Monday, November 05, 2007

A Strange and Bitter Crop

"A South politician preaches to the poor white man,
'You got more than the blacks, don't complain.
You're better than them, you been born with white skin,' they explain.
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid,
And the marshals and cops get the same,
But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool.
He's taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight
'Bout the shape that he's in
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game.

From the poverty shacks, he looks from the cracks to the tracks,
And the hoof beats pound in his brain.
And he's taught how to walk in a pack
Shoot in the back
With his fist in a clinch
To hang and to lynch
To hide 'neath the hood
To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain't got no name
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game."

-- Bob Dylan, "Only a Pawn In Their Game"

In previous posts, I have been rough on CNN for allowing Lou Dobbs to vent his xenophobia for a minimum of six hours a week and for giving a platform to the deranged and bigoted Glenn Beck on its "Headline News" network. In fairness, then, I should commend CNN when they do something right.

The all-news network performed a public service recently with the broadcast of reporter Kyra Phillips' one-hour documentary, "The Noose: An American Nightmare." Phillips filed the report in response to a number of recent incidents in which nooses were displayed in order to intimidate African Americans.

A noose -- understood as a symbolic reference to the 4,743 known cases of lynching in the United States between 1882 and 1968 -- prominently hung from a tree on a high school campus in Jena, Louisiana early in the fall semester of 2006, sparking a racially-charged chain of events that provoked an outcry from the African American community and dozens of copycat displays of nooses across the country.

The Jena tragedy supposedly began when a black student asked the vice principal if he could sit under the ''white tree,'' a shaded patch of ground some say has been reserved for white students. The official told the black student he could sit wherever he wanted. The next day, someone hanged three nooses from the oak tree. Black students perceived the incident as a racial attack.

As tensions between white and black students boiled, in December six African American students in Jena pounced on a white student and beat him. The youth was hospitalized but attended a class ring ceremony held later that afternoon. The district attorney then filed attempted murder charges against the boys accused of participating in the beating. Many African Americans believe that racial bias led the DA to file excessive charges, which in any case were eventually reduced.

In the wake of the Jena controversy, a noose was tied around the neck of a statute of late rapper Tupac Shakur in Stone Mountain, Ga. Other nooses dangled from trees at the University of Maryland and at Indiana University in Terre Haute. A fourth hanged from the doorknob of an African American professor at Columbia University who teaches classes about race relations.

At Denison University in Granville, Ohio, a flyer publicizing a Halloween concert by a band called the Hilltoppers prominently featured a picture of a noose above the caption, "hang out with us," prompting protests from the Black Student Union. A noose appeared in the locker room of a Long Island police station near the locker of a black officer while yet another appeared in a black Coast Guard cadet's bag. A noose was also left in a Manhattan Post Office not far from Ground Zero.

CNN's documentary, "The Noose," did a good job of putting these incidents in an historical context. Viewers were introduced to the history of lynching and treated to a series of graphic photos of these killings. The disturbing pictures come from a remarkable collection gathered by James Allen of Georgia. Allen eventually turned the collection into a traveling museum exhibit and published the photos in a remarkable book, ‘Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America.’

Many of these grisly images ended up as postcards sent by whites and delivered for years with no objection by the United States Post Office. Every bit as disturbing as the photos on the front of the lynching postcards are the glib notes written on the back. The murder of Albert Brooks in Dallas on March 3, 1910, moved Dr. John F. Williams to write to a friend, "This is a photo taken of a great day we had in Dallas." A postcard of the lynching of William Stanley, who was burned to death and hanged in Tyler, Texas August 1915 moved Joe Myers to inscribe, "This is the barbecue we had last night." Myers sent the postcard to his dad and noted his position relative to the dangling, charred corpse. "My picture is to the left with a cross over it," Myers wrote.

During Phillips’ documentary, after each commercial break viewers saw one of Allen's photos as a narrator told the story behind the lynching. The film humanized each of the featured victims, putting a face on a tragic phenomenon, which occasionally rears its ugly head in the modern day. Lest we complacently believe that such killings are safely confined to the past, we need only to recall the dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. in Jasper, Texas, on June 7, 1998 and the slaying of Matthew Shepard, a young, gay college student pistol-whipped and left draping on a fence in Laramie, Wyoming, October 12 the same year.

