South Carolina’s “Strange Fruit.” A 21st Century Lynching of African American Males – Ronald J. Sheehy

Murder in SC In the aftermath of the recent shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer in South Carolina, I am certain there will be a chorus of increasing calls for police reform as there have been after all of the other recent incidences where black men have been murdered by the police. The usual response is to diagnose the problem of police violence as a police training problem, “a bad decision” problem according to Charleston’s mayor, a lack of “ anti-bias training” problem, the absence of “community policing” problem, or the “paucity of African American police officers” problem.

While these prescriptions aimed at a solution might prove to be necessary, they are not sufficient. The reason for this is that, while white police officers are a manifestation of the problem, the root of the problem is with white people themselves.

The majority of whites will fail to see that both the lynching of African American males by whites, and the murder of African American males by white police officers, are a reflection of racist attitudes in the white community at lodge, which hold black people in contempt, resent their presence, and hate their black bodies. In academic circles the problem is categorized as studies about “Whiteness.

W.E. B. Du Bois in his essay, Souls of White Folks, asked satirically, “but what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?”

One starting point for understanding this phenomenon is to mark, label or expose the idea of whiteness. George Yancy in, Look, A White interrogates the idea of whiteness and observes that the reverse symbolism of, “look, a white” brings whiteness to the foreground. Whiteness as a site of privilege and power is named and identified.” I will not belabor the history of black enslavement, or the brutal and violent oppression of black people in this country, or the system of government sanctioned discrimination; however, these actions of commission and omission by whites have created a stain on the very democratic values that they espouse. Du Bois puts it this way, “A true and worthy ideal frees and uplifts a people; a false ideal imprisons and lowers.”

The idea of white supremacy, which holds that whites are inherently superior to other races, has been discredited as a legitimate notion. The majority of whites, when polled, are against racism, and do not think of themselves as racist. Yet, anti-black hatred persists, and many of the social and political structures erected in American society based on the exclusion of blacks are still in place. Moreover, whites are still profiting economically from historical and persistent racism, while believing contemporaneously in the myth of color-blindness and post-racialism.

Now, dear white reader, before becoming defensive, I am not condemning all white people, but I would propose the following. Racism is insidious, in other words, it’s deceptive, and lurks in the souls of otherwise good people. Racism, like an embedded virus, can overcome a controlled consciousness and lead to violent behavior. In the case of some white police officers, interaction with black males appears to be the stressor in the sub-conscious that leads to uncontrollable rage and violent actions. However, as I will argue, many white people feel a version of this rage in everyday interaction with black bodies, these feelings aren’t life threatening to blacks, but the resentments, contempt, and even hatreds, taken collectively have substantial consequences for blacks.

It is hard to miss the hatred directed at President Obama, or the consequences of anti-black racism in the criminal justice system, as chronicled by Michele Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, or the disproportional suspension of black students at all grade levels, and the list of macro and micro-aggressions of whites toward blacks goes on and on.

According to George Lipsitz in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, “Whiteness is everywhere in U.S. culture, but it is very hard to see. He goes on to say, “As the unmarked category against which difference is constructed, whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its rule as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations.” In other words, white people see themselves not as white people, but as people in general. This invisibility causes white people to be ignorant of institutionalized white racism as well as white privilege and advantages throughout American society.

For example, when whites use their networks of friends to get a job or a promotion, these are seen as harmless actions that have no bearing on their racialized existence in this country. Yet, whites who engage in these actions see no contradiction in their opposing affirmative action which would provide a similar racialized access to opportunity for blacks.

Many observers of American culture were surprised to learn that Millennials, those born after 1980, are not as racially tolerant as might be expected. According to a recent study published in the Washington Post, Millennials are just about as racist as their parents, “substantial minorities of white millennials hold racial prejudices against blacks.“

Given the foregoing, as a society, what can we do? To start with, white people have to admit honestly that they have a problem. In fact, they are the problem. The sorting out of their racial feelings, both in the abstract, as well as those stimulated by the presence of blacks, is a legitimate starting point. Detection and unburdening of color prejudices is a project that whites should undertake. Think of it this way: white, black, yellow, red, brown, are colorations of the epidermis, nothing more.

The transmission of racist values and attitudes starts within the family and proceeds outwards towards the larger society. White parents must be on constant surveillance for instances where their children embrace racist symbolism and exhibit racist behavior. Think of the recent incidence involving young white male members of a University of Oklahoma fraternity chanting about lynching in a frivolous manner. An excerpt: “You can hang’ em from a tree, but it will never start with me.”

White parents and responsible white adults must provide their young people with a counter narrative that leads toward more tolerance and empathy toward non-whites. White educators, at all grade levels, and in all educational settings, must convey the truth to white children and young adults regarding the origins and history of white supremacy, and the moral and ethical problems attendant its use as a rationale for colonization and enslavement of African people.

Students of all colors must be taught a true version of American history that celebrates the accomplishments and contributions of Americans of all ethnicities, while at the same time admitting to American failures to be just and fair. And in equal importance, white religious organizations, in particular Christians, while sitting in segregated pews on Sunday, must attack the problem of hypocrisy regarding race in the church. Du Bois, in a stinging criticism of white Christians states, “A nation’s religion is its life, and as such white Christianity is a miserable failure.”

He goes on to say, “the number of white individuals who are practicing with even reasonable approximation the democracy and unselfishness of Jesus Christ is so small and unimportant as to be fit subject for jest in Sunday supplements….”

Although Dubois observations were made at the turn of the 20th Century, the silence of white Christian leaders in this present moment of race crisis is irresponsible and unhelpful.

In the past, I have proposed that we create a nation-wide campaign to root out racist attitudes in our society. I renew a call for this effort, based on the following logic. The broad consensus we need to solve racial problems will occur when we acknowledge that like cigarette smoking, racism is cancerous. Similarly, it destroys lives. Once we recognized and accepted the medical effects of nicotine, we waged an effective campaign against smoking, and made it individually unhealthy and socially unacceptable to smoke in public places. Likewise, we should wage an effective public campaign against the twin psychoses of racism and color prejudice so that they will become recognized and accepted as individually harmful and socially unacceptable.

All that is needed is for a corporation and/or foundation to see this as a calling and embrace this project. It is urgent now that we educate the public toward the vison of a more just, multi-cultural, and multi-racial society. If accomplished, this will be true “American Exceptionalism.”