental to his election. Indeed, Nigel Farage, a leader of the UK’s far right, was an important international ally while Trump was campaigning. The morning after the June 2016 Brexit referendum vote, Donald Trump landed at his Scottish golf resort and tweeted that Britons “took their country back, just like we will take America back.” During his campaign that summer, Trump forged a close alliance with Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party and the most prominent advocate of British withdrawal from the European Union. Farage already knew Trump’s campaign manager, Steve Bannon, who hailed the rise of right-wing European nationalism as executive chairman of the alt-right website Breitbart News. In November, Farage was the first foreign leader to meet the president-elect; pleased with their successes on both sides of the Atlantic, they posed for a celebratory photograph before a glimmering set of golden elevator doors in Trump Tower. Trump and Farage’s image marked a victory in a struggle by linked resurgent white nationalists on both sides of the Atlantic to “take back” their countries from non-white immigrants and internationalist liberal elites.

Although many have observed the similarities between Brexit and Trumpism, few have noted that those similarities arise from the entwined histories of U.S. and British revanchist politics. Likewise, many have been baffled by the international spread of white supremacist violence, with authorities and the mass media wrongly depicting such attacks as the work of isolated loners rather than emanating from a dispersed political movement. Such bonds link not only Trump’s and Farage’s successes, but also the 2016 assassination of pro-Remain Labour MP Jo Cox in Yorkshire by a neo-Nazi proclaiming “Britain First”; the 2018 killings at a Pittsburgh synagogue by a white supremacist who believed that Jews were orchestrating white genocide by abetting immigration from Latin America; and the 2019 murder of Muslims in Christchuch, New Zealand, by an Australian white supremacist. Both the rise of ethnonationalism in electoral politics and of white supremacist violence in the English-speaking world need to be understood as related developments in a longer history of exchange among white nationalists globally.

Because white nationalists are primarily concerned with the racial integrity of states, they have wrongly been assumed to be parochial in their politics, focused solely on domestic issues. In fact, transnational ties and transnational flows of culture and capital have long undergirded the pursuit of white racial nationalism. The success of Brexit, for example, emboldened Trump’s nativist supporters to see themselves as part of a global movement that could achieve power in the United States. Trump’s victory in turn inspired the Christchurch killer, who praised the U.S. president as a “symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose.” We need to understand the history of these connections if we are to grasp what has sustained white nationalism despite global trends toward liberation and equality.

White nationalism is an ideology that asserts national identity and belonging in terms of European descent. Accordingly, white nationalists see their countries as threatened by immigration and social advancement by non-whites. They contend that national identity and belonging must be built around racial whiteness—rather than culture, language, or place—and that it is the whiteness of the nation’s past, present, and future that ensures its continued historical development and survival. The fundamental ideas of white nationalists are hardly new, yet they have taken on new formulations since the mid-twentieth century as a politics of reaction to the promise of racial equality and decolonization. Though the numbers of self-identified white nationalists remain small, their ideas resonate broadly, impacting contemporary debates about global demographic change, national identity, and mass migration.

The shift of white nationalist politics from center to ostensible periphery is a relatively recent phenomenon. At the British Empire’s zenith, its apologists claimed that the rule of law, free trade, and parliamentary sovereignty were natural virtues of the “English race.” At the turn of the twentieth century, U.S. elites shared with British imperialists a discourse of English racial heritage termed Anglo-Saxonism that was used to justify the subjugation of Native Americans, the subordination of African Americans, and the possession of the United States’ own overseas empire. According to Anglo-Saxonism, white, Protestant, English-speaking men naturally made modern nations. This racialized modernity is based on the presumption that only whites can govern and that the empowerment of non-whites is therefore an existential threat to white self-government.

Although many have observed the similarities between Brexit and Trumpism, few have noted that those similarities arise from the entwined histories of U.S. and British revanchist politics.

Anglo-Saxonism’s cherished ideal of a white man’s country reserving self-government and economic opportunity to whites may no longer be as dominant as it was a century ago, but neither has it disappeared. Popular historian Niall Ferguson still maintains that British colonial settler culture brought “modernity” to the world. Today some Brexiteers look to trade within an “Anglosphere” to reanimate this historical political tradition and harness racialized notions of kith and kin in the English-speaking world. Indeed, nostalgia for a past period of national glory in which white rule was unchallenged is a signature feature of today’s right-wing populists who seek to make their nations great again.

Any account of white nationalism’s influence today must take account of this longer history and also recognize that profound and persistent structures of white supremacy remain deeply rooted in the English-speaking world. To understand the politics of racism in the present requires locating and examining the histories of modern white nationalism in global terms: as a response to decolonization, struggles for equal rights, mass migration, and postwar international institutions. As Western political and social elites professed a commitment to color-blind ideals, assumptions of white supremacy were challenged and reformulated.

In particular, the declining legitimacy of overtly racist political expression produced new international alliances and new populist claims among white supremacists. As they saw themselves losing power locally, they looked abroad for allies. Countering liberal internationalist organizations such as the United Nations and the World Council of Churches, white nationalists increasingly adopted a rhetoric of ethnic populism, casting themselves as representatives of forgotten whites betrayed by globalist liberal elites. Even as they shifted their focus from opposing civil rights and preserving white rule in settler colonies to Islamophobia and opposing non-white immigration, they articulated a consistent mindset stressing the need to preserve the ethno-racial character of their nations.

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In 1900 the ideal of the white man’s country was broadly shared among whites of all classes.

At the turn of the twentieth century, English-speaking whites throughout the world drew a global color line that marked out their own nations as white men’s countries. Their policies restricted immigration to “desirable” Europeans and limited non-whites’ right to vote to ensure whites’ ability to govern themselves. Though their aims were ethnonationalist, they developed ideas and policies in coordination with international networks. As historians Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds write: “The project of whiteness was thus a paradoxical politics, at once transnational in its inspiration and identification but nationalist in its methods and goals. The imagined community of white men was transnational in its reach, but nationalist in its outcomes, bolstering regimes of border protection and national sovereignty.”

In 1900 the ideal of the white man’s country was broadly shared among whites of all classes, even as it provoked tension between aggressive white settlers and cautious metropolitan elites. Nonetheless, the global color line was slowly erased over the twentieth century. The industrialized slaughter of World War I undermined notions of European civilization’s superiority. After the war, the colonized increasingly demanded self-determination and a new generation of intellectuals discredited the precepts of scientific racism. World War II, which pitted the Allies against a fascist enemy, also did much to discredit notions of racial hierarchy and subordination. The most important developments accelerated after World War II: the rise of national liberation movements and of movements for racial equality in existing nations. It was, as British prime minister Harold Macmillan put it to Australian prime minister Robert Menzies, “the revolt of the yellows and blacks from the automatic leadership of the whites.”