Allen’s photos reveal a disturbing truth. Entire communities turned out for the pleasure of torturing African Americans. Parents brought children to watch the cruel spectacle, with the fathers in some of the photos hoisting their children on their shoulders so the little ones could watch a black man die.

In the five decades when lynching was at its peak, from the 1882 to 1930, mob killings took place across the county on an almost weekly basis, but primarily these murder took place in the South. In case you've noticed that Texas has come up frequently in this positing, it is because the Lone Star State has the undistinguished distinction of recording the third highest number of lynchings (492) in the United States in that same time period, ranking only behind Mississippi and Georgia.

Almost 73 percent of the victims, or 3,442 men, women and children were African Americans who suffered beatings, mutilations, torture, hangings and being burned at the stake by frenzied whites. White Southerners typically defended lynching as a response to the supposed predilection of black men for raping white women. Interracial rape, of course, is a rare occurance. Rape usually occurs within racial groups, with white men raping white women and black men raping black women.

Regardless, rape was alleged in only 19.2 percent of the cases. And of course rape cannot account for the women, children, the elderly and the disabled murdered by Negrophobic white Southerners in this period. Frequently African Americans suffered horrible deaths simply because they were too successful financially, because they got into an argument with a white person, because a black man looked into a white woman's eyes, or because an African American startled a white stranger.

Nevertheless, the myth of the black rapist continues to color perceptions of lynching. The most chilling moment in the CNN documentary came when Phillips interviewed Hal Turner, host of a white supremacist internet radio talk show. Turner says he became a racist when voters in a Republican primary chose a Latino woman over him in a Congressional race. Turner can’t believe that voters rejected him because he’s obnoxious, empty-headed and racist. Fiendish political correctness must be at fault, he argues. As noted in a previous post, "Hannity and Hitler," Turner was a regular caller to Fox News host Sean Hannity's radio talk show, identifying himself as "Hal from North Bergen” (New Jersey.) In one call, Turner told Hannity that if it hadn't been for white people, "black people would still be swinging on trees in Africa." Proving that the distance between the right-wing extreme and mainstream conservatives is much shorter than the mainstream media is willing to admit, Hannity gave this hatemonger a national platform and never had the decency to tell Turner that his comments were racist, ugly, and demeaning.

Like so many “angry white men,” Turner believes that whites like him are victims of reverse discrimination, even though whites in the United States are healthier, live longer, are more likely to go to college and have higher incomes than their black peers. Blacks are criminals by nature, he argues, and they deserve retribution. On his website, Turner features the image of a noose over the caption “Itz Coming.” For a time Turner sold miniature nooses from the site.

During her documentary, Phillips asks Turner what the noose represents for him. Turner coldly says, “Justice. That's what a noose symbolizes, justice. Rapists, justice. Child molesters, justice.” In short, Turner repeats the canard that lynching victims deserved their fate because they committed an unspeakable crime. In fact, the primary crime committed by lynching victims was being black.

Men like Turner, who also deny that the Holocaust happened, have motivated me to teach about lynching in my history and journalism classes at the University of Texas at Austin and now at the Spring Creek campus of Collin County Community College in Plano. Denial of America’s bloody, violent racial past has often served as the necessary precursor to new racial injustices. Without fail, the lecture that inspires the strongest student reaction deals with lynching. I cover a lot of the same material Kyra Phillips did in her documentary. Like her, I use James Allen’s horrifying photo collection. Students see pictures of lynchings and hear contemporary newspaper accounts of this American holocaust.

I open by telling them about Sam Hose. A literate, industrious and hardworking man needing cash to support his frail and sick mother and mentally disabled brother, Hose toiled for a white landlord on a plantation close to Atlanta. During spring the following year, Hose got into an argument with his boss over wages. The landlord refused to pay all he owed Hose and threatened him with a pistol. Hose lifted an axe he was using to chop wood to defend himself and swung it, accidentally killing the white men. Aware of the likely consequences, Hose ran off to his mother's cabin in nearby Newman, Ga.

