George Romero’s classic 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead begins with the famous warning that “they are coming to get you Barbra!” In the movie, the “they” were hordes of zombies, hungry for the flesh of the living and intent on destroying human society like a plague, an inexorable natural disaster, a tsunami of the undead.
Decades later, and perhaps inspired by Romero’s master work, the conservative media has conjured up a new terror: black young people are the “new” monsters, causing chaos and sowing destruction across the United States. Who is their prey? Innocent white folks that are being waylaid, murdered, and assaulted in an imagined race war by roving bands of black “zombies” whose barbarism is inspired by the election of Barack Obama.
Several weeks ago Bill O’Reilly, the most watched TV personality on Fox News, ran a series of stories on what he suggests is a “racially motivated” attack on two white journalists in Norfolk, Virginia that he claimed was covered up by the local press.
As Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins details, the facts reveal a different reality: a rock was thrown at a car, the occupants had an argument with a group of men and a fight ensued. The reporters were not severely injured. Although an unfortunate incident in a city that is struggling with violent crime, it was neither particularly noteworthy or an anomaly. In fact, the newspaper for which the journalists worked thought the event was a non-story. This did not deter Bill O’Reilly. He could frame the story as part of a national race war by introducing one fact–the victims of the assault were white and the perpetrators were black.
The National Review’s Thomas Sowell legitimated this narrative of a race war against whites in a column which circulated widely throughout the Right-wing media and blogosphere. There he listed a series of such assaults in major cities such as Chicago, New York, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, which involved groups of young black people committing random assaults on pedestrians, robbing people of their cell phones and Ipods, and fighting on beaches and in malls.
These narratives of white victimhood at the hands of blacks have even gained traction internationally: the London based Daily Mail recently featured a story about a white man who was attacked by a black gang of “twenty hooded youths” outside of a pub.
Once more, instead of a story about random street crime in major cities (something all too frequent), white racial anxiety is used as the connective tissue tying these disparate and unrelated events together. As Sowell observes, “What the authorities and the media seem determined to suppress is that the hoodlum elements in many ghettos launch coordinated attacks on whites in public places.” Apparently, in the conservative imagination there is a nationwide plot and a scheme to silence white pain and anger as they are made the targets of systematic, brutal, anti-white racism.
The Conservative media’s race war narrative falls apart when one encounters the facts. In an effort to stir up white anxiety, these stories ignore that violent crime in the United States has been declining for decades. Oftentimes, these mob attacks are either random street crimes or actually a byproduct of long standing feuds between the participants and victims. And looking to context, most crime in the United States is intra-racial and committed by family members, friends, and associates. And one cannot generalize from aggregate crime statistics down to the probability that a given person will commit a criminal act.
Nevertheless, the conservative media keeps up the drumbeat of alleged black on white crime.
History matters. The conservative media’s suggestion that the country is in the midst of an anti-white race war does not come out of the ether.
While these fears were born in slavery and Emancipation as a means to justify white terrorism against people of color, there are many noteworthy examples in the near past as well.
Up through the first half of the 20th century, The New York Times featured many news items about “giant negroes” who would attack police, any innocent white people nearby, and have to be brought down by overwhelming police violence. In an eerie foreshadowing of the conservative media at present, The New York Times archive also contains stories with headlines such as the following: “Mobs of Blacks Retaliate for Riots”; “Negro Mob Terrorizing the Citizens of Jacksonville”; “Negro Mob in South Shouts for Lynching”; and “Negro Mob Killed Sheriff.”
Stories about black mob behavior were also common during the 1960s. And of course, American popular culture during the Reagan era featured a recurring motif of white vigilantes such as Charles Bronson and Dirty Harry who protected “normal” white society from black gang violence and “wilding” teens.
The conservative media’s pandering to fears of black violence is a sophisticated effort. The race war must be brought home to predominantly white areas. Places like Iowa and Wisconsin do not have large populations of black people; but in the conservative media, this is no protection from the race war apparently being waged against white Americans. The Daily Caller and other conservative websites repeatedly featured coverage of what was labeled as “beat whitey night” a state fair in Iowa. The conservative media doubled down on their “white folks imperiled even in Red State rural America” meme by giving extensive coverage to how white people were ambushed and beaten at a similar event in Wisconsin.
All of these news items are part of an effort to craft a dramatic, exaggerated story that plays on racial fears, and channels many of the themes common to Right-wing identity politics in the aftermath of the Civil Rights era. Crime; black violence; a fear of black young people; and an emphasis on cities and urban areas (and the people who live there) as embodying everything wrong with America, have mobilized Republican voters and right leaning Independents since (at least) Richard Nixon’s appeals to “the silent majority.”
The visual of rampaging black hordes that set upon white people is potent. It channels the iconic images of burning cities and urban rebellions. The idea of being overrun by black and brown people fueled white flight from America’s central cities, helped give rise to segregated suburbs, and now drives the growth of gated and racially exclusive private communities. The right wing media’s narrative of a race war by blacks against whites is part of a larger political imagination that fears the Other—be it immigrants, people of color, or any other designated group that is viewed as a toxic poison in the white (conservative) body politic.
Who are the Real Victims of Racial Violence in America?
