A brief history of reactionary white violence in America
What the majority of these instances have in common is that, to date, few perpetrators were caught and no reparations have been paid.
by Kamali Senior
Content Warning: This essay contains discussion of anti-Black violences, including lynching and r/pe
American history is marred by white violence, extremism, and terrorism, as harrowing as it is extensive. In America, the archetype of a terrorist is, allegedly, a disaffected Black or brown person with radical ideologies, willing to act on them. This point of view is one that overlooks the fact that whites in America have routinely rioted, murdered, raped, and looted Black communities in this country with impunity.
This history is a lasting testament to the racial antagonism and terrorism Black people have constantly faced from White America. What the majority of these instances have in common is that, to date, few perpetrators were caught and no reparations have been paid.
In New Orleans, circa 1900, a Black activist by the name of Robert Charles was harassed by white police officers. The altercation escalated into a shoot out, then further into a four-day riot. In all, it cost 28 lives, the majority of them Black.
In Atlanta, 1906, a two-day long riot erupted after false rape accusations were levied against Black men at a nearby town. As commonplace practice in this country’s history, these accusations were used as a pretext for white men to vindicate their violent impulses.
The riot was so intense that the National Guard was sent there to “restore peace”. A peace that came at the cost of 250 Black arrests, and another 25 men dead. There are varying accounts of what happened, and the casualty count is placed at around 25 people, but some researchers argue that there could have been more.
In 1908, the same year the NAACP was founded, a race riot broke out in Springfield, Illinois. The riot was caused when a group of white men gathered to lynch two Black men who were accused of violent crimes.
When the intended targets were moved to another location in police custody, the mob whipped itself into a frenzy and found two other men and lynched them instead. Meanwhile, other whites proceeded to loot and burn the Black community of the small town.
In 1910, whites in Slocum, Texas feared reprisals for a lynching tied to a debt owed by a Black resident who had been killed by (or at the behest of) his white debtor. Without warning, white men combed through the town while fleeing and any unarmed Blacks that they encountered on their way were shot.
For more than a century, white historians in Slocum did not recognize this as a massacre. There had to be repeated challenges to amend the official historical record to recognize this great loss of life as the massacre that it was.
The Red Summer of 1919 was even more gruesome. Numerous race riots sprung up all throughout America. These riots were the result of widespread racial animosity and the conflation of Black Americans resistance to racial oppression as bolshevism. This was also happened to be the same year that the (white) women’s suffrage movement won the right to vote.
One of the most prominent race riots in American history was what is now known as the “Black Wall Street Massacre” of 1921. As the story goes, a white mob in Tulsa, Oklahoma planned a lynching that had gone awry. Violence erupted and the Black community of Greenwood bore the brunt of its devastation. The riot claimed the lives of some 300 Black folk, and left 10,000 Black citizens homeless. More than 1,200 homes and 35 blocks of city were destroyed.
A cousin to the white-instigated race riot, mass shootings are mostly promulgated by discontented, right-wing extremists on a regular basis. This myopia is not only insincere, it is dangerous. The resources that could surveil, intercept, and prevent these violent outbursts are instead used to further suppress, intimidate, and corral Black dissidents, rather than pursue the very real threat of violence from other white Americans.
This legacy of violent terror was, and still is, used as a means to reassert and maintain white supremacy. If that were not the case, the Stoneman-Douglas school shooting, the Charleston 9 Massacre, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the tragedy of the 16th Street bombing carried out by white supremacist terrorists, would not be a part of this tapestry.
Instead of acknowledging them as violent terrorists, mainstream media repeatedly attempts to humanize the perpetrators of these monstrous acts. They aren’t terrorists, but instead, a wayward youth, a misunderstood outsider, or a good man who simply made bad decisions. Never are they equivocal to the imaginary boogeymen that Black and brown people are portrayed as in the white imagination.
The inability for whites to accept this legacy is what maintains the systems impunity, although it is the justice system that enables this. This cognitive dissonance and paranoia has real consequences that extend even to the highest levels of our government.
White Americans continuously associate the label of terrorist with stereotypical depictions of evil Black and brown people threatening to destroy the “freedoms” they hold dear. They refuse to acknowledge that, often times, the perpetrators of the violence they fear look like them, rather than the racist caricatures they so adamantly believe in.
This legacy of violent terrorism lives on, and is kept alive by false equivocation and misinformation. It has been persistent for as long as this country has existed, and has no designs on changing.