Newspaper accounts distorted events, transforming the accidental slaying of a white man into the rape of a white woman. The print media and radio stations provided advanced notice of a lynching. Whites from hundreds of miles arouund Atlanta chartered trains so they could witness what they hoped would be an entertaining spectacle of vengeance. Seizing Hose, the mob stripped him as naked as a slave on an auction block. The crowd then chained Hose to a tree, stacked wood around him, and soaked the kindling in kerosene. He writhed in agony as his ears, fingers and genitals were cut off and the skin peeled from his face.

One contemporary newspaper account reported that the crowd celebrated as the lynchers lit a fire. Hose’s veins ruptured from the heat of the flames as he slowly burned to death, his blood sizzling in the fire as he cried out, "Oh my God! Oh Jesus!" When death mercifully came, the mob hacked out his heart and liver, and passed out body parts as souvenirs and selling chunks of bone and tissue to those unable to witness the killing. As always happening in lynchings, none of the 2,000 participants in the slaying were ever arrested. A subsequent investigation, meanwhile, proved that Hose had committed no rape.

The great African American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, then a professor at Atlanta University, had written a "careful and reasoned statement" in response to the Hose murder. However, as he carried the guest editorial to an Atlanta newspaper office, he passed a grocery store displaying Hose's knuckles in a jar. He turned around, too disturbed to continue and despairing that whites would ever response to reason.

A black Presbyterian missionary in Liberia informed his African audience about the lynching, but they could not accept that such an event had happened. "Their imagination had never pictured any tragedy so frightful or revolting," the missionary wrote. In New Orleans, white police officers assaulted an African American man, Robert Charles, who already felt fury over the Hose lynching. Charles went on a shooting spree, eventually wounding 27 whites and killing seven before police gunned him down.

Equally haunting stories have been compiled in the powerful book “100 Years of Lynchings” compiled by Ralph Ginzburg. Ginzburg’s book consists of newspaper accounts of lynchings from 1880 to 1961. These news stories reveal how calculated lynchings were and how many white institutions, such as the media, the church, state legislatures, and the law collaborated in these killings. This is certainly true of the killing of Claude Neal, accused of murdering Lola Cannidy. Neal’s lynching unfolded in Greenwood, Florida, October 26, 1934. The Macon (Georgia) Telegraph provided advanced publicity for the lynching. Under the headline, “Big Preparation Made for Lynching Tonight,” the newspaper reported:

“A noon, a ‘Committee of Six’ representing the mob announced a timetable for the lynching which was given to newspapers and over the radio as follows:

At sundown, the negro will be taken to the farm where Miss Lola Cannidy, the murder victim, lived. There, he will be mutilated by the girl’s father.

Then he will be brought to a pig-pen in the middle of a cotton field nearby, where the girl’s body was found, and killed.

Finally, his body will be brought to Marianna, the county seat, nine miles from here, and hung in the court house square for all to see.

. . . ‘All white folks are invited to the party,’ said the announcement issued by the mob’s Committee of Six.

As a result, thousands of citizens have been congregating all afternoon at the Cannidy farm. Bonfires have been started, piles of sharp sticks have been prepared, knives have been sharpened and one woman has displayed a curry-comb with which she promises to torture the negro.

The crowd is said to have been addressed by a member of the Florida State Legislature who, in a humorous vein, promised that no one would be disappointed if the crowd maintained decorum.

Some misgivings are said to have been expressed by the Committee over the fact that the crowd is heavily armed and highly intoxicated. It is feared that shots aimed at the negro may go astray and injure innocent bystanders, who include some women with babes in arms.”

A pornographic description of the Neal lynching appeared in the Birmingham (Alabama) Post the next day under the headline, “Lynching Carried Off Almost as Advertised”:

“An eye-witness to the lynching, which took place yesterday, said that Neal had been forced to mutilate himself before he died. The eye-witness gave the following account of the event, which took place in a swamp beside the Chattahoochee River.

‘Due to the large number of people who wanted to kill the nigger, it was decided to do away with him first and then bring him to the Cannidy house dead.

‘First they cut off his penis. He was made to eat it. Then they cut off his testicles and they made him eat them and say he liked it.

‘Then they sliced his sides and stomach with knives and every now and then somebody would cut off a finger or a toe. Red hot irons were used on the nigger to burn him from top to bottom. From time to time during the torture a rope would be tied around Neal’s neck and he was pulled over a limb and held there until he almost choked to death, when he would be let down and the torture begun all over again. After several hours of this punishment, they decided just to kill him.

