Two events shed light on how race continues to frame political debate and politics in the United States.
First, the police killing of Black man George Floyd last May reveals how deep racism remains in the country. Secondly, the Tulsa, Oklahoma, race massacre of May 31 to June 1, 1921, revealed current fault lines on race, including the underlying class divisions exacerbated by racism and white supremacist ideology.
A century apart — but still relevant.
A white cop lynched Floyd by knee. After a popular uprising, led by the Black community, the cop — Derek Chauvin — was convicted of murder.
Chauvin’s conviction is the exception to the norm. Cops who kill Black men or women are rarely charged, much less convicted. Police and white racist mobs have killed Black people for hundreds of years without fear of prosecution.
The Floyd case was unusual because a young Black female teenager, Darnella Frazier, was at the scene and filmed the crime. She recently won a citation from the Pulitzer board for her brave decision.
The historical norm is worse than cops killing individual Black men and getting away with it. It has been white racist massacres of Black people for simply being dignified, successful and Black.
In 1921, in an area of Tulsa popularly known by Black people as “Black Wall Street”, Black businesses and homes were destroyed and buried.
Planes dropped firebombs on buildings and homes in the community. Hundreds of people died. Others were sent to hospital. Property was stolen. Bodies were buried in mass unmarked graves. Only today, are forensic specialists uncovering their remains.
The city and state removed the crime from the media and the history books. Generations of Blacks were not told the truth, except by word of mouth.
President Joe Biden marked the anniversary of both crimes by meeting with Floyd’s family in the White House. He then traveled to Tulsa on the 100th anniversary of the massacre. He was the first president to do so.
Yet, neither he nor the state’s governor pledged reparations and compensation to the three surviving victims or the community. The governor said he didn’t want “people” (whites) to feel uncomfortable. The whitewash of history continues.
The events in Tulsa in 1921 were generally described and accepted as “race riots”, however, the May 29 edition of Tulsa World acknowledged that “with time, research and changing perspectives, many have concluded that ‘riot’ might not be the appropriate term to chronicle what took place on May 31–June 1, 1921.
“They named it a riot. We [Blacks] didn’t name it a riot," said State Senator Kevin Matthews, chair of the 1921 Race Massacre Centennial Commission...
“People in my community started to tell me if we were going to tell the history, we needed to tell it from our perspective.
“I kept hearing over and over again that the word riot gives the connotation that you burned your community down," said Matthews. "We didn’t do this to our own community. We had it burned down by others. And if it was burned down, it was burned by them.
“Part of the potential problem with using the word massacre is (saying) that it was a slaughter without resistance," he said. "In fact, there was robust but short-lived resistance by Black men in the Black community."
Many Black men in Tulsa had served in the army during World War I and owned guns. However, they were badly outnumbered by white army veterans, members of the National Guard and police — who joined the white mobs that burned down “Black Wall Street”.
Roots of police violence
Author and academic Elizabeth Hinton describes the “cycle of over-policing” — which resulted in Black rebellion — in her book America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s.
This, in turn, led to more violent countermeasures by police, backed by elected officials from both Democratic and Republican parties. It indelibly transformed big cities and the smaller towns and cities “left out of standard accounts of this era”.
Just as it did in 1968, the US now finds itself at a political and moral crossroads. The popular notion that violent, racially biased policing is a product of “bad apples” fails to recognise what Hinton characterises as a “poisoned tree”, whose rotten core continues to perpetuate the cycle of police repression and Black rebellion.
This rebellion captured the world’s imagination in 2020 — in demonstrations that proved to be the biggest social movement in US history.
The current grassroots social justice movement rejects a system of law enforcement that defines those who continue to seek to liberate themselves from racial and national oppression as the problem.
Leaders of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement also confront the super-exploitation Black workers suffer and the triple oppression of Black women.
Gun rights and racism
The movement’s vision links abolishing policing with a critical understanding of guns and the “right to bear arms”. As with all issues coloured by race, Blacks legally carrying guns are seen as criminals. The debate over guns rarely mentions the racist origins of gun rights.
The language of the Constitution’s second amendment (popularly known as the right to bear arms) was crafted to ensure that slave owners could quickly crush any rebellion or resistance from those whom they had enslaved.
Although race is never mentioned, that right to bear arms, presumably guaranteed to all citizens, has been repeatedly denied to Black people.
Black people's access to arms was also restricted after the American Revolution (1776–83), even though Blacks fought in that revolutionary war.
And with each uprising, the laws became even more strict, even more definitive, about who could and could not bear arms.
Free Blacks were particularly proscribed. It was understood by whites that basic rights only applied to whites.