Many liberal elites, over the course of the twentieth century, evolved from a white nationalist perspective toward color-blind or multicultural conceptions of their nations. For instance, in the 1920s, the Carnegie Corporation funded studies to justify white minority rule in South Africa. But by 1944, it was publishing Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, an influential text calling for the gradual extension of equal rights to African Americans. Rejection of explicit white supremacy became one of the components of a new liberal internationalism, embodied in the United Nations. While the violence of apartheid and Jim Crow continued unabated, in 1950 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) released the first of its influential statements on race, drafted by an international team of prominent scholars and rejecting any notions of racial superiority. Many metropolitan elites also came to embrace decolonization, and thereby contain it, envisioning it as a historical step forward into modernity. Those who adhered to explicit white supremacy, however, experienced this new racial liberalism as a betrayal. Postwar white nationalism thus shifted toward a populist perspective, arrayed against white elites—the racial enemy within—as well as racial minorities.

The decades after the end of World War II saw the breakup of the British Empire as nations across the Global South won independence. As European empires dismantled, the United States extended its influence among newly independent nations. Despite losing its own major colony of the Philippines in 1946, the United States emerged from World War II as the preeminent world power, in many ways continuing the European imperial project of making the world safe for global capitalism. The need to maintain good relations with new nations and win their support in the Cold War put considerable pressure on the United States, UK, and British dominions to dismantle domestic racial discrimination. As Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, one of the principal author of the first UNESCO Statement on Race, acerbically remarked in 1954, “The white man is scared down to his bowels, so it’s be-kind-to-Negroes decade at last.”

E. Franklin Frazier, one of the authors of the first UNESCO Statement on Race, acerbically remarked in 1954, “The white man is scared down to his bowels, so it’s be-kind-to-Negroes decade at last.”

Black activists and intellectuals in both the civil rights and anticolonial nationalist movements saw themselves as fighting in a shared international struggle to dismantle white supremacy. By the 1960s, though civil rights movements were unable to achieve their goal of full racial equality, they forced recognition of the formal legal equality of all citizens regardless of race. Landmark legislation prohibited racial discrimination. In 1963 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Elimination on All Forms of Racial Discrimination; two years later, Ghanaian ambassador George Lamptey led the campaign to introduce a UN convention against racial discrimination. Steeped in the language of human rights, this convention condemned colonialism and apartheid, affirmed equality before the law, and required its signatories to criminalize hate speech and institute national procedures to combat racial discrimination. The UN helped propel the extension of antidiscrimination laws globally. The United States passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the death knell to the southern system of Jim Crow, and followed that with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The UK passed the Race Relations Act in 1965, Canada its Canadian Multiculturalism Policy in 1971, and Australia its Racial Discrimination Act in 1975.

White supremacy was on the defensive. Yet ideas about whiteness and natural ability for self-government continued to shape understandings of global demography, anticolonial violence, and uneven economic development. Racial anxieties ran through analyses of population growth in the Global South, for instance, echoing early twentieth-century panics about white “race suicide.” Anticolonial violence was routinely depoliticized and depicted as an expression of savagery, a rejection of civilization. Whites continued to assert themselves as natural agents of modernity via, for instance, international development; their authority now increasingly drawn from an emphasis on technical expertise rather than any explicit white man’s burden. Tenets of the white man’s country were transmuted by technocracy to appear universal or color-blind.

Though white nationalism developed transnationally and in response to common international changes, it evolved asynchronously and asymmetrically according to different local logics. The United States has a history of domestic slavery, mass immigration, and subjugation of Native Americans that contrasts with Britain’s long history as an imperial metropole or the history of white minoritarian regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. These differences are perhaps clearest in immigration policy changes and their demographic effects. The civil rights movement made the existence of racial quotas in U.S. immigration policy untenable, leading to the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 which soon (unintentionally) led to a mass wave of emigration from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Similarly, Australia dismantled its restrictionist White Australia policy in 1973, leading to a sharp increase in non-white immigration, especially from Asia.

In Britain, however, the story was different. Migrants from colonies and former colonies, who held citizenship in the British Empire and Commonwealth, began to arrive in increasing numbers after World War II in search of economic opportunity. This moment is often marked by the 1948 London arrival of the ship Empire Windrush which carried migrants from the Caribbean. The non-white population in Britain increased tenfold by 1961. Then, as a result of domestic political opposition, the British government began to introduce migration controls. To signal that these controls were part of a wider government effort to benefit race relations, the government also passed new equality legislation modeled on that of the United States but accompanied by the imposition of immigration restrictions rather than their relaxation.

In different countries, white nationalists adapted in similar ways to outlast the challenges against them: they persisted not simply by becoming far-right fringe minorities but also by developing coded electoral appeals within major political parties, such as the Democratic Party’s southern strategy in the United States. Everywhere, though, the array of forces against them led white nationalists to take up a defensive posture. In this new mode, white nationalists mobilized emotions of besiegement, resentment, loss, and nostalgia. The populist language of aggrievement white nationalists developed in retreat enabled them to capture broad appeal when new forms of political activism—on both left and right—challenged the legitimacy of the postwar order and the political establishment.

White nationalists persisted not simply by becoming far-right fringe minorities but also by developing coded electoral appeals within major political parties.

In response to the efforts to challenge white racial privilege in the 1960s and ’70s, a reactionary discourse emerged that rejected any guilt complex over the long history of white supremacy and instead offered a counternarrative of white victimization. Histories of lost causes were marshalled to this goal. As Paul Gilroy has examined, in Britain the loss of empire produced a “postcolonial melancholia” attached to the lost glories of the past—one detached from any sense of the real history of the empire. In Britain, as in Australia and the U.S. South, white nationalists turned away from acknowledging the atrocities of white supremacy. Instead, theirs is a history of heroism in defeat: the Lost Cause of the U.S. Confederacy, Australia’s Battle of Gallipoli in World War I, and Britain’s myth of self-reliance at the retreat of Dunkirk in World War II all serve as sites for what Gilroy calls “dreamworlds” where white male heroism can be retrieved.