‘Neal’s body was tied to a rope on the rear of an automobile and dragged over the highway to the Cannidy home. Here a mob estimated to number somewhere between 3,000 and 7,000 people from eleven Southern states was excitedly waiting his arrival. When the car which was dragging Neal’s body came in front of the Cannidy home, a man who was riding the rear bumper cut the rope.

‘A woman came out of the Cannidy home and drove a butcher knife into his heart. Then the crowd came by and some kicked him and some drove their cars over him.’

What remained of the body was brought by the mob to Marianna, where it is now hanging from a tree in the northeast corner of the courthouse square.

Photographers say they will soon have pictures of the body for sale at fifty cents each. Fingers and toes from Neal’s body are freely exhibited on street corners here.”

When I tell this story, I always note that the “mob” in this lynching had formed a
“Committee of Six.” What kind of mob forms committees or issues press releases with timetables? The word mob represents a whitewash, implying spontaneous outrage rather than cold, calculated murder. I also note that in spite of advance publicity for the lynching, no law enforcement officials intervened to save Neal and that a member of the Florida State Legislature was at hand to cheer on the killers. What is most frightening about the lynching phenomena is that these were not the acts of marginal, mentally ill monsters. These torture killings were the work of entire communities.

The graphic descriptions in such accounts served a crude psychological and political purpose. One of the major shortcomings of the CNN’s documentary “The Noose” is that Phillips did not interview scholars on this subject, which might have provided insight into why this slaughter happened in so many places over such a long period of time. One of the most perceptive scholars of lynching, Jacquelyn Hall, in her groundbreaking essay, “The Mind That Burns in Each Body: Women, Rape and Racial Violence” that appeared in the journal “Southern Exposure” in 1984, notes that white men used the bodies of white women as a battlefield on which they could assert racial supremacy.

White men denied black men the right to touch white women, or gaze at them too long or to speak to them in too familiar a fashion. This prohibition served as a sign of black subordination. Yet, since slavery, white men had insisted upon access to black women as a prize for waging a successful racial war. By contrast, the notion of voluntary sex between black men and white women conjured up, in the words of Hall, "an image of black over white, of a world turned upside down" in which both women and men were autonomous from white male control. Lynching, and the folk pornography printed in newspapers covering these killings thus functioned as a means of both sexual and racial suppression.

Elite men, facing multiple challenges to their hegemony, gladly embraced such spectacles of violence. White women in Southern rape folklore appear as weak victims, thus confirming notions of contrasting male strength and vigor. Portraying women as victims of rape symbolically enfeebled the threatening "modern woman" during an era in which early twentieth century feminists won the battle over suffrage, and also denied women a voluntary role in their own sexuality.

The myth of the black rapist, in the white male mind, provided a rationale for male supremacy. Through lynching, white men sent women the message that they lived in a dangerous world in which they needed male protection. In return for protection, white men demanded obedience. If lynching was meant to frighten blacks into political submission, it was also meant to undermine women’s confidence, to serve “as a weapon of both racial and sexual terror, planting fear in women's minds and dependency in their hearts," as Hall observes.

The aim was also black political paralysis. Living in a world where they were surrounded by a much larger population ready to slaughter them for the slightest perceived provocation, blacks suffered through a life of terror that made social activism too scary for many. Ginzburg’s book heartbreakingly describes the many “offenses” which cost black men, women and children their lives. For instance, Jim Roland, an African American living near Camilla, Georgia, died February 2, 1921, when he refused to dance on a white man’s orders.

“Both men were well-to-do farmers,” the “Knoxville East Tennessee News” reported. “Each was standing with friends of his own race in front of a country store. [Jason I.] Harvel pulled out a gun and ordered the colored man to dance for the amusement of himself and his white friends. Roland grabbed for the gun and it went off, killing Harvel.

Roland fled but was soon found by a posse which riddled him with bullets. Before doing so, the posse leader commanded Roland to dance. He refused.”

