Tag Archives: Lynching

Ferguson and the Lingering “Floating Negro” Syndrome in America

Protestoers in Ferguson, Missouri hold up their hands and chant "Don't Shoot!"To much of white America, they're just some good ole' fashioned dangerous negroes. Photo by Lucas Jackson for Reuters.

Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri hold up their hands and chant “Don’t Shoot!” In the eyes of many white Americans, they’re just some good ole’ fashioned dangerous negroes. Photo by Lucas Jackson for Reuters.

In America, nothing is ever about race, except when it’s about race. You see, Americans have this little problem about race and historical perspective: since day-one, we’ve been wrestling over the so obvious-it’s-not-obvious paradox that stems from one of our most cherished documents proclaiming that “All Men are Created Equal” in a society where this has patently not been the case. The fact that the guy who wrote those inspiring words was a slave-owning, black concubine-schtupping product of imperialist era racialized thinking — in addition to being a brilliant statesman and enlightened political theorist — perfectly captures the mind-bending level of irony that stands at the heart of America’s experience when it comes to race. For over 2oo years, Americans have been alternating between grasping the wolf of slavery by the Ears and letting the beast go — and then trying to deal with the entailing racial consequences.

Such is the historical legacy on full display in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the August 9 shooting of eighteen year-old, unarmed black man Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson. That’s right, it matters that Brown was Black and Wilson is white. I already wrote a probably brilliant post on the Ferguson shooting, but the whole case demands an even more probably brilliant post! If you don’t think that race matters in the Ferguson case, allow me to learn ya’ a thing-or-two about why being a black person in America carries the unfortunate connotation of criminality.

What we’ve seen in Ferguson — the protests, the white police clashing with black residents, the typical claims by right-wing media outlets that “It’s not about Race!” — all invoke a historical legacy planted in American slavery and harvested during Jim Crow that identified the so-called “floating negro” as the prototypical American criminal. But before we discuss the “floating negro” syndrome, let’s briefly remind ourselves why race matters when it comes to broadly discussing crime in America — and the Ferguson case in particular. Consider, as Talking Points Memo reports, how the more scuzzy elements of the right-wing moron-o-sphere have effectively tried to legitimize Brown’s killing by tarring him as an “n-word” “negro,” “thug.”

For example, the website of noted conservative douche-canoe, David Horowitz, notes that Brown liked rap music (a black guy that likes rap music, will the shocking revelations ever cease!), that Brown was shown flashing hand-gestures that “some say are gang-signs,” and that he allegedly swiped some cheap cigars as depicted on a quick-e-mart’s security video. Plus, Brown was black. In a similar vein, the conspiracy nut-factory Worldnet Daily claims that Brown was a pot-smoker who rapped about pot-smoking, and, therefore, deserved to die. Because only black people smoke weed. And Brown was black. And that’s the real point here. Thus, when the New York Times claimed that Brown was “no angel,” that claim ignited some major controversy because the Times seemed to somehow suggest that Brown deserved to be shot dead because he was already a bit of a bad (black) seed.

But the point here isn’t that black people aren’t, and can’t be, criminals. Of course they can, and of course some of them are. No, the point is that, in American culture, blackness is automatically associated with criminality and deviance in a way that has never been the case with whiteness. To be white in America is to be American by default, but to be black in America is to be, by default, a potential criminal. What conservative media outlets — and a good chunk of white America — are harping on is the notion that Brown deserved to die because he was probably a criminal. And he was probably a criminal because he was black. But this isn’t a “natural,” “foregone” conclusion; rather, it’s a conclusion woven out of very potent historical threads that, when knitted together, created a cultural meme that associated blackness with deviance and justified constant white control over supposed black criminality.

In the antebellum South, slavery wasn’t just an economic system, it was also a system of racial control that gave whites total domestic, social, and political power over blacks. But what about when the Civil War ended slavery? How did whites scheme to control blacks then? The answer eventually coalesced under the banner of Jim Crow, a system of white hegemony over black human rights that created a nation-wide racial apartheid that was strongest in the South, where the legacy of slavery especially poisoned black-white social relations.

Officer Darren Wilson (left) the cop who shot Mike Brown (right). And so, the American racial saga continues.

Officer Darren Wilson (left) the cop who shot Mike Brown (right). And so, the American racial saga continues.