This sense of resentment framed around perceived loss gave additional resonance to a wider set of social and political tensions in the period of decolonization and equal rights. The sexual revolution, student protests, and progressive legal reforms on marriage and abortion came to be viewed by many white nationalists as further examples of the destruction of national culture. Women’s liberation and the moral revolution of the late twentieth century played into fears of a declining white population. White nationalisms throughout the Anglosphere are replete with anxious visions of lost white male and patriarchal authority. Opposition to gender equality has been and remains crucial to the making of modern white nationalism—as the defense of white women and white domesticity has long functioned as a focal point for white supremacy, colonial violence, and the dehumanization of people of color. Drawing from this long tradition, white nationalists present the white woman as the perennial potential victim, under constant threat from migrant rapists, Black male sexuality, and sharia law.

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From the civil rights era to the present, white nationalists found a home in right-wing political parties, where leaders appealed to race despite formally renouncing racism. White nationalism fit within the broader constellation of ideas advocated by the transnational right, whose critique of liberal internationalism also included asserting the place of social hierarchy, patriarchal families, and fundamentalist Christian values while attacking the legitimacy of the postwar social welfare state.

White nationalism needs to be understood as a specific political movement of the right, though one hardly limited to just a handful of extremists.

Though white nationalism is nurtured most intensely by a small group of activists and intellectuals, the electoral right throughout the English-speaking world has consistently appealed to racial fears among whites about loss of status. The electoral right receives much of its dynamism from the far right. Yet the existence of such far-right groups makes the electoral right more respectable by contrast, able to appeal to white nationalist sentiment while disavowing violent and explicit racism, and thereby enabling it to assemble a broader political coalition. This dialectic of extremism and respectability operates not simply within national boundaries but in a transnational framework.

One of the key issues involved in understanding global white nationalism is whether it should be perceived as a marginal political movement or as part of the mainstream of contemporary political culture. We think white nationalism should be understood as both constitutive of our societies and as a specific political movement of the right whose fortunes are now resurgent. Given the deep ways in which notions of white man’s countries structured Britain, the United States, and British settler colonies just a century ago, it is hardly surprising that a foundation of white supremacy remains under the edifice of societies that have formally renounced racism. This is particularly true given the partial defeat of movements for racial equality, as reflected in the continuation of vast institutional inequalities. The unacknowledged persistence of white supremacy in our societies has provided a strong platform on which white nationalists can stand, and it must be dismantled.

We also believe that white nationalism needs to be understood as a specific political movement of the right, though one hardly limited to just a handful of extremists. The successes of anti-racist movements in the twentieth century were only partial, but they were enough to spark a powerful reaction from those who wished to openly assert that that their nations were still white men’s countries. White nationalists’ sense of betrayal and loss is very real. While their claims of victimhood often serve as cover for the assertion of racial dominance, they are rooted in very real changes to the racial order. Without question, combatting white nationalism requires truly grappling with the long history of white supremacy and the untold damage wrought by our contemporary racial order. But it does not mean accepting that our civic cultures must remain racist or that a majority of whites will be inevitably drawn to racist politics. Rather, it requires understanding contemporary Anglophone white nationalism as a specific historical formation which cannot be extricated from the history of slavery, settler colonialism, and white supremacy.

To many observers, Brexit and Trump made it seem as if an atavistic ideology was suddenly resurrected. But white nationalism has always been a presence in trans-Atlantic political culture. While rooted in the older ideal of the white man’s country associated with British settler colonialism, it has adapted to the challenges posed by decolonization, civil rights, and liberal internationalism.

Those seeking to explain white nationalism’s renewed political strength in our own time should then ask why it has begun to have greater appeal. To the minority who explicitly identify with white nationalist ideas, their sense of victimization and desire to return to an imagined past era of national glory has everything to do with the decline of white dominance. To many others, white nationalists’ rhetoric of betrayal, nostalgia, and denouncement of non-white immigrants and internationalist elites has increased appeal in a period of depressed wages and precarious employment.

Critically, the lack of a significant left-wing challenge to neoliberalism has made ethnonationalism the main political form in which antiestablishment sentiment can be articulated. The adaptations that white nationalists made since 1945 has enabled it to broaden its appeal in our time. White nationalism is a worldly ideology. Regardless of whether Trump wins or loses, its resilience should never again be underestimated.

 

Source: Toward a Global History of White Supremacy | Boston Review

Housing will test white support for Black lives – The Boston Globe

As a young housing activist about a decade ago, Jesse Kanson-Benanav started to notice that many liberal residents of Cambridge were hostile to integration. Whenever a developer proposed a few units of affordable housing, white homeowners would line up in opposition, citing concerns about parking or residential “character.” Although they said they valued diversity, they worked tirelessly to thwart the developments that would actually make it more feasible for Black and brown families to move into their neighborhoods.

“It really struck me as out of step with the image that Cambridge purports as a progressive and welcoming community,” he said.

Kanson-Benanav, now the president of Abundant Housing Massachusetts, recently thought of those Boston-area liberals when a friend sent him a photo of a lawn in Newton with three yard signs. Two pushed back against affordable housing projects, reading: “Right Size Newton” and “Right Size Riverside.” The third sign said, “Black Lives Matter.”

Increasing the housing supply for Black Americans would be one of the quickest and most effective ways to bring about a more just society. Even now, the legacies of “red-lining” and other forms of segregation, predatory lending, and housing discrimination continue to push many Black Americans away from wealthier, better-schooled neighborhoods. But efforts to fix this problem by building affordable housing in suburban communities and affluent parts of cities have often been met with anger from white residents worried about “density” and “crowding.” White progressives in particular have a long history of refusing to integrate their communities, even as they vocally support civil rights movements.

At a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has record levels of support, large, even majority-white crowds have gathered in cities across America to call for the end of systemic racism and police brutality. To achieve real equity, though, white allies will have to move beyond symbolic displays of solidarity and actually help Black Americans get into their neighborhoods.

ONE OF OUR great societal myths is that Black and white neighborhoods are separate because Americans like to live alongside people with shared backgrounds or because poor and rich people pick the neighborhoods they can afford. The reality is that federal and local governments segregated communities through elaborate feats of social engineering.

In the 1940s and ’50s, the federal government created the suburbs by insuring home mortgages and offering subsidies to developers who mass produced single-family homes. As a result, suburban subdivisions began to sell at rates easily affordable to Black and white Americans alike. But the Federal Housing Administration incentivized developers to keep the suburbs white-only, refusing to grant loans unless there were physical barriers between people of different races, such as highways and, in at least one instance, an actual wall. Oftentimes, Black Americans were explicitly barred from suburban homeownership by leases that forbid renting or selling to “any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” The federal Public Works Administration even went so far as to purposely segregate previously integrated neighborhoods, building separate housing projects for Black and white families and listing each development’s racial designation. These programs concentrated Black Americans in poverty-stricken areas without easy access to jobs, health care, or transportation.