The Founding Fathers (some were slave-owners, others not) feared slave revolts, especially after the successful Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) organised by enslaved people.
George Washington lamented the violence of that revolution. Thomas Jefferson feared the revolution would spread like fire to the US. The view expressed was universal among the white ruling class.
Those leaders who opposed slavery were not sure freed slaves should be granted full citizenship. Many supported ex-slaves being sent back to Africa.
After the Civil War (1861–65) the radicals — who supported full equality for Blacks — were a minority in Congress. So Congress never gave land to freed slaves, even though it promised 160 acres to whites willing to move west.
Blacks who owned guns were never trusted. Whites had full power and used it to suppress revolts and disarm freed Blacks.
That changed with the victory of the Civil Rights revolution in the 1960s, when the Federal government began to enforce civil rights in the southern states. White officials feared the rise of Black Power.
Violent clashes, often against the police — seen as occupiers — have broken out in Black communities from the 1960s to today. These “riots” can only be properly understood as rebellions — part of a sustained insurgency.
No longer were white mob massacres possible — except by the police and the National Guard.
The rise of the mass incarceration prison system began at this time as a response to the aims of the Civil Rights revolution. Its aim was to remove new leaders and suppress full equality.
Attitudes about gun ownership shifted to more control, when Black men on the militant nationalist left took up arms.
Black Panther Party
At the time, Ronald Reagan, who was the Republican governor of California, and the National Rifle Association (NRA) proposed changes to the state’s “open carry” law — a new gun control regulation.
The NRA and the far right backed the law because it targeted the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Oakland. The BPP in the late 1960s was an influential group.
What the Black Panthers were dealing with was massive police brutality. Just beating on Black people, killing Black people at will with impunity. And the Panthers decided that they would police the police.
Huey P Newton — co-founder of the Black Panthers, along with Bobby Seale — knew the law. Newton knew about being able to carry weapons openly and the types of weapons that could be carried. He also knew how far a person had to stand from the police while they were making an arrest or interrogating someone.
The police did not like having assertive Black men and women policing them. The state’s response was to ban open carrying of weapons.
A law was drafted by a conservative Californian politician — with the NRA’s help, and eagerly signed by Reagan — outlawing what the Panthers were legally doing.
The revolutionary civil rights movement of the 1960s does not exist today. The current movement exists in a context where the white supremacist movement is on the rise and the NRA and others are arming whites again. Gun controls are opposed for that reason.
Gun ownership is a right for whites but not Blacks.
Today, white vigilantes and police are attacking Blacks and other minorities without fear that the criminal justice system will stop them.
The lesson of the Tulsa massacre is important, as white resistance to the truth runs strong. It is not only from former President Trump. There is a backlash to teaching the history of slavery and white supremacy.
Biden’s decision to go to Tulsa and discuss its meaning is historic. It opened a debate about the term “riots” versus “white massacres” and their meaning.
It is noteworthy that the police and their supporters smeared the social justice protests as “riots” while whites who took over the Capitol on January 6 were regarded as patriots and peaceful.
One year after Floyd’s murder, little has changed on a macro level. In Minneapolis, a jury convicted Floyd’s killer of murder, but cities around the country have implemented few of the policy changes that demonstrators demanded.
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, is awaiting a vote in the Senate. If passed, it would create a national registry of police misconduct, ban racial profiling and weaken the rules that shield officers from civil lawsuits.
More than 1100 people were killed by police last year, according to data collected by the Mapping Police Violence research initiative. Nearly half were Black or Latino.
Although the House has passed police reform, the Senate has refused to do so. The Republicans and the far right have targeted BLM and advocates of police reform. White support for BLM has declined because of this racist backlash.
A counter offensive is weakening support for even mild reform. Police are refusing to do their jobs (“blue flu”) and forcing cities to reverse modest changes to policing.
The police abolitionist movement is firm that minor reforms do little to save Black lives.
Without a sustained mass movement for change, any gains will be reversed. After the 1960s rebellions, police were militarised and their powers expanded. Mass incarceration became the standard weapon of police and the criminal justice system.
Many liberal politicians, including Black elected officials, have retreated and now support so-called “first step reforms”. These don’t include reducing police budgets and powers, or ending the qualified immunity that protects cops from prosecution for violence and murder.
Although scientists and academics know race is a “social construct”, it is much more. It is the heart of US capitalism. It defines “whiteness” as being superior to Black skin. It is used to justify white power and privileges to this day.
Progress has been made since Tulsa. But there remains a long way to go to end the power of police, white gun culture and the prison industrial complex that targets Black and Brown people.