Archive for May, 2022

The Danger of Presidential Racism - Tulsa 1921, George Floyd 2020

Monday, May 16th, 2022

What a president says, matters.

When he was running for president in 1912, Woodrow Wilson signaled to the African American community, whose votes he was courting, that he was on their side: “Should I become President of the United States, [Negroes] [sic] may count upon me for absolute fair dealing and for everything by which I could assist in advancing the interests of their race in the United States.” Wilson, a Democrat, won, in part, by capturing the votes of many African Americans, formerly embraced the Republican Party. Long-sought equality seemed within reach.

But only weeks after his March 7, 1913, inauguration, Wilson - in an April 11 meeting - assented to requests by determined Southern cabinet members to segregate their departments, which had been officially integrated for 50 years, since the time of Reconstruction at the end of the Civil War. The U.S. Postal Service and the Department of the Treasury soon went into action, rushing to move African American workers into desks and tables that were separated from white workers, and moving Black workers out of formerly shared locker rooms and restrooms. Screens were posted around African American workers, so no white person could see them.

Wilson told a group of African American leaders at the White House that segregation was necessary to “prevent racial friction.” Instead, by reversing his pre-election pledge, he provoked it.

W.E.B. DuBois, the editor of NAACP’s The Crisis, responded, “The federal government has set the colored apart as if mere contact with them were contamination,” adding, “Behind screens and closed doors they now sit as though leprous. How long will it be before the hateful epithets of ‘Nigger’ and ‘Jim Crow’ are openly applied?”

In the years following official segregation of the federal government, the security of African Americans became ever more tenuous. Recruitment for the armed forces for World War I featured a draft registration card that crudely instructs the enlistee: “If person is of African descent, cut off this corner.”

Racial separation signaled to racists that Uncle Sam doesn’t see Black people as equal, and in the 1919 summer months following the return of service personnel from Europe, white rioters attacked and killed hundreds of African Americans, including fellow servicemen, in 33 cities spread across the entire country. Black life was in low regard.

The seeds of division Wilson had planted produced such venom and disregard for the lives of Black people that the most successful and prominent community of African Americans in the country, Greenwood - a 40-square block district of Tulsa, Oklahoma, known as The Black Wall Street - was invaded by white mobs on June 21, 1921, firebombed by planes and totally destroyed. Upwards of 300 African American men, women and children were killed, and the Black Wall Street lay in embers.

When Donald Trump called the white supremacists in Charlottesville, “very fine people:” when he said African immigrants come from “shithole countries,” and when he fed crowd rage toward protesting African American football players, urging, “Get that son-of-a-bitch off the field!” we had another president taking aim at our own citizens, only this time it was being done with blunt furor and open hate, with no attempt to hide his disdain for Americans he just doesn’t like to see.

The signals he gave to those seething with hate, the ones who had been in the background, those who had gathered secretly in the woods as militia and KKK, came out in full force on January 6, 2021. The wink he gave to police about their treatment of suspects likely ended the vibrant life of George Floyd in 2020 Minneapolis.

Are you willing to allow this venom to pour into our communities and neighborhoods? To see open attacks on people of color? Will you do anything to stand up for justice and the rule of law?

Sadly, we have seen more videos of three or four or five police officers arresting African American men for simply being in a public space. in 2018, a woman was choked and her clothes torn off, as she asked why a disagreement over plastic-ware caused her to be cornered by police in a fast-food restaurant. When an officer used that coded-phrase, “You’re resisting me,” he seemed to feel that gave him full authority to do whatever he willed to her partially-clothed body.

Then, in a moment separated by just miles and hours, a lone African American man had the courage to lunge at a gunman in a similar fast-food outlet, and stopped potential carnage. What a comparison: two policemen tackle an unarmed girl, while a Black man heroically tackled an armed gunman.

And how many unarmed Black men and women have been killed by police, in the encounters we know about, since 1999?

How can we - you and me - ensure that this outrage stops, that this legacy of violent racist hatred ceases?