These days you can’t see who’s in cahoots, ’cause now the KKK wears 3-piece suits.
– Chuck D, “Rebirth”
In early August, 1969, members of Charles Manson’s “family” murdered Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. Police would find the words “Helter Skelter” written on the walls in the blood of one of the victims – a reference to Manson’s belief that a population of angry and disaffected black people would rise and violently confront their white oppressors. Manson’s intention was to use the murder of the LaBiancas and others to trigger the beginning of the “race war” that he knew was coming. It never materialized.
To this day, despite the track record of who the aggressors are in “race wars” (hint: it’s pretty much never black people), fears abound of an angry mob of savage blacks rising up and waging war on a beleaguered and long-suffering white population. In fact, in preparing to write this piece, I took a little trip through the Google looking glass and found repeated references to “the coming race war”, on pretty much exactly the kinds of sites you’d expect. Many of them made reference to the current “hidden” race war that only the likes of Glenn Beck seem to possess the wisdom to see. Remember the knockout game? Well these guys sure do, judging by the comment threads.
Whether it’s in Detroit or Black Wall Street or at Charles Manson’s house, white America has been in the thrall of its fear of “Helter Skelter” for pretty much forever. The myth, created and nurtured by white supremacy, of the savagery and inherent criminality of black people has resulted in repeated violent backlash against black communities. Backlash, incidentally, not against actual harms or danger, but against the fear of harm and danger that never seem to actually bear fruit. White America segregates itself from its black population, drinks deeply of its own racist stereotyping, becomes drunk on its own panic, and then arms itself to “defend” itself from the Negro bogeymen of its own imagination. With predictably tragic results.
It should be exactly zero surprise, therefore, to see a story like this:
The Ku Klux Klan plans to begin military-style combat training under the direction of military troops returning home from overseas deployments, according to a Barcroft Media report. The notorious hate group has been attempting to recruit new members – children, in particular – in recent months, and the Loyal White Knights faction has begun preparations for a long-awaited race war.
“We’re going to do something a little different for probably the next couple of years to try to get our men and women ready for the upcoming battle that we’re about to take upon us, and this is something that no Klan has ever done and we’re going to start it,” said one Klan leader during a rally in Parkersburg, West Virginia. “All our boys are finally coming back home from the military, which is good, and we’re getting a lot more military members to join.”
He said Klan members hope to signal their social relevance by arming themselves and warning of racial unrest.
(All emphasis mine)
A few things need to be clarified in order to understand my perspective on this story. The first is that the Ku Klux Klan doesn’t exist as a single organization anymore. Many independent organizations calling themselves the Klan exist, with relatively little coherence (and in many cases some outright antipathy) between them. The second thing to understand is that the Klan has always lied about themselves to inflate their own importance. It’s entirely possible that, instead of the master military strategists they might want you to think of, the West Virginia Klan have recruited 3 or 4 grunts who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, received some basic training, and are willing to share what they learned during boot camp. Still dangerous, but not exactly Seal Team 6 (an entirely different seal comes to mind).
So, with this in mind, I am both terrified and bored by the prospect of armed Klansmen in West Virginia. Terrified, because the Klan is a terrorist organization devoted to the mass murder of black people, and is actively arming itself to fight a “race war” that it clearly intends to provoke. Bored, because this is an old story. Race war in the United States means acts of physical violence visited upon black and other PoC populations by armed white men with inchoate grievances and more firepower strapped to their chests than between their ears. This has never not been the case.
The part that should scare you, regardless of your race, isn’t necessarily the bit about the guns and the white hoods. It’s this:
“We got police officers in the Klan, we got lawyers, we got doctors – your next-door neighbor could be in the Klan, and you’d never know it,” said James Moore, grand dragon for Virginia.
When we think of violence occurring at the hands of white supremacists, we think of burning crosses and rifles. We think of “racists” going out and attacking/killing individual black people. Then we heave a big sigh and say “good thing I don’t know anybody like that” and cluck our teeth at those people who are the cause of all the problems. Those people from backwater parts of the country that modernity just hasn’t caught up with yet. Those people who will eventually disappear because the world is getting better and we’re post-racial now. We don’t think of the racist judge or politician or bankruptcy officer who, through a series of decisions (perhaps none of which could individually be identified as “racist”), enact economic and social violence against black people on a far more regular basis.
We don’t think of these people because they remind us of a very disturbing reality – we’re not that far removed from them:
For a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, David Amodio, a psychology professor at New York University and Amy Krosch, a graduate student, performed a series of experiments that showed that their predominantly white study subjects tended to view biracial people as “more black” when they were primed with economic scarcity, and that the subjects were stingier toward darker-complexioned people overall.
