White Supremacy and Violence

Violence is as American as apple pie,” Rap Brown famously said. As is often the case, Rap’s pronouncement did not get serious consideration in mainstream America. Nevertheless, many observers may be getting close to realizing Rap’s declaration in its full context.

Rap was not limiting his comments to mean mere random acts of violence between citizens, which has always been a problem. Instead, he was addressing how force is used and what purpose it serves.

Most often violence has tended to be in service of white supremacy. The federal government has had a significant role in the historical use of violence. It has perpetrated violence, it has permitted violence, and it has occasionally limited it.

Violence was used to push Native Americans from land used to settle the colonies. In the 19th century, violence was used to force Native Americans from land as part of the westward expansion of the United States.

The first terrorist organization to pursue violence in the service of white supremacy might have been the Ku Klux Klan. Formed in 1865 by Confederate Officers after losing the Civil War, it carried out a reign of terror including wholesale murders of African Americans, as it sought to restore white supremacy in the South.

President Andrew Johnson, a Confederate sympathizer who believed in slavery, did nothing to curb this terroristic violence across the South. However, after Ulysses Grant followed Andrew Johnson as president, the federal government passed the Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871 that were used to prosecute and suppress KKK violent crimes.

To enforce these acts, President Grant placed troops in various places in the South to force the prosecution of the Klan. The terror was slowed, but it did not stop as many organizations were set up to assist in the white supremacy efforts.

Thus, with the development of Jim Crow near the turn of the 20th century, lynching accelerated in occurrences—nearly 4,100 documented cases in the South between 1877 and 1950. The NAACP and others pushed hard for President Franklyn D. Roosevelt to at least take a stand against lynching. He never did, following Andrew Johnson instead of Ulysses Grant.

In recent weeks, months, and years, we have seen overt acts or plans to commit violence in the name of white supremacy. This was the explicit purpose of the young man who went to El Paso and killed 22 innocent individuals and injured 24 others.

Since the killings in El Paso, there have been at least six arrests of white supremacists who have allegedly been plotting or threatening violence. According to the Anti-Defamation League, domestic extremists killed at least 50 people in the last year, not including the people killed in El Paso.

Increasingly we hear requests to take white supremacist terrorism more seriously in the United States. However, we have not had such action, as Trump, who calls white supremacist terrorists “good people” and identifies himself as a white nationalist–virtually the same thing–is more Andrew Johnson than Ulysses Grant. If he is not creating a lot of the current white supremacist terrorism, he is undoubtedly making it worse.