Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Police States and Terrorism in American History

The New York Times has a great article today on efforts to chronicle and memorialize the thousands of lynchings that occurred in the South in the 19th and 20th centuries. I only wish the project, and the accompanying map, was nationwide. Oklahoma isn't even included, where hundreds of African Americans were murdered in Tulsa in 1921 when the White section of the city invaded Greenwood and destroyed it. So this compilation is incomplete, but still drives home the scale of the terrorism in a way that many Americans are probably not familiar with.

It is only relatively recently that historians have begun to try to describe these and similar events with the kind of straightforward language that we would apply to them anywhere else in the world. As historians, it is our job to try to historicize just about everything, including nations. So we need not be bound by patriotic untruths. But I don't think this more straightforward accounting of the American past has filtered down to popular understanding. In contemporary reporting from around the world, we are accustomed to hearing phrases like "police state" and "state-sponsored terrorism" and "lawless regions." In fact, such terms usefully describe many times and places in American history.

In part because of the interests of patriotism and nationalism, we tend to have a softened vocabulary about these events that obscures what actually occurred. White Christian terrorists, for example, have killed far more Americans on American soil than Muslim terrorists have. This is viscerally upsetting for many Americans to hear, and understandably so, but that's no reason to lie about it.

The Tulsa massacre mentioned above is a good example. Whites launched an invasion of a whole town, destroying it and rendering thousands homeless, killing probably hundreds. The numbers are hard to pin down, precisely because there were no repercussions for their actions. No one was interested in investigating. No accounting was made. The federal government stood down. The president ignored it. In contemporary terms, if this took place in another country, the news would describe a massacre that occurred in "a lawless tribal region where the authority of the central government is tenuous." But because we have these blatant fictions about how the United States was a place where rule of law really did exist across the color line, we resort to half-truths and obfuscations.

It will be fascinating to see the resistance that emerges as the Equal Justice Initiative seeks to place historical markers in a lot of southern towns that have no physical memory of these events. People who think it's fine to remember the Alamo, Gettysburg, the Holocaust, suddenly opt for amnesia when Black people dare to remember their past. And in that way, the struggles over historical memory become another front in the ongoing battle against White supremacy.

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