Violence of Whiteness
It is not hard to look at mainstream media and find all kinds of images of "scary" black people. Just last week we all watched #pointergate unfold in which a black male activist was turned into a monstrous gangster after posing with the mayor of Minneapolis The image created around his person and work was not one of community builder, activist, or, you know, human. Instead the media was all too excited to make him a body worthy of fear.
With the violent murders of Trayvon Martin, Ranisha McBride, John Crawford, Mike Brown and far too many others, America continues to witness the devastating, deadly effects of the fear of the black body. In each instance of the deaths above a white person cites "fear" as the reason or provocation for taking a life. Over and over America believes this is enough. "I was afraid of that big black body, wouldn't you be too?" is considered a reasonable defense. It perhaps holds the best chance for success. It always has.
And yet I find this image of the monstrous black body puzzling, because it is the violence of whiteness that has proven itself worthy of fear.
Shall we begin with the violent institution of chattel slavery? Beginning in 1619, Africans are brought to the shores of America, denied even basic human rights and made to be perpetually submissive to owners. For 246 years white America upholds, defends, and sheds blood in an effort to protect the institution of slavery. The historic willingness of whiteness to sacrifice its own humanity and in process deny the humanity of black people, is terrifying. It is white supremacy that has been historically violent.
While America loves to pat itself on the back for abolishing slavery and ushering in the reconstruction era, in doing so it chooses to forget. It chooses to forget the violent institutions that were set up to "keep blacks in their place". In some states the black codes were developed the same year the constitution abolished slavery. For another 100 years, white supremacy is carefully guarded by ensuring black people occupied a permanent second-class status thanks to Jim Crow. But this systemic power was not enough to satisfy. So it perfected mob lynching. Kidnapping black men, women and children, whiteness made a sport of killing black bodies, taking pleasure in lifeless bodies swinging from branches. Daring to take pictures and send postcards once the deed was done, this act succeeded in intimidating and oppressing black bodies. Of the 4,743 recorded lynchings in the US, 3,446 were black according to the records of Tuskegee Institute. The white supremacist propensity for taking pleasure in the destruction of black bodies is terrifying. It is white supremacy that has been historically violent.
When Jim Crow was finally abolished, white America was not yet done with its desire for violent containment. Race riots in America were yet another invention of whiteness. No longer content to target just one black body at a time, white mobs determined instead to do harm to entire black families, neighborhoods, communities. Mostly happening in the North, whites would terrorize black communities by beating and killing residents and then destroying their property. In 1919 alone, there were 26 race riots that broke out all over the country, leaving more than 100 black people dead, thousands wounded and many homeless. It is white supremacy who has long considered it a right to take the lives and property of black families. It is white supremacy that has been historically violent.
As African Americans continued to fight for civil rights, white power structures continued to find new ways to practice systemic violence. Contract housing extracted huge amounts of wealth from black communities, leaving them shells of their former selves. The governmental practice of redlining clearly told black communities they were unwanted, non-members of the cities where they lived. Developments in transportation were often used to physically segregate back communities away from other areas of the city. The right to vote was kept out of reach by a number of evolving laws and policies. How do we even summarize the damage the criminal justice system has done to black communities over the course of American history? It is white supremacy that has found ever creative ways to shut out and shut down black folks from being considered fully American, fully human. It is white supremacy that has been historically violent.
It was not blacks who enslaved millions of people for financial gain. It was not blacks who lynched thousands of people for entertainment. It was not blacks who regularly invaded the neighborhoods of other communities to wreak havoc. It was not blacks who created laws to disenfranchise others. These are the violent inventions of white supremacy.
And this is why we sit in anticipation of every decision that involves unarmed, dead, black bodies. This is why we sit on the edges of our seats and wonder whether or not America will acknowledge our humanity this time. This is why we anxiously watch Ferguson.
It is not African Americans who need to be feared. It is white supremacy that keeps inequality alive, that strips white folks of their humanity, that continues to take the lives of black folks largely without repercussion or consequence. It is not the black body that needs to be resisted but the lie that white equals safety. The lie that white needs to defend itself from blackness. The lie that white means just. We must look at our past and how that past is connected to today. We must choose a new way forward. A way that resists violence, that chooses equality, that finally surrenders to humility, to repentance, to love. We must believe that every win for white supremacy is a loss for us all.
And I believe it is why Ferguson will march, will be witness, no matter the decision to indict or not. Ferguson has chosen to give voice not only to Mike Brown's death- but to the mass violence of whiteness against black bodies. We wait. We watch. But know this, we do not do so idly. We never have. It is not in our nature to wait without working. Past generations died to enact the rights we have today. Now, our generation seeks equal enforcement.
In Ferguson and across the country we will give voice to unjust systems. Whatever the coming weeks bring, of this you can be sure: we will fight on.
*I want to acknowledge this this post was limited to African American history. But the violence that white supremacy has enacted over the course of American history includes far more people groups. I also want to acknowledge this is not the entirety of African American history in this country. My purpose is not to explore every area of black history, but instead to reposition the focus of historic violence. I hope I have accomplished this.