White Terror – Reflections after Charleston

By Mark Lewis Taylor

Consider two dynamics of white terror today. For centuries both dynamics of this terror have persisted in the US. Both give succor to a scourge of political and social violence that many in the U.S. still hesitate to admit and redress, even – perhaps especially – in the wake of the Charleston murders. Yet, admitting and redressing precisely these two dynamics of white terror can be a pathway to hope. It will not be an easy way.

I   US Domestic White Racist Terror

The first dynamic is a long tradition of US domestic white racist terror against blacks and other nonwhite peoples. Charleston is one example of it. In a murderous act of racist hate, white supremacist Dylann Roof put a group of black worshippers to terror then murdered nine of them in Emanuel AME Church.

Today’s major media-stream venues were quick to see this killer’s act as but one by those “white crazies,” by a “pathological individual” (Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial board) who is expressive neither of the wider U.S. structure of whiteness today nor of the history of white power that founded this country.

Alas the truth is otherwise. The St. Louis Ant-Racist Collective (ARC) got it right with this statement: “White supremacy is not just the extremists, but something infused into media, criminal justice, education and countless other mainstream institutions. It is the guiding principle under which our society operates, ensuring the comfort and privileges that white people have enjoyed since the foundation of this country.” This infused white supremacy is part of US domestic white racist terror.

White individual supremacists like Roof feed off a tacit approval for their acts of violence, which they sense in the broader society’s systemic privileging of white life. They have at their back a long historical train of white terror against blacks, Asians, Latinos and Latinas and Arabs – U.S. violence at home and in wars abroad.

To be sure, Emanuel Church is not just a site of struggle and slaughter. It is a site of resistance that for years has performed works of justice and love. Indeed, the church also has been a site of rebellion, as exemplified by 1822 slave rebel and church worker, Denmark Vesey.

But Vesey’s rebellion was brutally crushed, and that violence reminds us of the long historical train of white terror. Sometimes shockingly brutal this white terror also haunted the everyday, thus buttressing the institution of slavery. The white terror of slavery has given to US peoples today the everyday world in which we live. U.S. corporate exploitation today is the ugly offspring of what many studies confirm as the strong bonds between slavery and the making of American capitalism, just as conquest, land theft and sexual violence in American Indian genocide created the necessary absence of peoples for the U.S. nation to be what it is.

U.S. white terror against all peoples of color is usually anchored in whites’ anti-Black racism. Nevertheless, all groups of color in the U.S. and most abroad have known the terror. All have been hoisted up – often by Western Christians – onto the altar of sacrifice to the god of white supremacy. We should recall that massive numbers of blacks and Mexicans were lynched, as were the Chinese who were also driven out of their homes and businesses in the USA (Pfaelzer, 255-90). Today, Latinos, Asian-American and Arab-Americans are subject to an often brutal U.S. immigration regime (Chacon and Davis), mixing import quotas, detention, and death. In the U.S. they know an always subordinate “inclusion” and a history of “exclusion” that continues today in threats and practices of deportation. Indigenous peoples were joined in their suffering of massive land theft, again by Mexican-Americans (Gómez, 3-4) and also by black farmers (Pate, 26-57) in 19th and 20th centuries. This thievery of lands and homes continued into the 21st century as the subprime loan and foreclosure crisis hit most predominantly black and brown communities among all the poor (Sharkey, 96-97).

This history of white terror is not just a series of “shock and awe” actions. It is that, but even more insidiously it is the deposit of dread in the gut of racially targeted peoples. In that way white terror becomes a mode of rule. Even if many oppressed resist this rule, white terror also goads many of the subordinated to clamor for safety, desperate for recognition, journeying through many an internalized racism – an overall struggle for self worth. We whites can hardly know this intricate pain among all peoples of color, and we have a lot of listening and learning still to do here.

