A postcard dated August 3, 1920, depicts the aftermath of a lynching in Center, Texas, near the Louisiana border. According to the text on the other side, the victim was a 16-year-old boy.
Last night, Black Lives Matter activists in Minneapolis protesting the shooting of Jamar Clark were attacked – five people were wounded, but thankfully none of their injuries are life-threatening. Several witnesses told the Washington Post what they saw:
“One of the white protesters who had been with us since the beginning said, ‘Be careful, those guys are white supremacists,’” Brown said, referring to the three men and one woman in balaclavas. “We asked them to remove their masks, asked who they were, invited them to come and protest with us peacefully once they did that.”
“One of our young men reached out and touched one of them and said, ‘Oh he has a vest on’ like a bulletproof vest,” she added.
One witness, who did not want be named, was among those who followed the outsiders up the street.
“About midway down the block the group sort of thinned out and I said, ‘Maybe we should turn around, not make them feel like we’re all up on them,’ and the minute I turned around I heard four shots,” he said. “One whizzed right by me. I was going to get down but then I just ran.”
I am in awe of the bravery of the protestors who reached out to people who obviously seemed to want to do them harm. That kind of loving openness to one’s enemy is astounding. I can’t imagine what it must feel like, as a young black man, to stand inches from potentially fatal violence – to have that kind of hatred focused on you. His decision, under the heat of that gaze, not to strike out in defense or even ignore it but to reach out and invite that person in is truly astounding. It is the kind of courage we should all aspire to. It is grace-filled.
All of this makes the reticence to label the people who committed this act white supremacists incredibly frustrating. Here’s the Washington Post quoting Keith Ellison (D), the local Congressman:
“I don’t want to perpetuate rumor,” he said, according to Minnesota Public Radio. “I’d rather just try to get the facts out. That’s a better way to go. I know there’s a lot of speculation as to who these people were. And they well could have been, I’m not trying to say they weren’t white supremacists. But I just haven’t been able to piece together enough information to say with any real clarity.”
And a quote from the article itself:
Several people involved in the demonstrations — including a Black Lives Matter organizer and the NAACP Minneapolis chapter president — have called the alleged gunmen white supremacists. Authorities, however, have not confirmed those claims.
These quotes demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what white supremacy is and where it exists. For these authority figures, to call someone a white supremacist is to allege membership with a specific group or entity: the American Freedom Party; Volksfront; the Klu Klux Klan.
Such a definition is too narrow – by limiting white supremacy to its most potent exhibitors, it fails to reckon with how deeply such ideology was rooted in our law and society.
The subjugation of people of color, and in particular black Americans, in order to elevate white citizens above their station, has lasted much longer than slavery. It was the core motivation behind sharecropping and Jim Crow and redlining and mortgage discrimination and farm loan discrimination and racially restrictive covenants and the War on Drugs. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes powerfully about this American heritage in his 2014 article The Case for Reparations.
White supremacy also motivated the murder of thousands by lynching. And the thing about lynching is that you didn’t need to be a card-carrying member of the KKK to participate. Entire communities of white citizens mobbed together to drag their black neighbors from their homes and hang them from trees. Often, it was a spectacle – people brought their children. Today, we rightfully call these murders acts of white supremacy – because fundamentally, their purpose was to subjugate black people with violence and fear.
Evidence presented during the trial indicated that Eye and Sandstrom were involved in two separate attacks against McCay while he was walking to work at about 6 a.m. on March 9, 2005 … In the first incident, which occurred at 9th Street and Spruce, Eye fired a .22-caliber revolver at McCay but missed him. Sandstrom drove around the block looking for McCay, who could have identified them to law enforcement authorities. When they caught up with McCay at 9th Street and Brighton, Eye got out of the vehicle and fatally shot him.
These murderers weren’t official members of any hate group, nor were they acting on behalf of one. They lynched him because he was black. Period. The mob may have been smaller, but the motivation behind the murder was the same.
White supremacy doesn’t need a hood and a robe and a burning cross to exist. It has existed in manifold forms and intensities throughout American life. Thankfully, its influence has diminished, and hopefully continues to wane in the future. But events like the shootings in Minneapolis can’t be divorced from history – they are merely the most recent data points on a long continuum of violent oppression.
In Minnesota last night, people attempted to terrorize and murder a group of protesters speaking up against the discriminatory killings of black Americans. It strains credulity to imagine that these acts were not committed to threaten and intimidate people into silence. Such violence should be more than enough to properly brand its perpetrators as white supremacists. The refusal to do so is a willful denial of our history and its legacy.