On The Charleston Church Shooting, Black Progress, And White Fear & Violence

A White man named Dylann Storm Roof walked into a Black church in South Carolina and murdered 9 Black people only a few hours ago. In a statement released by Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley the gunman was labelled a “horrible scoundrel” who was “filled with hate and a deranged mind.”

For some, this may represent a lone act of violence; a display of mental instability and hate. But for many who are acquainted with America’s history of anti-Black terrorism, this is understood as the manifestation of white fear; a cyclical push back against Black progress, which is not only deeply saddening but also troublesome.

To better contextualize this conversation, it is important that readers possess an understanding of how race has shaped America– and the relationship of Black Americans to Whites– since the country’s inception. In short, where there has ever been Black progress, Whites have always responded with fear and violence.

To illustrate this point, one need not look further than the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) that came right after Emancipation when slaves were “freed”. Though “black codes” were passed to restrict newly freed slaves from access to full rights and citizenship, the African-American populous still managed to make major gains politically, economically and socially. Blacks were being educated and marrying at staggering rates and many were purchasing land. The first African-Americans were elected to southern state legislatures and even to the U.S. Congress as Republican affiliates (it should be noted that all Black Congressmen elected in this era were Republican) who supported the party of Abraham Lincoln.

This progress was met with backlash from Whites who feared Blacks were gaining too much control. Within less then a decade, the Ku Klux Klan and other White paramilitary organizations (the White League and Red Shirts), were birthed that terrorized Black people who simply sought to exercise their right to vote or hold political positions.

With the help of these terrorist factions (google the “Mississippi Plan”, “Wilmington insurrection of 1898″) the White Democratic party, took back control and disenfranchised the majority of Blacks and some poor whites by imposing voting requirements like poll taxes, literacy tests and strict residency requirements. In the end, White terrorism successfully curtailed Black progress. It would be nearly three decades before a Black person was again elected into congress and seven decades before one was elected to represent a southern state.

What came after the Reconstruction Era is what we have now come to understand as the Jim Crow Era (1890- late 1960s). After Southern whites regained political control, laws were passed that segregated transportation, public facilities, schools and just about every aspect of daily life.

These laws, enforced right after the Reconstruction, weren’t successfully challenged until the Civil Right’s Movement with the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned discrimination based on race. Public spaces and schools were to finally be integrated, but not without first defeating violence spurred by White angst.

Southern Whites– who believed Blacks weren’t only inferior, but also animalistic– took the streets in droves to impose de facto segregation blocking the entrance of schools that were to be integrated, while hurling racial epithets at children. Civil Rights workers, both black and white, were murdered by indignant Whites– and it was during this peak in the Black fight for basic rights that a bomb was planted at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four little girls, mutilated one and injured 20 others who were in attendance on the morning of September 15, 1963.

Almost every notable Civil Rights leader was either murdered or forced out of the United States of America and much of the progress of that time was hindered by new legislation that lead to the mass incarceration of minority men and women and the resegregation of many of our institutions and neighborhoods.

It is easy to understand these White reactions to Black progress: after all, Whites have internalized and continue to invoke stereotypes and prejudices first used to justify slavery. The most antiquated among them being Blackface, Sambo, Mammy, Mandingo (sexual predator), Sapphire, Jezebel and Savage– and, more recently, “thugs”, drug dealers, crack users, “evil”, welfare queens and so on.

Just a cursory glance at media headlines about Rachel Dolezal pretending to be Black and Iggy Azalea using a fake accent to become Hip-Hop’s “new face” demonstrate modern America’s use of Blackface. Look to the depictions of Black women’s bodies in today’s media to see that Black women are still constantly hypersexualized, or headlines where the word “thug” describes any Black male who somehow manages to become a figure of scrutiny. Listen to testimony that a young Black men was gunned down in broad daylight, because an officer thought he “looked like a demon” to see that Whites are still very much afraid of stereotype ideas and caricatures of Blacks.

How many of today’s Whites believe Blacks are deserving of the police brutality they face because of their indecent behavior or violent nature? How many Whites attempted to delegitimize the first Black President’s White House win by demanding his birth certificate? How many Whites today believe a war is being waged against White people that threatens their very existence? Only recently, Tufts University put out study that claimed many Whites believe they are the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America.

For this reason, it is important to understand the act of terrorism– that took the life of 9 innocent Black people at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church– is a reflection of broader White attitudes, angst and fear, not merely the result of a single “scoundrel’s” “madness” or “insanity.”

In the shooter’s own words, these fears are reflected: “[I] have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” As the fight for Black Civl Right’s reemerges, it should be underscored that White fears of that progress will also reemerge once more.

After all, per Newton’s Third Law of Physics: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Much of White America has proven, time and time again, that its reaction to Black progress will always be fear and violence.