After the Supreme Court deemed segregation unconstitutional in a series of cases, white cities and suburbs fought to maintain the old layouts anyway, passing local zoning restrictions that served to prevent Black Americans from moving into their communities. Since the restrictions had to appear race-neutral to be legal, they relied on economic means to keep out Black Americans, who had not accumulated wealth at the same rate as whites because of segregationist housing programs. Zoning requirements typically enforced minimum lot sizes or forbid developers from building low-income housing in all-white neighborhoods, rendering homes in those communities unaffordable to Black buyers and renters. Many of these same ordinances continue to ensure that Black and white Americans remain separate and unequal.

The effects have been disastrous. Effectively barred from high-quality housing, Black Americans stayed renters, often in economically depressed areas, while white Americans gained hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity as their homes appreciated in value. As Richard Rothstein writes in his book “The Color of Law,” the modern wealth gap between Black and white households is entirely attributable to this difference. As of 2016, the median Black family had only 8.7 percent as much wealth as the median white family. In the greater Boston area, the median net worth of non-immigrant African American households was $8 in 2015, while the median net worth of white households was $247,500. Housing inequality has also limited educational opportunities for Black children by concentrating them in the same underfunded schools, contributed to mass incarceration and police brutality by ghettoizing Black Americans in over-surveilled neighborhoods, and even shortened Black life expectancies by placing Black people in polluted areas with poor access to medical care.

What this means is that there is an obvious contradiction between supporting social justice movements and trying to maintain the segregated system behind almost every modern racial disparity. “When you talk about preserving the character of a community that exists because of oftentimes intentional racist exclusion, you’re really perpetuating the white supremacy that post-World War II suburban expansion was built upon,” said Kanson-Benanav.

Opponents of new housing often say they're objecting to increased density and want to preserve the "right size" of their communities. But strict limits on the housing supply have the effect of furthering decades of segregation.
Opponents of new housing often say they’re objecting to increased density and want to preserve the “right size” of their communities. But strict limits on the housing supply have the effect of furthering decades of segregation.DAVID L. RYAN/GLOBE STAFF

But even in an era of heightened racial consciousness, efforts to undo exclusionary zoning or build low-income housing in white neighborhoods tend to trigger fierce backlashes. Adriane Musgrave, a former candidate for the Cambridge City Council, still remembers meeting a woman who talked enthusiastically about wanting to empower the Black community but quickly grew hostile at the mention of the Frost Terrace apartments, an affordable housing development under construction near Porter Square. The woman claimed that she was planning to leave the area once the apartments were built because they were going to “ruin the neighborhood” and “bring drugs and loud music.”

Musgrave had previously been booed, hissed, and berated for speaking in favor of public housing, but the encounter with the woman still shocked her. “I’m sure she thinks she’s super progressive,” Musgrave said. “But she didn’t want to live next to lower-income people of color.”

André Leroux, founder of the Great Neighborhoods Program, a network of advocates for affordable housing and zoning reform, believes that most white progressives are able to hold these contradictory stances because they simply lack historical knowledge. “I think a lot of people are not aware of the history of segregation and how our communities became segregated through housing and zoning policies and planning,” Leroux said. “People just assume that this is the way that it is.”

Another reason housing reform has failed to gain momentum is that white residents want the physical characteristics of their neighborhoods to remain the same. Many of them worry that new developments will ruin the qualities that attracted them to low-density areas in the first place: the wide open spaces, the greenery, the direct sunlight, the easy parking. It’s easy to understand why homeowners would want to hold onto these benefits, but the problem is that they are almost always maintained at the expense of other people who don’t have the privilege of choosing where and how they live. As Brookline Select Board Member Raul Fernandez put it, “All of those creature comforts are more important to [homeowners] than someone else’s ability to be able to afford to live in whatever condition that is.”

The irony is that the vast majority of affordable housing developments exist free of controversy after they get built. Most of them have little to no effect on crime rates and property values, and long-term residents eventually forget about the toxic political fights they generated. “After these drawn out battles, the lawsuits, the yelling, there’s not a peep about it,” Leroux said. “People just move on.”

HOUSING ACTIVISM IN the North was a prominent but lesser-known part of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s campaign for racial justice. In 1966, King held a march in Chicago to demand that the city allow Black residents to buy homes in all-white neighborhoods. As the protesters crossed Marquette Park, they encountered a white mob that pelted them with projectiles, one of which struck King in the head. He would later claim that he had never faced “mobs as hostile and as hate-filled” as in Chicago. He added: “Many whites who opposed open housing would deny that they are racists.”

Building off King’s legacy, Black Lives Matter has been trying to link affordable housing to racial equality for years with limited success. But as the movement gathers momentum, activists are hoping that real change is finally on the horizon. “I don’t think wealthy, educated white liberals can play ignorant any longer,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of Liveable Streets Alliance. “There’s just so much data.”

It’s not clear whether the recent protest movement has had any tangible effects on debates over whether to build more housing in the suburbs. Some activists, like Beyazmin Jimenez, a board member of Kanson-Benanav’s organization, Abundant Housing Massachusetts, told me that the current racial climate has been an “awakening” for many white homeowners. “They’re now asking questions like, ‘Educate me. What are the policies that have led to our city being so segregated?’” she said. As an example, Jimenez cited the town of Hamilton, Mass., previously a hotbed of anti-affordable housing sentiment, which began to hold conversations around fair housing after the George Floyd protests.

Others, however, said that they haven’t seen sufficient evidence that the surge of racial awareness among white Americans has carried over into housing policy. “I don’t think enough people have made the connection yet,” says Jarred Johnson, also a board member at Abundant Housing Massachusetts. Adriane Musgrave told me that she is “not optimistic at all” that newly enlightened white liberals will bring about meaningful reform on the issue.

Their main fear is that the white homeowners supporting Black Lives Matter will abandon the movement once it begins to make material demands on their neighborhoods — just as many white liberals abandoned King in the ’60s. Although many northerners supported King in his campaign to desegregate the South, they quickly grew antagonistic when he shifted his attention to the racist housing policies in their own communities. By the time of his assassination, he had grown increasingly unpopular with the white liberals who had once heralded his activism. “People with privilege are comfortable signing a statement, are comfortable calling someone else racist, but that’s different than the long hard work of transforming a policy,” said Thompson.