The most dangerous form of racial control in the Jim Crow South came in the form of lynching: an extra-legal form of law enforcement. And what so-often justified this form of illegal rough justice, you may ask? The answer was pretty straightforward: blacks were criminals who needed to be controlled and punished — especially when the law failed to do just that. Lynching, then, was law-enforcement by mob-rule. This brings us now to the “floating negro” syndrome.

Early twentieth-century muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker coined the phrase “floating negro” in his 1905 report “What is Lynching?” Baker wanted to understand how seemingly normal, small-town Americans could be responsible for the horrors of lynching, in which blacks were tortured, hanged, mutilated, and even burned alive. Now, Baker was, in many ways, a progressive-minded social-reformer whose heart was often in the right place. But he was also a man of his time who harboured some of the same (albeit water-down) notions of black inferiority that more avowed racists wore on their sleeves. Thus, while Baker was against lynching, his explanation for why it happened rested on the kind of racially based, “blame the victim” mentality that continues to influence public debate over contemporary cases like the Ferguson shooting.

In particular, Baker identified the “Danger from the Floating Negro” as the primary explanation for why lynchings occurred:

In all the towns I visited, South as well as North, I found that this floating, worthless negro caused most of the trouble. He prowls the roads by day and by night; he steals; he makes it unsafe for women to travel alone. Sometimes he has gone to school long enough to enable him to read a little and to write his name, enough education to make him hate the hard work of the fields and aspire to better things, without giving him the determination to earn them.*

In Baker’s estimation, these violence-prone, poorly educated, sexually lascivious, lazy negroes floated aimlessly across the white American landscape, driven by little more than malice in their hearts toward the caucasian devils who kept them down. No wonder lynchings occurred. According to Baker, rough justice was the natural — if sometimes brutal — white response to a very real danger: the danger that one of these ill-tempered blacks might float into their towns and wreck criminal havoc before moving on to their next sight of debauchery:

He [the floating negro] is often under the domination of half-educated negro preachers, who sometimes make it their stock in trade to stir their followers to greater hatred of the whites. He has little or no regard for the family relations or home life, and when he commits a crime or is tired of one locality, he sets out un-encumbered to seek new fields, leaving his wife and children without the slightest compunction.*

Now, if you’ve been paying any attention to the media coverage of the Ferguson shooting, you should recognize some of the same themes as noted in Baker’s report. Mike Brown wasn’t lynched in the traditional sense, but he did feel the same brunt of racially motivated justice that fueled both the legal and extra-legal application of the law for much of U.S. history.

The floating negro who is “under the domination of half-educated negro preachers, who sometimes make it their stock in trade to stir their followers to greater hatred of the whites?” Enter the far-right publication the New American, which launched a standard conservative criticism of black preachers like Rev. Al Sharpton, whom it called a “notorious racist agitator” who went to Ferguson “to add his own incendiary remarks to the volatile mix.” A “worthless negro” who “steals” and “prowls the roads by day and by night?” Enter John Lott of the right-wing Daily Caller, who claims that “Michael Brown looks more like a thug, not an innocent victim.” And while Lott acknowledges that, “Black pepole [sic] have legitimate historical grievances over how they have been treated by police,” he ultimately asserts that “the main problem facing the black community is black-on-black crime.”

Ray Stannard Baker, the journalist who identified the "floating negro" as the cause of white-on-black violence.i

Ray Stannard Baker, the journalist who identified the “floating negro” as the cause of Jim Crow-era white-on-black violence.

It really doesn’t matter if any of the above criticisms of the shooting of Michael Brown stem from any inherent racist attitudes. As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva notes in his book, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, white people in America often claim that race, as an issue, should be relegated to the past. “Most whites believe that if blacks and other minorities would just stop thinking about the past, work hard, and complain less (particularly about racial discrimination), then Americans of all hues could ‘all get along,’ he writes”*

But Bonilla-Silva argues that it just ain’t that simple. Many whites have adopted “color-blind racism” that justifies modern racial inequality and absolves them from “any responsibility for the status of people of color.”* Color-blind racism is the kind of “soft racism” that fuels discriminatory housing, school, and employment policies. It also drives political gerrymandering schemes and voter ID laws that disproportionately affect blacks. Indeed, color-blind racism “aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards.”*

Color-blind racism is deeply paternalistic, and it’s just this type of paternalistic racism that influenced Baker’s concept of the “floating negro” that still resonates in contemporary American society. Heck, it’s quite easy to imagine a Ferguson police officer bathed in the culture of racial-profiling who perceived Mike Brown and a friend as two up-to-no-good negroes “floating” down a Ferguson street. Officer Darren Wilson need not be a hood-donning racist to be affected by the cultural meme of the dangerous floating negro — he wouldn’t even be unique in that respect.