In Hartwell, Georgia on January 2, 1916, two black men were lynched and a black woman badly beaten when one of the men allegedly said to a white woman, “Hello, Sweetheart.” The African American woman told interviewers that all they said was, “Hello.” A young, mentally ill black man named Wilson Gardner died in Kilgore, Alabama, after he went to the homes of white miners, displayed a rope and threatened to hang them. A gang of white men beat him to death and hanged his body from a trestle.

One of the most poignant stories is that of African American World War I veteran William Little. In spite of the harsh economic discrimination, the political disenfranchisement and the violence frequently visited upon them, millions of African Americans patriotically signed up for the military during the war hoping to score a “Double V” –- a victory against the Kaiser in Europe and against racism at home. During the war, black soldiers were forced to serve in segregated units, given menial and degrading jobs and had to deal with the insults of white soldiers who told French women that the black soldiers had tails. Not allowed to fight with the U.S. Army, black soldiers were borrowed by the French, who heavily decorated black units for their combat bravery.

Rather than gratitude, black veterans inspired fear and hostility from their white fellow countrymen when they returned home. Many were killed across the country in the race riots that marked the “Red Summer” of 1919. Such was the case of Private Little when he returned to Blakely, Georgia. According to the April 5, 1919 black-owned newspaper the “Chicago Defender”:

“When Private William Little, a Negro soldier returning from the war, arrived at the railway station here several weeks ago, he was encountered by a band of whites. The whites ordered him to doff his Army uniform and walk home in his underwear. Several other whites prevailed upon the hoodlums to leave Little alone and he was permitted to walk home unmolested.

Little continued to wear his uniform over the next few weeks, as he had no other clothing. Anonymous notes were sent to him warning him to not wear his Army uniform ‘too long.’ and advising him to leave town if he wished to ‘sport around in khaki.’ Little ignored the notes.

Yesterday Private Little was found dead on the outskirts of this city, apparently beaten by a mob. He was wearing his Army uniform.”

These stories have inspired a fascinating spectrum of reaction from my students. White students have come to me in tears, telling me they had no idea this had happened and feeling personally responsible for the crimes whites committed against people of color. Other white students have become angry, writing on their student evaluations for the course, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you move to Africa?” or “Racism is bad. We get it already.”

One of the most interesting responses I received was at UT. An African American student asked me what I saw as the purpose of the lecture. African Americans know this story, he said, and white people don’t care. Seeing the photographs and hearing the accounts left him feel powerless. He said that as he was leaving the lecture hall he heard two white students talking to each other. “What class was that?” one student asked. “History,” the other student replied with annoyance. “What did you learn?” the first student inquired. “Nothing. Just lynching,” the other student said.

This reaction from an African American disturbed me. I worried that I had filled the same function as white newspaper editors in the South who published graphic accounts of lynchings, which served to immobilize the African American community. I had to face this issue again at Collin College this semester. A white student interrupted me as I was reading the gory Claude Neal account. “If you don’t mind me asking, what’s the point of this?” She was unsatisfied with my answers and walked out, quickly dropping the course.

Let me share how I responded to her and to the African American student in Austin. I give the bloody details because of the recent incidents in which whites thought it would be funny to leave a noose near a black person’s locker. I said that racism and violence are constants in American culture. I referred to a brilliant study of German anti-Semitism, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,” in which Daniel Jonah Goldhagen counters the arguments made by some scholars of the Third Reich who suggest that the "eliminationist" anti-Semitism embraced by the Nazis represented an anomaly in German history or that the civilized Germans were really just like us and they were brainwashed into anti-Jewish frenzy by a charismatic leader. Others have suggested that the economic hardships Germany experienced after World War I, which produced starvation in several German cities, created a pathological political environment that warped an otherwise “normal” German culture.

Goldhagen’s work sadly demonstrates that the German population at large wholly embraced the most extreme actions taken by the Nazis against Jews. Eliminationist anti-Semitism has deep roots in German culture, from the anti-Semitic teachings of medieval Catholics who blamed Jews for Jesus’ death, to Martin Luther’s intense Judeophobia during the Reformation, to the writings of 19th century German nationalists who saw Jews as a different race congenitally unable to be real Germans and who exercised a wicked influence over the German economy, politics and culture.