There have already been worrisome signs that history is repeating itself. In June, the CT Mirror reported, the residents of Weston, Conn., marched through the town in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, chanting slogans and raising placards. Weston’s elected officials urged the overwhelmingly white crowd to fight systemic racism and examine their personal biases. Eight days later, those same officials voted unanimously to adopt a housing plan promoting the development of two-acre single-family homes. The town’s median sale price of $668,000 seems unlikely to dip. Weston is only 1.4 percent Black.

More tests of this new civil rights movement will occur at the local and state levels as white liberals are once again called upon to integrate their communities. President Trump grasps this, which is why he’s been tweeting lately that “suburban dreams” are endangered by the prospect of more low-income housing coming to prosperous communities. Essentially, Trump is goading suburbanites to weigh their fear of affordable housing against their commitments to racial justice, and he’s betting that white people will fall back on standard operating procedure.

Indeed, without an obvious boogeyman like a murderous cop to condemn, white allies will have to ask themselves if they are truly willing to make the compromises necessary to alleviate racial injustice. This would entail the elimination of single-family zoning, a receptiveness to building affordable developments, and increased tenant protections for low-income residents. In practice, it would look like Minneapolis — which recently reformed its zoning code to allow taller buildings with more units in areas that previously contained only single-family homes — or Newton, which just voted to approve the affordable Northland development after a contentious and drawn-out debate.

Jarred Johnson, one of the activists with Abundant Housing Massachusetts, told me that increasing levels of support for policies like defunding the police have made him cautiously optimistic about the prospect of substantive housing reform. “I wouldn’t underestimate the capacity of folks to change their minds,” he said. “I do think there’s a capacity for change. And hopefully when they have that light turned on them, they’ll respond in a positive way. I get it. It’s hard. Change is hard. But it’s essential.”

Noah Y. Kim is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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Source: Housing will test white support for Black lives – The Boston Globe

A Moment or a Movement? The Blowback Will Tell | Black Agenda Report

A Moment or a Movement? The Blowback Will Tell

You cannot separate the racist police aggression in the streets of the US and the racist US aggression against Venezuela, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Yemen, Libya and Syria.

“Chauvin was sending a message to the community by holding his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck in broad daylight.”

“George Floyd should not be among the deceased. He did not die of common health conditions. He died of a common American criminal justice malfunction.” Rev. Al Sharpton June 4, 2020

I understand Rev. Sharpton’s point, but to cast this lynching in the context of a “malfunction” is to lose site of the much broader historical context in which African’s in America and later African Americans have existed since 1619.  I am not inferring that it was Rev. Sharpton’s intent, but to cast this horror in the context of a “malfunction,” is to give America a pass.  We can no longer afford to do that.

The total disregard for George Floyd as a human being, coupled with a hatred for the Black Community that Officer Derek Chauvin took an oath to protect and serve, led to the lynching on May 25. Chauvin was sending a message to the community by holding his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck in broad daylight. “Black people, know your place, understand your place and stay in your place.” Even the knowledge that he was being videotaped didn’t deter Chauvin. His inhumanity towards Mr. Floyd as his life was slowly choked out of his handcuffed body emanates from America’s historic inhumanity towards people of color since Tristan de Luna established the short-lived settlement at Pensacola Bay in 1559.

This hatred is woven into the very fabric of America.  It is in the founding documents of this country. It’s evident in Supreme Court decisions and the blowback from America’s dominant culture to any modicum of success achieved by African Americans (The Red Summer of 1919 or Tulsa 1921). A clear and indisputable pattern is obvious. Within this historic context, this atrocity captured on video, this act of domestic terrorism was America in action. The power of the State as carried out through Officer Chauvin was in full effect. This was no malfunction…it was business as usual.

“This act of domestic terrorism was America in action.”

Our ancestors were brought to these shores for only one purpose; free labor. Our task was to perform all the requisite dirty work to build an economy and empire for Europe.  The so-called “christians” who swore in the Mayflower Compact of 1620 that they undertook, “…for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia…” could not reconcile their inhumane treatment of their African captives with their “Christianity.” To absolve themselves of the dilemma posed by the true Christian ethic that God created man in his own image, the Europeans slowly dehumanized their captives and codified this in law and constitution.

Examine the Laws of Virginia:

  • Act XII 1662, “children got by Englishmen upon a Negro woman, is the child slave or free?”  The status of the child shall be determined by the status of the mother.
  • Act II 1667 addresses, “What happens to the status of a baptized slave?” Answer: “the conferring of baptism doth not alter the condition of person as to his bondage…”
  • Act I 1669, a master cannot be charged with murder for the “casual killing of slaves” since no one in their right mind would destroy their own property.

By 1669, the enslaved were no longer persons, they were no longer human; they were property.

The Constitution gave us the Three Fifths Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Provision (the constitutional validation for slave patrols, the early form of American policing) and allowed for the importation of enslaved Africans for twenty years, until January 1, 1808.  In 1857 the Supreme Court via Chief Justice Taney gave us the Dred Scott decision, validating the belief that all blacks — enslaved as well as free — were not and could never become citizens of the United States. The framers of the Constitution, he wrote, believed that blacks“had no rights which the white man was bound to respect…”  

These are a few examples of what is meant by structural or “institutional racism.”  Stripping our ancestors of their humanity, relegating them to the position of property or things and codifying it in the founding documents and court decisions of this country. This is not a malfunction; this is the machine operating as designed!

Yes, there has been legislation and court decisions that have amended and/or eliminated many of these laws from the books. The Brown decision, the 64’ Civil Rights Act, the 65’ Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act were all great legal and legislative advancements. This progress has lulled us to sleep with a false sense of accomplishment and optimism. The reality remains that legislation alone does not do anything to disabuse those in power and those they represent of the controlling mindset of this country, of the notion that African Americans are less than human.

“This is the machine operating as designed.”

For example, banning the chokehold is a great idea, but that same banned chokehold is what killed Eric Garner.  Until we get to the real crux of the issue, the controlling and racist mindset of an entire criminal justice system that turns a blind eye to choking, shooting unarmed suspects and not holding officers accountable when they use excessively violent tactics, nothing substantive will change.  Jury verdicts validating police abuse and police departments staging sickouts to protest fellow officers being charged with crimes is evidence of the machine making corrections to protect itself.

Are the ongoing protests a moment or a movement?  The jury is still out.  The verdict will be determined by the blowback that comes from this moment and how those who are protesting and advocating for change respond to it. The response to judicial and legislative advancements is always substantive blowback.  The Supreme Court has dismantled the Voting Rights Act and conservative groups have escalated voter suppression tactics such as The Crosscheck Program. The Supreme Court has made it more difficult to prove discrimination under the Civil Rights Act.  The election of Donald Trump was blowback to the election of Barak Obama as was Sen. McConnell’s not allowing the nomination of Merrick Garland to go forward.

