white supremacy

Tulsa 1921 Revisited

Tulsa 1921 Revisited

            Robert A. Levine

During the Jim Crow era in the United States, stretching from the end of Reconstruction through World War II, lynchings were common in the South, analysts believing they averaged about three per week. However, there were also a number of massacres of multiple Blacks by whites occurring for various reasons. Envy of Black entrepreneurs and shopkeepers by poor whites was one of the driving forces as they did not want to see Blacks who were wealthier and more successful than they were. One of the most appalling of these racial massacres took place in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma over a century ago during about an eighteen hour period on May 31 and June 1, 1921. The Greenwood area of Tulsa with about 10,000 residents had been known as the Black Wall Street because of the large number of successful businesses and affluent men and women, some of whom lived in beautiful homes. Tulsa was a thriving city of about 100,000 people that was greatly segregated and had high crime rates. The oil boom flooded the city with money and many Southerners migrated there for jobs.

Prior to the vehement white action against Greenwood, there was a story circulating that a Black teenager had sexually assaulted a white female elevator operator and had been arrested by the police. When a white mob assembled around the courthouse and demanded that the sheriff hand over the supposed perpetrator to them, the sheriff refused, barricading the building and angering the mob. Seventy-five armed Black men gathered near the courthouse and asked the sheriff to let them aid him in protecting the teenager, but he turned them down. At the same time, the white mob at the courthouse grew to about 1500 men, many of them also armed. Some shots were fired and in the ensuing chaos, the Black men withdrew to Greenwood. More white Tulsans arrived at the scene and some of them were deputized by city officials and given weapons. Groups of these white men engaged in many violent acts against peaceful Blacks, including murder.

False rumors then spread that a major insurrection by armed Black Tulsans had started, with Black reinforcements from neighboring towns and cities. By morning, thousands of white men with weapons surged into the Greenwood section, looting and torching homes and businesses over an area of thirty-five city blocks. Firefighters who tried to put out some of the fires were threatened by the white mob and had to withdraw. Some days later, the Red Cross estimated that over 1200 homes were burned, with an additional 215 looted. In addition, two newspapers, a school, a library, a hospital, churches, hotels and numerous businesses owned by Blacks were destroyed by arson. Though the official count noted 36 deaths, historians have put the death toll at over 300, the vast majority being Black, and over 8,000 were made homeless. The Tulsa massacre was believed to have been one of the worst riots in American history, though it was virtually unknown until recent years.

Officials in Tulsa and Oklahoma downplayed the event right from the beginning, hoping to keep the stigma of the massacre from interfering with the city’s economic growth. The cover-up included removing the newspaper archives in Tulsa with reports about the riot, and removing the police and National Guard reports relating to the massacre. There was little about it in the history books and nothing about it was taught in the schools. From the 70s on, however, more information about the massacre was obtained by scholars and historians and in 1997, a state government commission was formed to investigate the massacre to present a reliable depiction of what had happened. Of interest, the Black teenager was released from jail without a trial when the white elevator girl denied that he had sexually assaulted her.

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White Privilege

White Privilege

            Robert A. Levine 

The belief in white supremacy provides justification for the nation’s racial conflicts and is the basis for white racial privilege. Currently, the major racial problems for America are the inequality between Blacks and whites and the continued obstruction of Black rights and attempts at advancement. But difficulties also exist between whites and Asians and whites and indigenous peoples, their origin eminating as well from the presumption of white supremacy and entitlement. Though America’s democracy supposedly is based on the concept expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal, it appears that an influential part of the nation’s white population does not accept that thesis and acts in ways to subvert it. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In schools across the country, children must have heard these words at least dozens if not hundreds of times, and discussed the meaning with their teachers and fellow students. But there is still a large portion of white citizens who refuse to acknowledge the words of the Declaration and insist on believing in white superiority and privilege. The fact that Blacks were initially enslaved by whites has also contributed to the legacy of white supremacy and privilege, with an unwillingness among many white men and women to grant Blacks equal status and social standing.

After slavery was abolished in the United States and Blacks were freed, white attitudes towards them did not change significantly, particularly in the South with Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan. With the passage of Federal Civil Rights statutes in the 1960s, there was movement towards equality under the law, but attitudes were mostly unaltered. But in the half century since, Blacks have been more assertive about their rights and many whites have shared their concerns. In the last decade, police brutality towards Blacks resulting in unnecessary deaths reinforced the presence of systemic racism in American society. Many whites reassessed their beliefs about Blacks, though racial privilege by whites remains, either overtly or covertly. The question now is whether we are truly on the road to change.

Isabel Wilkerson’s riveting book, Caste, expounds the concept that America has a caste system not unlike India’s, except that there are two major castes instead of many. Blacks are on the bottom and whites on top. People are born into their castes and certain behavior is expected by caste members no matter their level of education or accomplishments. Caste is a social construct like race and not is based on scientific evidence. In fact, scientific analysis finds no defining characteristics or genetic variations as markers of race or caste. The only difference between Blacks and whites is a matter of pigmented skin. However, the idea of race was a deliberate creation to justify the enslavement of Blacks and their subsequent treatment by the white population when they were freed.

Since the founding of the United States, racial privilege has not merely been manifest by whites in regard to Blacks. All racial groups have been perceived as inferior to northern European whites. The indigenous inhabitants of the United States were initially subjugated by European colonists and Hispanics were also denigrated in comparison to whites (though some were mainly Caucasian). Chinese laborers brought to work on the western railroads were looked down upon by whites with many believing in the threat of the “Yellow Peril.” Japanese farmers and gardeners were also seen as beneath whites and potentially dangerous, being interned during World War II. In addition, Eastern and Southern Europeans and Jews were all felt to be racially inferior compared to Northern Europeans and white Anglo-Saxons, and less intelligent. At various times, immigration laws were passed to prevent these groups from entering the United States with concern about miscegenation. But it was the Blacks who suffered the most from white privilege.

Until the concept of white supremacy is much less prevalent, racism and white privilege will remain divisive problems for America. Changing people’s mindset that has been imbued for generations will be a daunting task when these people refuse to accept that change is necessary if we are to have a true democracy.

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