But I can highlight one of the ways the white terror works with another horrible intricacy in the broader US society. White supremacism maintains itself by exploiting the abiding dread in all peoples of color by continually dividing nonwhite communities within, and by dividing them from one another. They are divided within as white power finds ways to bite out a “class faction” from nearly all the US communities of color (Marable, 169-94). Elites are thus “fractioned off” from within each nonwhite group, usually giving them a certain class advantage for exploiting their own people and others too (Koshy, 181).

Barack Obama seems one such “fractioned-off “elite member from the African American community. I supported him for President even before he announced his candidacy. He posed as a beacon of hope for populist movements during his campaign. But then from day one as president he yoked his presidency to key white corporate power-holders, Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers. Obama’s current “Asian pivot” dispossesses more of the world’s and our nation’s poor with a newly exploitative Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) backed with more US militarization of Asia – all this after his administration already had overseen an even deeper dispossession of black America (Bonilla-Silva, 255-82).

But the insidious intricacies of white terror not only divide nonwhite groups within, they also maintain white supremacy by dividing nonwhite communities from each other. Asian youth, for example, might today form #Asians4blacklives , and Latinos might work prominently for black lives too, but the dominant white media fails to cover these developing coalitions with any prominence. Instead, it foregrounds stories about tensions among Asian-Americans, Latinos and black groups. This can even have the sinister effect of leading some black activists to themselves neglect the work and history of Asian-American and Latino/a groups’ organizing solidarity on behalf of black struggle. These “tensions” do have a complex and real history (Kim, 3-4), but the primary point to emphasize here is that the material conditions for these “tensions” are white power’s economic planning through decades of redlining and organizing by white residents’ associations and business groups (Coates, and Davis 160-64). These were adept at manipulating new and poor immigrant groups (Jewish, Filipino, Chinese, Korean) into merchant classes in neighborhoods that served as buffer to white communities against black and Latino communities already dispossessed by white racism (Chang, 106-112). Of course the immigrant groups in the buffer zone are highly vulnerable, feeling the rage of the dispossessed and the brutal abandonment by white power-holders. White supremacy thus grows stronger through more division.

Today the white terror lives on not just by destroying houses and neighborhoods, but also by building other “houses” – houses of correction, indeed a whole “Prison House” nation. U.S. mass incarceration has become the nation’s default strategy for dealing with poverty, social trauma, and lack of opportunity and empowerment. It houses more of the mentally ill than reside in our nation’s state psychiatric care facilities. The New York Times itself may have declared U.S. mass incarceration “a moral, legal, social, and economic disaster,” but the prison system grinds on. It destroys whole communities.

Inside the Prison House, prison guards and police officers are not hesitant to deploy torture as terror to individuals in prisons, jails and paddy wagons, in the forms of sexual violence, as well as outright murder. This only adds terror to terror. The white terror is especially suffered by black and brown communities. Nationally, 40-50 percent in US prisons are blacks. Latinos make up about 19 percent, but in some states are well beyond half (Prison Policy Initiative). Asian-Americans too have seen their number of incarcerated grow four-fold within a decade’s time (Bedi, 184). White terror is not just the excessive and exceptional violent act. It is an institutionalizing process. It has become U.S. statecraft.

There is thus a continuum making up this first “white terror.” There is one arc of white terror that includes, among its many acts, Dylann Roof’s slaughter in Charleston, the repeated granting of impunity to police in racialized shootings, and then, too, a white-dominant public ethos (conservative and liberal) that keeps silent about a white racism and terror that long has been, and still is, structural and pervasive. Even President Obama was silent about structural white terror in his eulogy for the Charleston 9 (Taylor Fb post). All of this together helps constitute this first dynamic of white terror.

II The White Terror Within

The second dynamic of “white terror” is our denial of all this. This white terror is whites’ own dread of coming-to-consciousness and language, much less action, about the first terror.

Perhaps it is James Baldwin who has addressed white America most directly on this other terror – from within his own black community yet conscious of others’ worlds too (Mexican, Palestinian, Arab and more). I have returned time and again since college years to Baldwin’s notes about his white friends and white Americans generally. His challenge to whites is still timely.