In all, the conservative media’s effort to paint a picture where white people are uniquely under threat by black hate crimes and mob action is a gross misrepresentation of the realities of racial violence in the United States.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported that since the election of Barack Obama, the number of white hate groups in the United States has continued to grow over the last decade.
These groups and individuals are not idle. In fact, whites have recently killed people of color in racially motivated shooting sprees; plots such as the planned Martin Luther King Junior Day bombingby a neo-Nazi in Spokane, Washington have been uncovered by federal authorities; other white hate groups have been recently indicted for planning acts of domestic terrorism against people of color.
While the conservative media tries to create panic about a race war in which blacks attack whites, history reveals that the opposite dynamic has been the norm. White mob violence against racial minorities (from the lynching tree, to sundown towns, and racial pogroms in places such as Tulsa, Chicago, and St. Louis) was common during the 19th and 20th centuries, and one of the ways that the boundaries of (white) American citizenship were drawn and enforced.
A Conservative “Colorblind” Dream World
Conservatives have convinced themselves that racism is a thing of the past. Moreover, they believe that American society is truly a level playing field, and that white racism is not an impediment to success for people of color.
The facts are not kind to this version of reality: African Americans and Latinos are significantly more likely to be unemployed during the Great Recession; the wealth gap between blacks and whites has continued to grow, with the latter have two dollars in wealth for every 10 cents owned by African Americans; blacks are given harsher sentences than whites when charged with the same crime; there is evidence of persistent discrimination in the labor market against people of color; and the United States remains segregated, with its schools being as racially divided as they were in the 1960s.
Racially resentful conservatives ignore and deny this reality. For them, the central struggle of the 21st century is to ensure equal rights for white people. To further this dream world of white oppression, conservative elites and opinion leaders have completed a masterful transformation and inversion of language and logic.
In an Orwellian turn, nonsense words such as “playing the race card” (where does one get this card?) and “reverse-racism” (if racism is “reversed” then does it exist?) have been introduced into the American vocabulary. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Right has successfully convinced a large segment of the public that racism is a thing of the past (and which for all intents and purposes) has been eliminated as a meaningful variable in American social, cultural, and political life. For example, a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute reported that 44 percent of respondents believed that racism against white people was as big a social problem as that suffered by people of color. A significantly higher percentage of Republicans, Tea Party supporters, and Christian Evangelicals held this view.
There remains a consistent gap in the white public’s willingness to acknowledge the persistence and impact of racism in the United States: during the 1960s when Jim and Jane Crow were still lived realities, a majority of white Americans believed that the life chances of black and white people were roughly equal—a similar pattern continues into the present.
This is the beating heart and ultimate goal of the conservative dream world: an alternate reality has been created where racism only exists when white people are the “victims.” The race war trope is a fulfillment of this vision on a grand scale. These stories garner attention, and thus generate revenue for the conservative media. They also play on white anxieties about changing racial demographics and the “browning” of America.
A moral panic about roving bands of black people who are intent on attacking white folks also does practical political work. White racial anxiety, fear, and racial hostility are variables that could potentially mobilize some voters to move away from the Democratic Party and towards the GOP.
In keeping with the Right wing’s Culture War strategy, the conservative media’s fixation on young people of color running ramshackle over polite white society is also a way of portraying the black community as both uniquely pathological, and as possessing “bad culture.” African American parents are implicitly indicted for allowing this behavior to occur; black leadership is smeared as ineffective and incompetent for failing to intervene; African American activists are branded as hypocrites for their supposed silence when whites are the victims of black “hate crimes”; white liberals and progressives are tarred for enabling criminal behavior by people of color.
Who will Protect the White People?
The conservative media is playing with the highly combustible elements of race, violence, and white fear in order to further a narrow, dishonest, and petty political agenda. A narrative of white victimhood at the hands of black mobs begs and demands a response. If white people are really the victims of blacks in a race war, then they are going to need “defenders” and “heroes.”
The race war narrative gives support to the expansion of police power and the surveillance society. This includes more funding for police, and Draconian policies such as racial profiling and “stop and frisk.” Given the militarization of local police departments, and the aggressive tactics they deploy in urban communities, against the poor, and people of color, protecting white people against racial violence is a pretext for police brutality.
The victimization of white people in this fictitious race war also legitimates concealed carry laws, as well as the dangerous and unpredictable “Stand Your Ground” statutes which led to the shooting death of an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed block watch vigilante.
The conservative white racial imagination that embraces fantasies of white suffering at the hands of black brigands, thugs, and mobs, is also a party to the race war fantasies of the notorious Turner Diaries—what is a bible of sorts for the white nationalist militia movement. These fantasies of white law and order, white victimhood, and the need to “defend” white people against “rampaging hordes” of blacks are also shared by the Ku Klux Klan, the largest and most dangerous terrorist organization in American history.
Such a comparison will quite likely enrage the conservative media, and those others who buy into a narrative of white victimhood at the hands of black people. Despite their objections, the fiery and toxic narratives of black mobs rampaging and killing white people in a frenzy of wanton violence do in fact swim in the same racist waters as the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalist organizations. The conservative media should own that fact instead of running away from it, hiding behind the twin guise of “colorblindness” and white grievance politics. The honesty would be refreshing.
© 2012, agentleman.