(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.

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