“The verdict will be determined by the blowback that comes from this moment.”

The American ethos of exceptionalism and the illusion of white supremacy are under attack. The battle is playing out right before our eyes on both the foreign and domestic fronts.  You cannot separate the racist aggression being carried out against people of color in the streets of the US by the State (aka the police) and the racist aggression being carried out by the US against Venezuela, Bolivia, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Yemen, Libya and Syria (just to name a few). Dr. King warned us about the three major evils: “poverty, global racial oppression and militarism”… King told us, “And we must face the hard fact that many Americans would like to have a nation which is a democracy for white Americans but simultaneously a dictatorship over black Americans.”

Too many white Americans are insecure and losing their footing in the shifting sands of the quest for ethnic equality in America.  How those of good conscience and morality respond to the violent blowback will determine if and how the country can move from this moment of unrest and uncertainty to a movement of peace and equality.  I am certain that we will never get there until Congress and others stop wading in the safety of the shallow waters of chokeholds and panels and begin to swim into the deep waters of the real issue… the racist ethos of America.

Dr. Wilmer J. Leon III is the Producer/ Host of the nationally broadcast call-in talk radio program “Inside the Issues with Leon,” on SiriusXM Satellite radio channel 126. Go to http://www.wilmerleon.com or email: wjl3us@yahoo.com. www.twitter.com/drwleon and Dr. Leon’s Prescription at Facebook.com © 2020 InfoWave Communications, LLC

Source: A Moment or a Movement? The Blowback Will Tell | Black Agenda Report

What Joe Biden should say about white supremacy – The Boston Globe

What Joe Biden should say about white supremacy – The Boston Globe

The results of the Nov. 3 election indicate that a small majority of Americans no longer want a white nationalist to run this country. This is a great relief, especially to the millions of people of color who have been the target of some of the worst racial attacks since the Jim Crow era. From profanity-laced diatribes about Black countries, the Muslim ban, and caging children, to the murderous vigilantes Trump has inspired in Pittsburgh, El Paso, and Kenosha his administration has been a spectacle of white supremacy. Voting Trump out of office, however, is only one step in confronting America’s ongoing racial crisis.

There are numerous calls for the nation to unify and heal its divisions, but how can that occur without confronting the racial chasm that has been the most consistent source of conflict since the country began?

The start of the Biden-Harris administration would be the ideal time to attempt something that has never been done before, which is to name, confront, and end white supremacy.

The following is a speech that President-elect Joe Biden could deliver during the first week of his presidency:

“I ultimately made the decision to run for president because of what occurred in Charlottesville in 2017 and how my predecessor characterized both those who oppose racism and those who promote it as ‘very fine people.’ Like many Americans, I was sickened by the divisive direction in which the country was headed. In the past year, with the horrific killing of George Floyd, many other incidents of racial violence, and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color, I have spoken out against systemic racism and pledged that my administration is committed to challenging it.

“In recent weeks, however, I have become aware that the situation of racial injustice that the nation faces is even more urgent and complex than I had previously believed. I now understand that what we face is not merely racial discrimination or even systemic racism, but institutionalized white supremacy.

“Although seldom acknowledged and purposefully hidden, systemic white supremacy has shaped America’s economy, politics, social relations, and culture from the very beginning. The nation’s origin story embodies it. This land was stolen from Indigenous people through genocide and removal, and its wealth was built by labor stolen from enslaved Africans. Those events have massive repercussions to this day, especially when we look at the high rates of poverty and unemployment in Indigenous, Black, and brown communities.

“I know that some folks may not like the term systemic white supremacy because they see it as an attack on white people. I wondered about that too, but I found out that it does not primarily refer to individual attitudes or behaviors, but to a powerful, entrenched system that consistently disadvantages people of color and privileges whites.

“When we talk about racism, we usually focus on race relations, how different kinds of people do or do not get along. Challenging individual bigotry is critical, but we have a much larger task. We need to look at the impact of systemic white supremacy on all aspects of American life.

“One of the clearest ways to grasp its impact is to examine statistics. On average a Black family headed by a person with an advanced degree has less wealth than a white family headed by a person with a high school diploma. The net worth of white families is nearly 10 times more than that of Black families. Black women’s maternal mortality rate is three times that of white women. Black and Latinx children are more than 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty than white children. Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than white men.

“These are only a few examples of how discriminatory policies and practices make the words ‘land of opportunity’ sound hollow to far too many hard-working people of color. It is time to stop playing around the edges of this problem and to fix it.

“Here are some of the actions my administration will take in the first one hundred days:

▪ I will appoint a racial justice czar who will oversee all governmental actions to address systemic white supremacy. One of their duties will be to determine the feasibility of launching a comprehensive set of interventions on the scale of the Marshall Plan to eradicate white supremacy. My current proposals for advancing racial equity in the economy, criminal justice, and health care could become core components of this larger initiative.

▪ I will engage in open dialogue with leaders who call for defunding or abolishing the police to better understand their recommendations for transforming our criminal justice system.

▪ We will support the passage of a bill before Congress (H. R. 40), the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.”

▪ We will explore initiating a Truth and Reconciliation process in consultation with countries such as Germany, South Africa, and Rwanda.

▪ We will aggressively investigate and prosecute white supremacist and white nationalist domestic terrorists who currently pose the most significant threats to the nation’s internal security.

▪ We will examine how our foreign policy and military interventions have promoted white supremacist and xenophobic agendas and will develop more just ways to interact with the global community.

“What I have outlined here are only the first steps to righting historic wrongs that have held back this nation for centuries. I will not be able to do any of this without your open-hearted participation and support. It will not be easy, but I believe that when we end racial injustice once and for all, we will become the vibrant, inclusive democracy that America was meant to be.”

This is the kind of speech that I would like Biden to give, but I do not expect that he will. It is possible that his extensive plans for increasing racial equity through economic opportunity could have an impact if fully implemented. I continue to hold onto a larger vision that challenges all of us to look at the reasons we have been stuck in this racial nightmare for more than 400 years and what we finally need to do to change it.

We can take comfort that during this perilous time we have grown tenacious grass-roots movements in opposition to violent policing, economic inequality, white supremacy, and more. As always, it is the people on the ground speaking out and doing the day-to-day work of organizing that will push America closer to freedom.

Barbara Smith is an author and independent scholar who has been active in movements for social, racial, and economic justice since the 1960s. She is coauthor of “Combahee River Collective Statement.” Follow her on Twitter @thebarbarasmith.

