Thursday, May 21, 2009

Placing racism

The tactics of late 19th century and 20th century bigotry – lynching, house burning, cross burning, beating, bombing, raping, torturing, kidnapping, murdering – are sadly familiar.

The rhetoric that sought to justify these tactics was one of defending whiteness from the encroachment of blackness.

It’s a notable theme – what extremes the defense of one thing against the encroachment of another motivates people to do. The motive is resistance to change, in this case, the protection of personal or collective identity.

Interesting then that the language is not psychological but territorial – racism has long been framed in terms of place.

Interesting too that when, after World War Two, the overt tactics of white supremacy became less and less palatable, or at least less and less defensible, among otherwise sympathetic middle-class whites, the strategy shifted subtly but significantly from defending identity to defending property.

White racism became not only metaphorically but also literally about land.

Of course, land – space and place – was there all along. Jim Crow segregation laws, rising with the approving tide of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, were meant to keep races spatially apart.

But if you listen to the rhetoric it was always more personal than that, at least for the more violent bigots.

Kevin Kruse, in his book White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, describes a neo-Nazi group called the Columbians, formed in Atlanta in the late 1940s in large part to keep African Americans from moving into white neighborhoods.

At one event, a latecomer was puzzled by what was going on. He asked what it was all about. Someone explained and he still didn’t get it. Finally one of them distilled the aims to their essence: “It’s to keep the niggers down” (42).

The Columbians wore brown shirts and an arm patch with a red zigzag and their methods were murderous. As their crudity fell from favor in respectable Atlanta, the Ku Klux Klan, which had been hibernating, raised its head again and for a time drew wide support from both the lower as well as the middle classes.

The Klan's language was still about protecting white identity. And its tactics were crude, but the tacticians now hid behind masks – and officialdom. While membership in the Columbians was largely working-class whites, the Klan, perhaps owing to the masks, attracted a wider following, including public officials and professionals, such as policemen, deputy sheriffs, tax assessors, and even medical doctors.

“When one (city police) patrolman won a prize for killing his thirteenth black ‘in the line of duty,’ he teased the others: ‘I hope I don’t have to kill all the niggers in the South without getting some help from my Brothers!’ ‘Don’t worry,’ they responded. ‘You’ll have plenty of help!’” (52). At another Klan meeting, when word came that a black family was moving into a white neighborhood, the grand dragon called on the police to do something, so three officers pulled off their robes and rode to the rescue.

All this was still too crude to win much support from the Atlanta establishment. Then the charismatic leader of the Klan revival died. What replaced the Klan was a local association calling itself the West End Cooperative Corporation led by a conservative businessman named Joe Wallace.

“We don’t hate the nigger,” Wallace would tell people at rallies. “We love him – in his place!” (55). One of their advertisements read: “Help Stop Negro Encroachment into White Areas.”

The West End Cooperative Association deliberately sought the favor of upwardly mobile middle-class homeowners, the sort that had been alienated by the stiff-arm tactics of the Columbians and the Klan. And it was the appeal to property rather than identity per se that made the WECC respectable.

Kruse writes that “...with each passing year and each new group, segregationists steadily adopted a subtler pitch predicated on appeals to white homeowners with middle-class aspirations of respectability and upward mobility” (44).

This was an important turning in the history of race relations. Instead of hiding under a white robe and mask, racists hid behind property, home values, real estate. Matters of race became matters of place.

But though Wallace and his corporation membership distanced themselves from racist violence, they didn’t end it. When the organization learned that an African American had bought property in a neighborhood the WECC thought was white, they’d organize a crowd to show up on moving day. Wallace would arrive, claim to defend the family against the mob, but warn them that he was unsure he could manage it (55).

The innovation, the turn from identity to property, became the trend – the new strategy moved all the way up the ladder to the federal government with its HOLC and FHA "redlining" policies that essentially denied loans to African Americans and kept investment out of neighborhoods with African Americans residents. The conversation shifted from white supremacy, which by now had the stink of a burning cross, to maintaining housing values. But it was nonetheless racist.

Photo above lifted from Orcinus, a blog, which used the image to illustrate a posting called "White Man's Land."

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