Yet, even if this wasn’t the case (since the facts are not all in on the Brown shooting), the local and national reaction to the Brown shooting reveals deeply entrenched racial divides that, in many respects, hinge on where different Americans stand on the perceived danger of Ray Stannard Baker’s “floating negro.” As long as whites continue to believe that blackness equates to criminality while refusing to understand how historical trends came together to create the “color-blind racism” that supports such a belief, more blacks will be shot, more whites will deny the existence of racism, and America will continue to alternate between holding the wolf’s ears and letting them go. Either way, we’ll keep getting bitten.

* See Christopher Waldrep, ed., Lynching in America: A History in Documents (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 186.

* See Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 1, 2, 4.

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Oklahoma’s Botched Execution and the Death Penalty’s Rough Justice History

The execution table used to administer lethal injection. Damn, it's actually pretty scary-looking.

The execution gurney used to administer lethal injection. Damn, it’s actually pretty scary-looking.

Clayton Lockett’s last minutes on this earthly plane were, by any stretch of the imagination, rough. The state of Oklahoma executed Lockett by lethal injection on April 29, 2014, but something went wrong, and he apparently struggled for over a half-hour before finally dying of a drug-induced heart attack. Lockett’s botched execution has raised more concerns about what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” as prohibited by the Constitution, and rekindled the long-running debate over whether America should still administer the death penalty.

But the legitimacy of capital punishment isn’t so easily dismissed or endorsed. In America, execution is the direct result of a long historical proclivity towards brutal, racially motivated rough justice — lynching — and the later attempts to contain and satisfy the primal human need for vengeance within a civilized legal framework. Basically, humans wanna’ kill each other — heck, they often enjoy killing each other — and capital punishment in America exists to satiate that blood lust.

Now, as long as we’re talking about blood lust, it’s easy to conclude that Clayton Lockett deserved his wriggly, torturous last few minutes on earth. After all, he was sentenced to death for kidnapping, beating, gang-raping, and eventually murdering eighteen-year-old Stephanie Neiman during a 1999 robbery-escape gone haywire. And how did Lockett and his accomplices dispatch their victim, you ask? Well, when Neiman refused to give Lockett the assurance that she wouldn’t go to the police, the scumbag spent a good twenty minutes digging Neiman’s grave before shooting her twice with a sawed-off shotgun. I go back and forth when it comes to supporting the death penalty. For one thing, there’s plenty of evidence that it doesn’t deter crimes. But Clayton Lockett was clearly what we might call, in legal parlance, a piece of slime, and I have to admit, my own inner vigilante thinks that he deserved his fate.

But therein lies the thorniness when it comes to capital punishment: it exists to satisfy that primal need to seek vengeance, and in the process, it runs the risk of sanctifying in the administers of justice the same brutal thoughts that lead men like Lockett to commit their horrendous crimes. Historically, the sanctification of blood lust caused some real problems when it came to administering justice in America, especially when we throw in the equally thorny issues of racism and individual rights.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, capital punishment was usually administered extralegally, in the form of lynching (aka “rough justice”). Historian Manfred Berg writes in Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America, that the term “lynching” came out of the American Revolution (though the actual practice existed since time immemorial) and defines lynching as “extralegal punishment meted out by a group of people claiming to represent the will of the larger community and acting with an expectation of impunity.”* That’s right, at its core, lynching is execution by mob law. But lynching never respected due process — when the mob decided that you were guilty of a crime, you were gonna’ die regardless of whether or not you committed that crime.

The lynching of Rubin Stacy, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1935. For a long time, this was what the death penalty looked like in America.

The lynching of Rubin Stacy, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1935. For a long time, this was what the death penalty looked like in America.