Some Germans might have been squeamish about witnessing actual brutality against Jews in the streets, or may have defended an individual Jew they were acquainted with, but the consensus among ordinary Germans was that Jews were an alien force that threatened the nation’s survival and Germany’s future depended on eliminating Jews from the Reich’s political and social life.

Some scholars have objected when African American activists have described American slavery and racial violence as a holocaust. These scholars point out that American slave owners, and then white landlords, bosses and sheriffs, sought the economic exploitation of blacks, not their physical extermination. This is too simple a distinction. The motive of economic exploitation is there, but the sadistic overkill of lynching suggests an eliminationist impulse as well.

Blacks, in the view of many American racists, are dangerous, violent criminals by nature who lack the intelligence and character to earn a living through hard work. They are a congenitally alien group in a nation created by white people, the argument goes.(“I am offended that the culture that developed and built and paid for this country is now being put at the back of the bus, so to speak,” Hal Turner told Kyra Phillips “Because for some reason or another, all these lower cultures and lower races are more important, and I find that disgusting.”)

Blacks and other people of color represent a physical and economic danger, according to the racists. Goldhagen argues that it is irrational to believe that the homicidal anti-Semitism Germans displayed during a plague outbreak in the 1340s (in which masses of Jews, blamed for causing the disease with black magic, burned to death in village squares) somehow disappeared and reappeared as German culture evolved. Where is the evidence, he asks, that eliminationist anti-Semitism ever disappeared from the German Weltanschauung? I ask the same question about American negrophobia. Where is the evidence that the murderous impulses of the white lynch mob have disappeared from American society?

Discussing lynching in graphic detail is important because racism, and the dehumanizing rage it produces, still stains the American psyche. Every night, the mainstream media feeds the public a diet of crime stories in which blacks and Latinos are the main protagonists. Black celebrities almost always experience a public fall from grace and the public delights in their downfall as much as they celebrated their earlier successes. The murderous racism expressed by the best people in hundreds of different communities in the past didn’t mysteriously pop up for a time and then disappear. It is sheer arrogance to think we are too sophisticated, too civilized, to turn America again into a killing field, to think we are superior to the Germans of the 1930s and 1940s, or the Anglo wolfpacks who routinely hunted for black skins in the United States from the 1880s to the 1960s.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the words of the modern right wing. They spin a tale of black violence and depravity that could be transcripts of the dialogue surrounding earlier lynchings. Go to Google and type in “Channon Christian” and ‘Christopher Newsom.” I got 26,900 hits when I tried it. The two names refer to a white man and woman carjacked, raped, and murdered January 6 of this year in Knoxville, Tennessee. Police arrested four African Americans for the crime. The case received national attention and saturation coverage in the Knoxville area.

Nevertheless, starting in April a hue and cru started by white supremacist extremists, but soon echoed by so-called mainstream conservatives, charged that the media, cowed by political correctness, had blacked out the story and denied it the saturation coverage given the unfortunate Duke University rape allegation story. The right soon charged that the media covers up black crimes against whites because they are afraid they will be accused of being racist. Websites depicted black crimes against whites, such as rapes and murders, as commonplace, and suggested that black culture is too dysfunctional for leaders to reign in the monsters within their community.

According to a posting by Stephen Webster on the white supremacist website “American Renaissance,” “When blacks commit outrages against whites, media executives not only downplay black misbehavior but believe they must protect whites from ‘negative stereotypes’ about blacks. If they must report such crimes, they are likely to link them to editorials calling for tolerance, and pointing out that the criminals were individuals, not a race. When whites commit outrages against blacks there are no such cautions; white society at large is to blame...”

Another right-wing blogger complained about the supposed lack of coverage the Knoxville murders received compared to the James Byrd dragging death. “Do you know who James Byrd is?” the blogger asked. “The National media were all over that story, 3 White guys kill a Black man by dragging him from behind a pick up truck. White on Black crime sells. Where was the National media when 4 Black men (if that is what you want to call them) car-jacked the car Channon & Chris were driving in. But instead of just stealing the car it was fun time in the hood for these subhumans. They took the two to a home and raped and beat booth of them.

“Now ladies think about this; you are held down by a large Black man and he penetrates you and beats you, but not just 1 Black man 4 Black men over a period of 2 days. You are their sex slave and punching bag . . . Again where is the National media in all this? They are silent when perpetrators are Black and the victims are White. If 4 White men would have done this to a Black man and his girlfriend, wow the National media would have a field day with this. Jessie and Al would have marches and then everyone would say racism played a role.”