Source: What Joe Biden should say about white supremacy – The Boston Globe

Black Radical Activists and the Dangers of the Police State – AAIHS

Black Radical Activists and the Dangers of the Police State

During recent anti-police brutality protests and marches across the United States, American police forces have displayed the very behavior that brought people to the streets in protest. Activists have been harassed, beaten, arrested, shot at with rubber bullets and tear gas, and shot and killed by white vigilantes encouraged by police. Critics have focused their blame on the largely peaceful protestors rather than the violent police forces whose actions have been caught on camera. The police have also used their arrest power to try and stifle protest including, in one incident, arresting the only Black state legislator in Kentucky during a protest against the police violence that killed Breonna Taylor. Police abuse during social justice protests has a long history and has been part of the resistance to the kind of radical political change needed for racial justice. Angelo Herndon’s activism in the 1930s, his frequent arrests, and his unjust imprisonment is part of this long tradition of using police to prevent racial justice and stifle dissent.

In 1937, Herndon published his memoirs titled Let Me Live, where he related his family’s poverty, his employment struggles, and most importantly his radicalization in the Communist Party. The book is sometimes considered one of the first prison memoirs, but some scholars have recently argued that it is a poignant critique of racial capitalism. Herndon’s story of growing up in poverty and facing racial discrimination and police harassment demonstrate what Charisse Burden-Stelly has described as the “mutually constitutive nature of racialization and capitalism.”

In Let Me Live, Herndon describes his growing awareness of capitalist exploitation as well as the use of police as capitalist agents to control Black bodies. Herndon was born in Wyoming, Ohio in 1913, one of eight children. His family’s precarious financial position declined further after his father died from miner’s pneumonia when he was nine years old. At only thirteen, Herndon and his older brother Leo left home and traveled to Lexington, Kentucky to find work as miners. His first job as a miner, working and living in a segregated community, was a wake-up call. His wages, which were meant to help his whole family, were often consumed by company fees leaving him and his brother barely able to support themselves. Frustrated, the Herndon’s left Kentucky and went to their father’s birthplace, Birmingham, Alabama. Leo found a job, but Angelo remained unemployed. In the process of trying to find work, Herndon met a labor agent who convinced him to leave town for work on a bridge. When he arrived, he realized that he and other Black laborers had been lured to work as slave laborers policed by armed guards and given no wages. Herndon and a few other workers managed to escape, despite being chased by dogs.

Herndon’s time in Birmingham radicalized him further. When he finally found work with a mining company, he was disgusted with the company union that failed to advocate for workers. He witnessed a coworker’s death after management failed to make necessary repairs to the machinery he worked on; he and other employees moved his body out of the way to continue work. While traveling through town he witnessed a conductor beat a Black man who did not defend himself; his frustrations mounted until one day he refused to move on a Jim Crow car, he was left alone after the conductor told people he was crazy. In June 1930 he happened upon an Unemployed Council (UC) leaflet announcing a meeting, this was Herndon’s introduction to political organization and the Communist Party (CPUSA).

Herndon became a UC organizer and began attending meetings, organizing events, and traveling to UC conferences. He respected the UC and CPUSA for embracing an antiracist position and calling for working-class unity and he came to believe that communism was the “only philosophy of living worthy of a thinking civilized man.” Unfortunately for Herndon, the police did not take kindly to communist organizing and especially to a Black communist. As Marion Ross argues, Herndon’s “redness” and “Blackness” made him a criminal in the eyes of the law. His first arrest came when he tried to organize his fellow miners into the United Mine Workers, he was charged with vagrancy, though he was employed, and held in solitary confinement for seven days.

At his trial, the prosecutor focused on the threat Black men posed to white women’s virtue; this was enough for a guilty sentence and twelve months imprisonment and a $500 fine. When the prosecutor painted Herndon as a sexual predator, he was alerting the all-white jury to the belief that the Black body had to be controlled to secure white supremacy. His conviction was eventually overturned in the circuit court, but it was enough to move Herndon to officially join the CPUSA. Soon after he was arrested again walking to a CPUSA Labor Day rally; he was held for eleven days with other prisoners detained for mental illness. After his second arrest, Herndon’s memoir pivots from a story of radicalization to one of fascist police abusing him and his fellow organizers with impunity.

Herndon’s every movement in Birmingham was followed by police who arrested him on any pretense; it became such a frequent occurrence that he claimed it drove him further into the arms of the CPUSA. But it also became too difficult to live there, so in 1931 he took a job with the Trade Union Unity League to help organize longshoremen in New Orleans. Even in Louisiana the police dogged his every move, and he was arrested again. He also became active in the campaign to free the Scottsboro boys, nine Black youths arrested for allegedly raping two white women on a train.

Herndon returned to Alabama to organize for the Scottsboro defense and to try and help with the organization of sharecroppers in Camden County, but he was chased out of town by the threats of a lynch mob. When he arrived back in Birmingham he was arrested right off the train. Herndon did not stay long, he was sent to organize for the UC in Atlanta, GA in 1932. When the city announced it was going to drop over 20,000 people from the relief rolls, Herndon sprung into action. He began producing leaflets and organizing marches, all of which brought law enforcement attention. While picking up mail at the post office he was arrested and charged under an 1861 law to prevent slave insurrections; the place where he was staying was raided and all of his pamphlets and books were seized, later to be used against him in court.

Herndon described his subsequent imprisonment, trials, and conviction as being “crucified by capitalist law and order.” He was held incommunicado until a fellow inmate smuggled out a letter to the International Labor Defense, an organization devoted to defending workers. It was this arrest that prompted Herndon to write Let Me Live; in it he described his months in solitary, then on death row, the “kangaroo court” trial in which the prosecutor went into a “lynch frenzy,” and his conviction and sentence of 18-20 years on a chain gang, a death by labor sentence. This arrest would make Angelo Herndon a household name for radicals raising awareness about the dangers of the police state and its concerted efforts to quash social justice. All told, Herndon would spend two and a half years in jail while his appeals were heard. After the CPUSA mobilized a global defense around Herndon, the charges would eventually be dropped, and he would be free. He later described his imprisonment as an “apprenticeship in the revolutionary struggle.”