Now, this might have been all well and good if the victims of lynching were, in their heart of hearts, guilty, but if not, the result was community-sanctioned murder. But there was even more to it than that. Americans have never been ones to employ a tactic without running roughshod over some non-white people, and their approach to lynching was no exception. In his somewhat dense, but still fascinating book Roots of Rough Justice: Origins of American Lynching, historian Michael J. Pfeifer explains how white Americans used lynching to suppress minority rights. By lynching blacks, Mexicans, Native Americans, and even poor whites, white Americans “rejected growing legal reforms that offered the promise of legal fairness to the unpopular and powerless by protecting the rights of those accused of crimes.”*

Indeed, in nineteenth century America, lynching was at the heart of debates between those who favored locally administered rough justice characterized by swift (and trial-less) retribution, and those who favored due process characterized by reform of the criminal, the right to lawyer, and the state as the ultimate administer of justice. Proponents of due process, including an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, recognized that white mobs tended to lynch people whom they deemed inferior and unworthy of equal rights — especially African-Americans.

While lynching was national in scope, in was most prevalent in the South. It was common for slaves to be lynched in the antebellum era, but the number of black lynchings not coincidentally exploded alongside the enactment of late-nineteenth century Jim Crow laws that relegated blacks to second-class citizenship by denying them suffrage and severely curtailing their rights in private and public facilities. Whereas southern whites initially used slavery as a system for controlling blacks, slavery’s demise necessitated other forms of racist control, and since Jim Crow laws said that blacks were fundamentally not equal to rights, whites justified the lynching of blacks through community approval. The result was rough justice run amok.

Historians estimate that between 1898 and 1968, roughly 4,743 blacks were lynched in the South, although the number was likely higher since many lynchings went undocumented. Lynching victims were most commonly accused or murder and the rape of white women. And the methods of lynching were brutal. Victims were burned alive, disemboweled, tortured with hot brands and pokers, mutilated, shot, and hanged. One mob in Georgia tore a woman’s unborn infant from her abdomen and stomped it with their boots. In far too many instances, this was how the death penalty was administered in America.

National outrage against lynching couldn’t stop it, since criminal justice was the purview of the states, not the federal government. But the eventual decline in lynching coincided with a more legal form of justice: the death penalty. Anti-lynching activists recognized the need to offer swift, harsh, and legal criminal justice in order to stem the popular tide of mob law, and that’s just what happened. By the 1930s and 40s, capital punishment gradually replaced lynching in the South, and with more executions came fewer instances of rough justice. The 1930s in the South, for example, saw 60 percent fewer lynching than the previous decade, but legal executions increased by 44 percent. By the 1940s, the number of legal executions rose up to 61 percent.

Plenty of Americans still have a problem with the death penalty, and often for good reason, given it's historical connection to rough justice.

Plenty of Americans still have a problem with the death penalty — often for good reason, given its historical connection to rough justice.

As Manfred Berg notes, “the death penalty appeared to be the appropriate cure for lynching. If the people could be certain that murderers and rapists would end up promptly on the gallows, they would no longer see the need to take the law into their own hands.”* Of course, this didn’t mean than the racial component of lynching vanished. Blacks accused of crimes continued to suffer swift (and not always just) convictions defined by short trials, shoddy evidence, and convictions by all-white juries thrown together to appease pitchfork and torch-wielding mobs outside of courthouses.

Even today, the issue of race is inextricably bound to the death penalty issue. Scholars Charles Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat note that decades of capital punishment studies have shown the “powerful race-of-the-victim effects in the decisions about who will receive a death sentence,” and they point out that of all the American executions since 1976, 43 percent of the defendants were black or Hispanic.* Commenting on a Pew Research poll showing that more whites than blacks support the death penalty, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie casts these findings as springing from the intertwined history of capital  punishment and “racialized ideas on crime and criminality.”

The historical connection linking the death penalty to racially motivated lynching demonstrates why the justice of state-sanctioned execution is anything but blind and far from morally clear-cut. There’s no question that Clayton Lockett was a nasty SOB who deserved to be punished for his crimes, but whether or not he deserved death and torture — however unintended the latter may have been — is a question worth ruminating over. After all, if we demand the swift murder of criminals, no matter how vile they may be, we place ourselves in uncomfortable company with the raving lynch mobs of days gone by. And while our intentions may be theoretically purer than theirs, the emotions are the same. Rough justice has largely been stamped out of American society, but the deep human desire for vengeance remains, and that blood lust is something worthy of continued discussion — and wariness.

* See Manfred Berg,  Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2011), ix, 159.

* See Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and Austin Sarat, eds., From Lynch Mobs to the Killing State: Race and the Death Penalty in America (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 2.

Nelson Mandela and the Legacy of American Apartheid

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002  International Aids Conference.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002 International Aids Conference.

