In recent weeks, investigators have been examining the circumstances surrounding a series of fires at predominantly black, southern churches. While some of the more recent fires were ruled accidental, authorities found evidence for arson in at least three cases. Burning black churches has a long, well-documented history as a white tactic for intimidation, particularly in the days of the Civil Rights Movement. More recently, a mid-1990s series of racially-motivated church burnings prompted the 1996 Church Arson Prevention Act.
And yet, the seeming reluctance of several media outlets—including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN.com—to seek a racial context for covering the fires has led some commentators to question what might be at stake in avoiding calling the church fires anything other than “isolated incidents” or “vandalism,” especially in light of the recent shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.
An abundance of caution in reporting should not be faulted, but the fact is that the mainstream has a long history and a short memory when it comes to reporting on anti-black violence. This might seem somewhat surprising, given the media’s proclivity for speculating about terror conspiracies. But our largely white media machine—in which I myself am an occasional participant—suffers not only from frequent bouts of paranoia, but also a tendency towards collective amnesia. If “the condition of black life is one of mourning,” as Claudia Rankine recently wrote for the New York Times, the condition of white life is one of forgetfulness.
The tendency to underreport racially-motivated violence against black communities has a long, troubling history. Along with church burnings, black Americans carry the collective memory of another kind of terror: lynchings. A horrific strategy of public, wanton violence meted out across the South, lynchings were a prominent part of the effort to suppress black social uprising and maintain white dominance. And the white press has a complicated history when it came to how lynchings and race-related murders were covered.
From Emancipation to the end of Jim Crow, lynchings erased the value of black lives by keeping the threat of violence perpetually in the air. Black men, women and children were lynched with a vicious impunity. Lynchings were generally public, with bodies stripped, hung, burned or mutilated and left on display. Postcards with pictures of the deceased were available for purchase and trading. However, as civil rights slowly advanced across the South, violence went underground, but it did not stop. In turn, the white press, particularly in the South, generally played down or ignored how the ongoing killings of black Americans helped to maintain the ethos of segregation, even as laws began to change.
Many African-American civil rights leaders regard the 1955 murder of Mississippi teen Emmett Till as a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement precisely because the black press was willing to do what the white press was not—call Till’s murder a lynching. When two white men kidnapped, beat and murdered Till, gouging out his eyes and dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River, the NAACP and black press called it a lynching. In contrast, the white press continued to deny that the murder had racial motivations. In the first article covering the Till investigation, the New York Times quoted only Mississippi’s Governor Hugh White, who asserted in a press conference that “This is not a lynching…It is straight-out murder.” Meanwhile, the black semiweekly Birmingham World quoted NAACP head Roy Wilkins, calling Till’s slaying a lynching and placing it in the context of a series of race-related killings, including Mississippi voting organizers George Lee and Lamar Smith.
Public lynchings historically tended to increase during periods of black political activism. In her book Lynching and Spectacle, historian Amy Louise Wood writes, “In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision the previous year, civil rights groups had begun to mobilize throughout the South, and, in turn, white resistance groups, like the White Citizens Council and the KKK, began to organize to stop them at any cost…For many African Americans, Till’s murder was yet another tragic strike along a long continuum of racial violence and bloodshed.” Calling Till’s murder a lynching placed it squarely within that “long continuum of racial violence” that Wood elsewhere calls the “political domination of black people.”
Emmett Till’s death forced an underlying tension between black truth-telling and white misremembering to the surface. The more recent events in South Carolina, Tennessee and beyond make similar demands on our willingness to confront the violence that shapes both our nation’s past and its present.
Connecting the dots between acts of racist violence can be difficult for both the media and white folks in general, for reasons beyond the ugly reminders that we are not yet finished with racism. For the unsettling truth is this: All white Americans are tied up and implicated a racist system long maintained by violence. They may not have perpetrated racist hate crimes, but they still benefit from a system that works just as it was designed—to enable the power and prosperity of white people. Violence helps advance this system, and so does silence. Hateful, violent acts and minor oppressions alike accumulate to create the world in which we live. This system implicates white people by paying out benefits, or what scholars and activists call “white privilege.”
White supremacists do the dirty work, but repressive silence and willful misremembering allow racism to continue to flourish. Beginning to confront white privilege means realizing that it implicates every white person—not just the violent outliers. Confronting white privilege means submitting to the truths carried in black memories of violence. Lynchings, church burnings, Jim Crow, and the everyday macro- and micro-aggressions shaping black life have much to do with how we live and move in this world as well. For white people, the violent experience of black oppression is also the history of our privilege, and we must start to acknowledge it as such.
Carolyn J. Davis is a Policy Analyst for the Center for American Progress Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative and an ordained minister in The United Methodist Church.