In the right wing mind, the power relations in the real world are turned upside down and it is African Americans who are powerful and whites the helpless victims. One website created after the Knoxville killings, http://channonchristian.com/, features the inscription “In memory of Channon Christian, Christopher Newsom and all of our white brothers and sisters that have become victims of diversity and multiculturalism.”

Respectable conservative commentators soon picked up the theme that the liberal white media suppressed the story of a black-on-white crime in order to polish the image of crime-prone African Americans. Former CBS reporter and HBO “Real Sports” on-air talent Bernard Goldberg made this charge in his bitter, defensive screed, “Bias.”
The “National Review,” founded by William F. Buckley in the 1950s, has long embraced racism. In the 1950s, it supported Southern segregationists against the African American civil rights movement, claiming that the superior civilization white created would be threatened by black voting rights and social equality. In the 1990s, the “National Review” gushed over “The Bell Curve,” a book that argued that African Americans and Latinos are 15 points on average lower in intelligence than whites and that these differences are genetic. Now, with the Christian-Newsom murders, the “National Review Online” repeated the charges initially made by Klansmen and Neo-Nazis and carried them to a mainstream audience.

Columnist Jack Dunphy cited crime statistics from Los Angeles. “Looking at the numbers more closely, blacks are about 11 percent of the city’s population, but in 2006 they were 36 percent of its murder victims and 40 percent of its known murder suspects.” Dunphy wrote on April 11. “Latinos make up 46 percent of the city’s total population and were about half of its murder victims and suspects. Whites are about 29 percent of the population in Los Angeles but last year were only 4 percent of the city’s murder victims and 2 percent of its known murder suspects.” Blacks and Latinos are criminal by nature, Dunphy suggests, and they endanger the entire white community.

Meanwhile, just as the press transformed the news that Sam Hose had accidentally shot his employer into the charge that he had raped a white woman, the Christian-Newsom murders morphed into an urban legend. Racist websites began claiming that the attacks were racially motivated and concocted imaginary details concerning the supposed sexual mutilation of the victims. Hal Turner hyped the story and spread the false rumors regarding the case.

These explosive charges then reached a broader audience when Charlie Daniels (who wrote one good song, “Uneasy Rider,” back in the 1970s but has been an obnoxious stormtrooper since) posted an open letter on his website demanding that the liberal press cover the story and adding new, inaccurate details that the killers castrated Newsom and that while she was still alive, Channon’s “breasts were cut off.”

The story got wilder soon after when reactionary harpy Michelle Malkin guest-hosted the “O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News and falsely claimed that Channon’s body had been found in five separate garbage bags. The victims’ parents, incidentally, have denied that their children had been mutilated or that the killings were a race-based hate crime and condemned men like Turner and the Neo-Nazis who held a “Rally Against Genocide” in Knoxville on May 26.

The type of discourse generated by the Knoxville murders echoes exactly the verbal precursors to lynchings of African Americans across the nation in the late 19th through the mid-20th centuries. The eliminationist impulse lies barely under the surface in much of this far right wing and mainstream conservative conversation about black crime. Once again the myth of the black murderer-rapist has been projected for a political purpose, in this case to continue the rollback of civil rights reforms begun by Ronald Reagan and to discredit the effort by scholars and others to honor black culture and black history.

My study of lynching gives me little faith in white civilization. I fear that as jobs are shipped overseas, as American markets are flooded with unsafe products from China, as the middle class shrinks and as more people lose health insurance and other benefits, that whites will feel under assault and surrounded by poor blacks and immigrants. They will not blame the powerful corporations who have engineered this economic misery, but the people of color around them. I fear a new wave of racial violence that will trace its origins to the recent noose incidents and to the Knoxville murder case.

If blacks ultimately aren’t the once and future victims of America’s divide-and-conquer politics, then perhaps it will be the immigrants repeatedly pilloried by Lou Dobbs, or the gays targeted by Christian Al Queda leaders like James Dobson. The wood has been piled up and soaked with gas. All that remains is for the right social conditions and the right public figure to strike the match



Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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