This week one of the towering figures of twentieth century politics passed from his mortal coil. Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, died at the age of 95, leaving a legacy that stretches beyond the limits of South Africa and even his own lifetime. Heck, Mandela’s legacy is one that challenges what had been among the core ideologies of the modern world dating back at least to the 18th century: white supremacy as practiced via the supposed inherent right of European powers to subjugate non-white, non-European peoples.

Mandela was, of course, the first black president of South Africa, a nation whose modern history is framed largely through the prism of its brutal system of racial segregation known as Apartheid. Mandela spent 27 years in prison as punishment for his lifelong fight against institutional racism, and his greatness as a symbol of human resistance in the face of adversity is now forever sealed. I mean, Morgan Freeman even played Mandela in a movie, and if that doesn’t attest to the South African president’s greatness, nothing else will.

I kid, of course. Mandela stands with Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Ghandi, as one of the most influential world players in the battle against racism and segregation in the modern era. So what exactly was Apartheid, and why was it so awful? Legal historian Steven Ratner offers a good, comprehensive definition:

Apartheid was the system of racial discrimination and separation that governed South Africa from 1948 until its abolition in the early 1990s. Building on years of discrimination against blacks, the National Party adopted apartheid as a model for separate development of races, though it served only to preserve white superiority. It classified persons as either white, Bantu (black), colored (mixed race), or Asian. Its manifestations included ineligibility from voting, separate living areas and schools, internal travel passes for blacks, and white control of the legal system.

Take some time to absorb that for a second: “a model for the separate development of the races.” If you’ve ever studied American history, for example, you might be aware that such institutionalized racism was not unique to South Africa. And how did South Africa’s racist regime go about instituting Apartheid? Policymic has a good roundup of the policies that built Apartheid:

Blacks were denied citizenship and the right to vote. They were forcibly relocated into impoverished reservations. People of color were barred from operating businesses or owning land inside white areas, which comprised most of the country. Sexual relations or marriage between people of color and whites was strictly forbidden. Racial segregation was enforced in public areas, including schools, hospitals, trains, beaches, bridges, churches and theaters. To enforce apartheid, the government often resorted to police brutality, the imprisonment and assassination of political dissidents, and the murder of black protesters.

The type of racial segregationist program known as “Apartheid” in South Africa, however, was far from limited to that country alone. Racial segregation in the name of white supremacy was a guiding principle that came to characterize the age of discovery, when European powers explored, settled, and colonized other parts of the world from the 15th century all the way up the 20th century. What Mandela fought against in South Africa reverberated throughout the world, as long-subjugated groups in former and current colonized nations fought for the equality that had been denied them in large part based on the color of their skins. It wasn’t an easy fight: as Mandela’s life demonstrates, those who have the power to dominate others won’t give it up that power easily, and they aren’t shy about enforcing their power through violence and intimidation.

The nation that emerged at the top of the world power heap by the mid-20th century was the United States, and nearly all of America’s history as a modern nation involved a reckoning with its own form of American Apartheid that manifested in the system of racial slavery that was enshrined in its Constitution and, over time, created one of the most racially divided societies in modern history. This development was all the more ironic since it took place in a country that supposedly cherished the notion that “All men are created equal.”

This American Apartheid echoed through the centuries via a Civil War fought over the right to enslave black bodies. After slavery’s demise, American Apartheid took the shape of the racial terrorism of Reconstruction. By the late 19th and early 20th century, it became institutionalized in the barbaric Jim Crow system that witnessed the smoldering stench of immolated flesh as lynching swept the American South and African-Americans were relegated to nation-wide second-class citizenship. American Apartheid only finally began to collapse in the mid-20th century, the same era during which Mandela waged his fight, following a sustained attack by Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. But as recent attacks on minority voting rights indicate, Apartheid casts a long shadow in America and throughout the world.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

America’s reckoning with its own apartheid explains why many elements in the U.S., up until very recently, viewed Nelson Mandela as a racial terrorist rather than a freedom fighter. As Sagar Jethani of Policymic notes, American conservatives long-defended South Africa’s anti-communist, white minority government in the name of anti-communist zeal. Mandela’s support for liberal policies, including worker’s rights and social justice, when combined with his early support for violence against the Apartheid government before he embraced peaceful resolutions, did not endear him to the American Right.

