Toward the end of the mid-term election cycle, the Republicans resorted to their usual gaslighting ads. The emphasis was on crime and violence, with some pictures, certainly, but more with verbiage that anyone who is afraid of Black people and Black crime readily identifies.
It was Lee Atwater, a Republican strategist, said in 1981that Republicans had to find ways to say what they wanted to say without actually saying it. He was using, or implementing, the “Southern Strategy,” and in 1981, he explained how it worked:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
I was appalled when I first listened to that interview, but I also understood that Atwater and the GOP knew how to use race – and the belief that Black violence is the root of American problems – to bait white people. At once infuriating and troubling, the strategy has continued to be used. In the fight for power in the American political system, the race card is always played. And it always works.
The fact of the matter is, however, that white violence has been the plague and the scourge of American politics and has been a part of American life since the Puritans landed on these shores. White people decided they were sent here by God to make a country for white people – and for that reason, they felt justified in carrying out violence against Indigenous people who already lived here. Yes, there was violence on both sides – but much of the violence was instigated by the new white people who landed in their country. They fought to get power and they fought to keep it. It was accepted, and thought to be sanctioned by God.
Since then, white people in power have used their status and money to encourage and support mob violence against any group that they have decided are threats to their power. Black people have been attacked, of course, but so have white people who have dared challenge the system and other ethnic groups who came here and worked to help build the American empire. Adam Hochschild, in his book American Midnight: The Great War, a Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis, describes how in 1917, a group of white laborers, who were seeking to form a union in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were visited by police during a meeting and were subsequently arrested. They were charged with vagrancy, though Hochschild noted that they all had jobs. That didn’t matter. They were convicted of the charges, fined, and thrown into jail. Others were arrested that same night.
Later that evening, they were taken from their jail cells (in police cars) to a railroad crossing, where they were taken out of the police cars. What they saw was a mob of men, dressed in black robes and black masks, carrying rifles and revolvers. Even though it was freezing, these men were made to strip to their waists and remove their shoes. One by one, they were led to a tree at gunpoint, tied to it, and beaten. The vigilantes had hot tar that they poured onto the backs of these men, and completed their violence by stuffing feathers into the bloody and tarred wounds, terrorizing these men who simply wanted to organize so they could be paid their worth. Their clothes and shoes were set on fire and they were told to run – half-naked and shoeless – for their lives, which they did. It is a horrible story, but not unique. White mob violence, often rooted in race but always grounded in the fear of losing power, is a part of the American story. (Hochschild, pp. 3-4).
The media does not pay attention to white violence. The violence of angry white men and women, so vehement that it led them to attack the nation’s Capitol and threaten to kill elected officials and to attack police officers – who are normally deified by the white population – was not reported as white terrorist mob violence, and even those who participated in it have said that Americans concerned with happened should just “move on.” But even in the shadow of that horrible day, the usual ads showed up during this election cycle, with a woman’s soft voice seeming to warn all white Americans that they should never forget that Black crime is the major reason they should vote for those who are tough on “law and order.”
If America was tough on all people who broke the law, my angst would not be so pronounced, but the fact is, white mob violence is too often ignored, and, worse than that, is often supported and participated in by law enforcement officers themselves. Police do not protect the masses; they do, however, do what they need to do to stay in relationship with those who are in power. Jill Lepore wrote in a 2020 article entitled “The Invention of the Police” in The New Yorker, asked “Why did American policing get so big, so fast? The answer, mainly, is slavery.” Someone, she wrote, “someone had to invent the police.” In this country, civilians were deputized to catch Africans who attempted to flee from being enslaved. These men and women were not criminals; they were human beings who knew that they did not deserve to be treated as objects and who exercised the human yearning to be free, but those who needed them to remain enslaved so that their profits would continue to increase, managed to criminalize them for wanting to be free – and the designation has never been corrected. Slave laws were passed and those who sought freedom were thus in violation of “the law.” Those laws included being illegal for a Black person to carry a gun and defend himself, and needing a certificate in order to leave the premises of his/her owner’s property. There were many of these laws, but the point is that white vigilante groups – called slave patrols- were formed and members were rewarded for bringing Africans/African Americans either back to what the society said was their rightful place – or for killing them. (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/07/20/the-invention-of-the-police)
White mob violence was not limited to Black people. Immigrants in this country have been historically attacked – and not just immigrants with brown skin. Asians have been attacked by white mobs. Those who have fought for the development of unions have likewise been the victims of white mob violence. The numbers of recorded beatings of marginalized groups are staggering but many of them go – and have always gone – unreported.
White mob violence is a part of the American fabric.
We have before us now the 2024 presidential elections, and the ads are going to pop up again, reminding white Americans that they should be afraid of Black people. It would be great if this country would begin to tell the story of America – and how white men (and women) in power have advocated racialized violence in order to maintain power.
The truth is, the angry white mobs do not want democracy. They want total control, with authority to keep people “in their place.” It was the late Paul Weyrich who outright said, “I don’t want everybody to vote.” Weyrich, called by some the “Stalin of Conservatism” said that when too many people vote, the leverage of the GOP (and Conservatism) decreases.
One way to keep them from voting and upsetting the leveraged is to use fear, and that’s what the anti-crime ads produce.
Maybe if the stories were told, this whole “Black people are inherently bad” narrative could be put to rest, and real attention could be paid to domestic white thugs who specialize in terrorizing groups of people. Only the truth, exposed and taught, will make this country “safe” for all those who live in danger of being attacked every day merely for being who they are.
A candid observation …