Baldwin discerned in them (in us, whites) what he called a terror, a dread within white selves and our communities, an immobilizing fear of admitting white terror as “the great force of history” that has made whites and that unconsciously controls them. In his famous essay, “White Man’s Guilt,” Baldwin sees whites’ “great pain and terror” as surfacing most when beginning to realize the “historical creation” of white supremacism that “has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view (723).” We whites draw back from this acknowledgement, he writes,

“In great pain and terror because, thereafter, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history.” (723)

We whites might take Baldwin as calling here for the ultimate “self-realization project.” But the average self-help bookstand has no guide to what Baldwin is demanding here. Instead, his focus is on a political project, one that “robs history of its tyrannical power” and even “changes history.”

In a sobering passage of No Name In the Street, Baldwin writes more of what he means. He calls whites to face our terrorizing “nightmare” regarding black freedom as a real freedom for all. But it remains a “specter of so dreadful a freedom” that for whites it “conjures up another, unimaginable country.” Baldwin gave examples.

“And of course, any real commitment to black freedom in this country would have the effect of reordering all our priorities, and altering all our commitments, so that, for horrendous example, we would be supporting black freedom fighters in South Africa and Angola, and . . . would be closer to Cuba than we are to Spain, would be supporting the Arab nations instead of Israel, and would never have felt compelled to follow the French into Southeast Asia. But such a course would forever wipe the smile from the face of that friend we all rejoice to have at Chase Manhattan”(463).”

Note Baldwin’s complex consciousness here. He makes struggle against economic elites – that “friend” at “Chase Manhattan” – inseparable from struggles for racial justice. He thinks across the lines of terror suffered by different non-white groups. In France, he even questioned his own black “American framework” (723) that led him to overlook others’ suffering – of Arabs in France, for example. Baldwin’s critical consciousness is national and international.

Baldwin is calling for nothing less than revolution, one beyond the easy invocation of the term – a revolution that in political philosopher Joy James’ terms seeks comprehensive “freedoms safeguarded by institutions.” (xiii). Of course, too, across all his writings, Baldwin put sexual liberation for those whom we today would call LGBT and trans persons at the heart of racial struggle. In this regard, he noted in The Fire Next Time (77) that it is often the sexuality of men and women of color that provokes white terror into defending its “white man’s masculinity,” its repressive “hetero-patriarchal” (“marriage is between a man and a woman”) family structure. It may be especially white US Christians who will draw back from Baldwin’s revolution, since they have a long history of justifying and defending American Christian hetero-patriarchy. We will need to step beyond our U.S. nationalist and primacy-of-Christianity assumptions, if we are to fight the white terror that is structured into our societies or that is buried deep in our own white dread.

This second white terror lives in terror of this full revolution, and so continues meting out terror to nonwhite communities. In so doing whites continue to be, writes Baldwin “people who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it), impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world” (723).

Could I suggest that our only hope as whites – and this opens up a whole political and personal project well beyond the scope of this essay – our only hope, I say, begins with our refusal to be that butterfly, to refuse display on that pin.

The pinned butterfly is but elevated, fixed death. As Baldwin reminds across nearly all his writings, we whites are deluded if we think that by terrorizing others for power and position, and then hiding in terror from the terror that we have done and do, that we are anything but stiff, dead beings – unfree ourselves. This is whites “great unadmitted crime . . . what they have done to themselves” (726).

Essential to any authentic experience of freedom by whites is our acknowledgment of the structural white racist terror that created us and in which we are still embedded. Acknowledging this strips us of any claims of purity and righteousness, but it need not result in immobilizing guilt. To the contrary, the acknowledgment frees us to fight structural white racism in our own communities and alongside our nonwhite brothers and sisters working for revolutionary change. Once acknowledging the terror we perform, and the terror in ourselves of the truth that white terror has made us, then we may have vision of some further paths to take.

On “theatrics of state terror” and “counter-theatrics” for challenging state terror, which includes challenging white terror, see the revised and expanded edition of The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America (October 1, 2015).

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