Over at Student Activism, for example, Angus Johnston reminds us how in 1986, William F. Buckley, the silver-spooned National Review founder and “intellectual” godfather of modern American conservatism, vehemently opposed universal suffrage in South Africa. “The government will not … grant political equality to everyone in South Africa. Nor should it,” Buckley wrote. “It is preposterous at one and the same time to remark the widespread illiteracy in South Africa and to demand the universal franchise.” Buckley had already made it abundantly clear that he opposed racial equality in the American South, both on prejudicial grounds and because he associated equality with a threat to established political and economic hierarchies, hence his distaste for South African universal suffrage.

In the 1980s, American conservative luminaries like Jesse Helm (R-NC), Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Phil Gramm (R-TX), and Dick Cheney (R-Hell) followed Buckley by opposing the Congressional Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed sanctions on South Africa.

For many Americans, not just conservatives, the specter of racial equality also suggested economic equality and the threat to capitalism that would supposedly undermine social hierarchies across the land. Race and class have always been inextricably linked in American history, which helps explain why American conservatives in particular viewed Mandela as a threat: he tapped into old domestic fears that conflated anti-racism with economic and social revolution.

Proponents of American Apartheid have defended racial segregation since the beginning, but they’ve been at their most defensive when white supremacy, with all of its economic benefits, has been explicitly challenged. Such was the case during the run-up to southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860-61. As historian Charles Dew notes, southern secession commissioners (whom I discussed in an earlier post) charged with promoting secession throughout the South endorsed slavery and the Apartheid that bolstered slavery as a justification for the South’s forming the Confederate States of America to fend off northern anti-slavery aggression.

Commissioner William L. Harris of Mississippi, for example, complained that the North demanded “equality between the white and negro races, under our Constitution; equality in representation, equality in the right of suffrage…equality in the social order.” Harris warned that Mississippi would rather “see the last of her [white] race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile,” rather than be “subjected to…social equality with the negro race.”* Indeed, the Confederate South fought America’s greatest and bloodiest revolution, the Civil War, in order to preserve American Apartheid, and they didn’t stop defending racial segregation after the Confederacy’s demise.

During the Jim Crow era, as lynching and black disenfranchisement swept across the South and other parts of the country, defenders of American Apartheid continued to echo the sentiments of their Confederate forebears. In March of 1900, for example, the mind-blowingly racist South Carolina Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman claimed on the Senate floor that the lynching of blacks was necessary to uphold racial segregation. “We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will,” Tillman stated. “We have never believed him to be equal to the white man,” he continued, “and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” Rarely had Apartheid produced so blunt a spokesman. For Tillman and his ilk, racial equality meant social equality, which they believed would upend the entire American white supremacist socio-economic order.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America's most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America’s most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

Even after the success of the Civil Rights movement, certain segments of American society nonetheless held on to their defence of American Apartheid, particularly in the 1980s when violence erupted in South Africa. Jesse Helms, for example, the Republican senator and general scumbag from North Carolina, defended South African Apartheid in large part because it reminded him of the American Apartheid system in which he had been born and raised.

As Eric Bates of Mother Jones reported in June 1995, Helms “grew up in a segregated world not unlike the one of apartheid,” and this upbringing gave him “a view of a fundamentalist Christian society in which everyone is not welcome” and which resembled “South Africa of 20 years ago.” With a lifetime of pro-segregationist ideology informing his thought, Helms filibustered U.S. sanctions against South Africa in 1986, claiming that “the Soviet Union is orchestrating upheaval in all of Africa.” By supporting South African Apartheid on grounds that it would supposedly bring about communist revolution, Helms followed a long tradition in which American segregationists, from Confederate ideologues to lynching proponents, linked racial equality with social revolution. American conservatives’ mixed ideas about Nelson Mandela’s legacy reflect a reluctance to reckon with America’s own historical Apartheid past.

With Mandela’s passing, here’s hoping that Apartheid in any part of the world will continue to be a shameful part of the human past. But as U.S. history shows, despite Americans’ long-held claims of American Exceptionalism,” Apartheid has never been limited to South Africa. In fact, its has been a reality of the modern world and has manifested in nearly every continent over the last few centuries. This is not the kind of legacy that goes away quickly, and this fact makes Mandela’s legacy all the more remarkable and worth continuing.

* See Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 85, 89.

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(Still) Fear of a Black Planet

Racial Propaganda Cartoon, Demonstrating White Fear of "Negro Rule," North Carolina, 1900.

Racial Propaganda Cartoon, Demonstrating White Fear of “Negro Rule,” North Carolina, 1900.