Herndon recognized what even today some Americans are only just realizing: that the police are not public servants meant to keep the peace, that they are agents of social control. While speaking to other prisoners, Herndon told them that if there was a “decent government” who cared for people’s needs, rather than protecting capitalist profits, fewer people would be imprisoned. Herndon was arrested so many times as a known UC organizer that he lost count; he recruited others to the UC and CPUSA by arguing that they had to make change because we are all “in the same leaky boat.” His memoirs have been described as prison literature, a critique of racial capitalism, communist propaganda, and in the tradition of slave narratives — it is also a book about police abuse and control and policing as a tool to control Black America and working people. It is a narrative that is all too familiar to today’s activists, that policing is a barrier rather than a path to social justice.

Source: Black Radical Activists and the Dangers of the Police State – AAIHS

Jon Henry’s ‘Stranger Fruit’ shows Black mothers’ constant fear of loss and trauma

For America’s Black mothers, the fear of loss and trauma is constantWhen photographer Jon Henry poses families as if in mourning, he’s calling out police violence that too often kills young Black men and terrifies their mothers.

Source: Jon Henry’s ‘Stranger Fruit’ shows Black mothers’ constant fear of loss and trauma

Tulsa digs for mass graves from 1921 race massacre – The Washington Post

Archaeologists and forensic scientists watch as excavation begins at Tulsa's Oaklawn Cemetery, where there could be a mass grave from the 1921 race massacre. (Photo by Nick Oxford for The Washington Post)
Archaeologists and forensic scientists watch as excavation begins at Tulsa’s Oaklawn Cemetery, where there could be a mass grave from the 1921 race massacre. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post)
July 13, 2020 at 8:28 p.m. EDT

TULSA — Nearly a century after a brutal race massacre left as many as 300 black people dead, this city began to dig Monday for suspected mass graves from the violence.

 

A team of scientists, archaeologists and forensic anthropologists watched as a backhoe moved dirt from an 8-by-10-foot hole at the city-owned Oaklawn Cemetery, where ground-penetrating radar last year detected anomalies consistent with mass graves.

Several descendants of massacre survivors bore witness to the moment outside the graveyard’s wrought-iron fence, standing in a light rain after the work was briefly delayed by booming thunder and lightning.

J. Kavin Ross, whose great-grandfather owned a business that was destroyed in the massacre, said he had waited a long time for this day.

“I’ve waited for this day for over two decades to find out the truth of Tulsa’s public secrets,” said Ross, a photojournalist and teacher in Tulsa who spent years of his own time interviewing survivors of the massacre. “A lot of people knew about it but wouldn’t tell about it.”

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum (R), who ordered the investigation reopened after a Washington Post story detailed the unresolved questions surrounding the violence, told reporters that he once thought it was incredible that there could be mass graves in Tulsa.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum talks Monday about the search for mass graves at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa. (Photo by Nick Oxford for The Washington Post)
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum talks Monday about the search for mass graves at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post)

“You hear about mass graves in authoritarian regimes,” he said. “You don’t hear about them in the United States and definitely shouldn’t be hearing about them in Tulsa.”

The excavation was delayed for three months by the coronavirus pandemic.

It comes weeks after President Trump appeared in Tulsa at a campaign rally that drew more than 6,000 people to an indoor arena, where few wore masks. Tulsa Health Department Executive Director Bruce Dart said last week that a spike in new coronavirus cases in Tulsa may be linked to Trump’s rally and the protests it generated.

But Bynum decided not to postpone the work at Oaklawn a second time. He called the investigation personal for him. “I don’t want my kids growing up in a city where we might be walking around on mass graves, and we haven’t done everything we could to find them and identify the victims,” he said.

Although the scientists said their radar findings are promising, the only way to determine precisely what lies beneath the ground is to dig. The excavation will take up to two weeks.

In the trench, archeologists found pottery pieces, glass items, metal bowl, an oven door and buttons dating back to 1920s.

Phoebe Stubblefield, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Florida, said she’s hopeful that any bones found will be preserved well enough to “allow us to extract DNA from remains” that could help identify the victims and connect them to descendants.

She said she would be looking for intact bones. She will also be looking for any signs of violence or trauma, or charred remains.

The backhoe is moving slowly so as not to crush any bones that may be in the trench. Stubblefield said she expects the backhoe to dig 4 to 5 feet before hitting any potential remains.

Archaeologists examine a hole dug during a test excavation at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa on Monday. (Photo by Nick Oxford for The Washington Post)
Archaeologists examine a hole dug during a test excavation at Oaklawn Cemetery in Tulsa on Monday. (Nick Oxford for The Washington Post)

The rest of the excavation will be done by hand. If the city finds unmarked human remains at the site, the state medical examiner’s office will begin an investigation to determine how the person died.

“The cause of death determination would be an important step to the investigation as remains will be close to 100 years old and a Spanish Influenza outbreak occurred in Tulsa in 1919 prior to the Race Massacre in 1921,” city officials said in a statement.

The city is expected to issue daily updates on the excavation.

The work comes nearly seven months after a team of forensic anthropologists and archaeologists, led by the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey at the University of Oklahoma, announced that they had found “possible common graves” at two sites in Tulsa.

They identified the sites as the Canes, located on a bluff along the Arkansas River near Highway 75, and the Sexton area of Oaklawn Cemetery, which is a few blocks from Greenwood, the black community that was destroyed during one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history.

The aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. (Library of Congress/AFP/Getty Images)
The aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. (Library of Congress/AFP/Getty Images)

The massacre began May 31, 1921, after a black teenager, who was working as a shoe shiner in downtown Tulsa, was accused of assaulting a white woman in an elevator. A white mob marched on Greenwood, one of the most affluent black communities in the country.

Historians believe that as many as 300 black people were killed, and 40 square blocks of what was known as Black Wall Street were destroyed by fire. The destruction included more than 1,250 homes, churches, schools, businesses, a hospital and library.

Survivors reported seeing bodies tossed into the muddy Arkansas River or loaded onto trucks or trains, making it difficult to account for the dead.

For decades afterward, people in Tulsa avoided discussing what had happened. No one was ever arrested for the violence. But Bynum has said it is time to find out whether there are mass graves, especially as the city prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the massacre.

“There was a concerted coverup by city leaders and business leaders” to hide what happened, he said. “Anytime a terrible event occurs, there are two inclinations. One is to find out what happened and why. The other inclination is to cover it up. Unfortunately, the leaders in Tulsa in 1921 chose that second option. You had generations who never heard about the massacre because the conspiracy of silence was strong.”

 

Read more Retropolis:

DeNeen L. Brown, who has been an award-winning staff writer in The Washington Post Metro, Magazine and Style sections, has also worked as the Canada bureau chief for The Washington Post. As a foreign correspondent, she wrote dispatches from Greenland, Haiti, Nunavut and an icebreaker in the Northwest Passage. Follow

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