In American history, everything is about race. Even when an issue has nothing to do with race, Americans of certain stripes will find a way to make it about race. A case in point is the August 16, 2013 murder of Australian national Christopher Lane by three teenagers in Duncan, Oklahoma. An outraged Australian press seized on the incident to criticize the widespread availability of guns in the United States, which allegedly resulted in a cold-blooded slaying by three kids who were “bored and didn’t have anything to do.” Meanwhile, as Adam Serwer observes, the various American right-wing media propaganda outlets, who specialize in stoking a completely fabricated persecution complex among the country’s privileged, white, Ralph Kramden clones seized on Australian reports that erroneously identified the three suspects as black to claim that Lane was gunned down by blacks specifically because he was white.

As Serwer notes, no evidence has yet surfaced indicating that this was a racially motivated killing, though one of the suspects, James Francis Edwards, has been accused of posting “anti-white” tweets via his Twitter account. Moreover, it turns out that one of the suspects is white, contrary to early Australian reports that identified all three as black. Whatever the motive, the conservative outrage machine started overheating pretty quickly, with various charges that the Lane murder was the reverse of the infamous Trayvon Martin case — but without any accompanying popular outrage against the suspects. As usual, among the loudest of the outrage merchants was radio sinkhole, Rush Limbaugh. As Serwer writes:

Even after learning that one of the suspects was white, conservative media insisted the killing must have been motivated by anti-white racism. “They got bored and said, ‘Let’s go shoot a white guy!’ Folks, I gotta tell you, there’s something else about this. This is Trayvon Martin in reverse, only worse,” Rush Limbaugh told listeners Wednesday. “No matter where you look in the media, it’s not a racial event. Nothing about it is racist. This is the epitome of media irresponsibility.”

Limbaugh’s sarcastic claim that “Nothing about it is racist” speaks to a long-held fear among many white Americans of black male-violence directed towards innocent whites. This fear has deep roots that reach back to antebellum society, especially in the South, where racial paranoia in the form of alleged slave insurrections fueled a constant vigilance against slaves and free blacks alike. Among the worst crackdowns by white vigilance committees occurred in 1861 in the Second Creek neighborhood outside of Natchez, Mississippi. Following rumors that slaves in the area plotted to violently revolt against whites, lynch mobs arrested and executed over 200 slaves by 1863. Historians now believe that no plot actually existed; slave confessions were elicited through torture, which in turn fueled already rampant white paranoia that justified a mass lynching.

During the Jim Crow era, continued fears of “wayward” and “vicious” blacks seeking to impose racial dominance over whites gave rise to an epidemic of extralegal violence in the form of brutal lynchings in both the North and the South. Especially in the South, the charge of murdering a white person practically guaranteed that an African-American would meet his or her end at the hands of a lynch mob. Although the number of lynchings dropped with each decade into the twentieth century, the ugly specter of white racial fears of black violence remains a potent element in contemporary American culture.

Particularly within the vast conservative media complex that feeds its recipients a constant stream of unearned daily grievances, fears of black-on-white violence are invoked to rally support for laxer gun laws, tougher prison sentences, redlining, and the intimidation — or outright suppression — of minority voters. Of course, having the first black president occupy the White House provides a handy supreme leader towards which the right can direct its claims of caucasian victimization. Any perusal through the comments section on stories about the Lane murder invokes images of a secret army of black criminals acting on direct orders from the president himself.

Such claims are, of course, absurd on their face, but they exist because there is a long and deeply entrenched historical proclivity towards fears of “negro rule” among a large element of the white American population. This racial fear has existed for hundreds of years. Before the Civil War, it surfaced every time some poor white southern dirt farmer repeated rumors of slave insurrection. After the war, it emerged whenever some pasty American good ole’ boy felt slighted by the black person in his midst.

In contemporary America, the fear of “negro rule” comes up whenever a black person is accused of committing violence against a white person. For the outrage peddlers on the right, the mere fact that a crime suspect is black is evidence of racially motivated violence. The three suspects who allegedly murdered Christopher Lane may or may not have had racial motivations, and if found guilty, they should be punished accordingly for what appears to be a cold-blooded murder. But the mob of manufactured conservative opinion has verbally lynched them without trial, proving once again how astonishingly difficult it is to have an intelligent public discussion about American racial issues. When it comes to race in America, it’s apparently better to be safe than sorry.