First, the researchers asked 70 people to fill out a questionnaire that assessed their concern about economic competition between races. (The statements included things like, “When blacks make economic gains, whites lose out economically.”) They were then asked to identify the races of an array of images of faces, which had been created by fusing different percentages of a picture of a white person with an image of a black person.
The authors found that the more the subjects believed that whites and blacks were locked in a zero-sum rivalry, the likelier they were to see the lighter-complexioned faces as “blacker.”
And when the chips are down, and our collective backs are against the wall, we reach for the same intoxicating brew of racial stereotypes that the Klan in Virginia or Charles Manson’s family or the comment section at the Daily Caller imbibe. We perceive blackness as threat.
Perhaps the most fucked up part of the fact that things like economic scarcity fosters anti-black attitudes is that we are happy to look down our noses at the poverty and deprivation in the black community to say “they’re animals”, but refuse to accept the abundant and overwhelming evidence that that economic disparity is (white) man made. It is not an accident that black people struggle to get by. It’s not just “one of those things”. It’s not an unfortunate hangover of slavery. It’s not, despite the ad nauseam chin-wagging of say-anything-but-know-nothing pundits, because of a “culture of poverty“. It was created, oftentimes intentionally, by a series of policy decisions to ensure that the accumulation of white wealth would be fostered, while avenues toward black wealth were regularly disrupted.
And again, to forestall the self-congratulatory urge to relegate these policies to a bygone era of Jim Crow segregation and “whites only” fountains, let’s look at what’s happening right now:
Historically, Blacks have had persistently higher unemployment rates than the other major racial and ethnic groups. In addition, the increase in the black unemployment rate during the recession was larger than that for other races partly because workers with less education are particularly hard hit during recessions. Moreover, the unemployment rate for Blacks was slower to fall after the official end of the recession. The slower recovery for African Americans in the labor market has been partly the result of government layoffs after the official end of the recession. Blacks have been more vulnerable to the drastic layoffs in government in the past two years because they make up a disproportionate share of public sector workers. Moreover, with the exception of health and education, Blacks are under-represented in the sectors that have experienced the greatest job growth during the recovery, including manufacturing and professional and business services.
The above Pinko Commie rant brought to you, incidentally, by the United States Department of Labor.
Yes, it turns out that when you cut public sector jobs, you pull the rug out from underneath black people disproportionately. But of course, that’s just a necessary consequence of the fact that black people have, on average, lower educational attainment than whites, right? Just a sad accident of statistics, right? No racism here.
Recent black college grads ages 22 to 27 have an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent, more than double the 5.6 percent unemployed among all college grads in that demographic and almost a threefold increase from the 2007 level of 4.6 percent, before the Great Recession took its toll on the U.S. economy. More than half of black graduates, 55.9 percent, are underemployed.
Even for those who enter the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, areas where grads are the most needed and paid the highest, African-Americans still have a 10 percent unemployment rate and a 32 percent underemployment rate.
So black people lose their jobs at a disproportionately higher rate during the recession, and get hired at a disproportionately lower rate during the recovery regardless of their level of education. Couple that with discriminatory housing policies and usurious student loan policies, and you create exactly the kind of system that takes an existing racial wealth gap and makes it worse. Without lighting a single cross or loading a single rifle, a white supremacist system is able to commit acts of violence against millions of people. And yes, economic violence is still violence – not just in a rhetorical sense but in a very immediate and palpable one:
Unemployment often exacts a toll that goes beyond economic concerns to psychological ones. Humans, after all, are not robots, and the loss of a job is not merely the loss of a paycheck but the loss of a routine, security, and connection to other people. A new poll from Gallup attempts to gauge the consequences of those losses and finds that “unemployed Americans are more than twice as likely as those with full-time jobs to say they currently have or are being treated for depression—12.4 percent vs. 5.6 percent, respectively.” Moreover, for those who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more (the “long-term unemployed,” currently numbering 3.4 million people), the depression rate is 18 percent, nearly one in five.
While we have been engaged in yet another iteration of an ongoing discussion wherein we use mental health issues as an explanation for violence committed by white men, completely absent is any discussion of mental health issues as a consequence of violence committed by white supremacy. Redlining black people into segregated neighbourhoods, surrounding them with the consequences of poverty and neglect, and then denying them opportunities for social mobility makes for a simmering cauldron of depression, trauma, fear, and despair. Which we then turn around and perversely blame black people for, as though they built the ghetto. Add to that the fact that health care (including mental health care) is tied to employment, and you’ve created an inescapable prison with no bars (that ensures a steady supply of inmates for the more literal kind of prison).
Which brings me back to “Helter Skelter”. The abiding fear that lives within the Helter Skelter mythos is that an angry black mob will rise up and kill the white overlords. Left unexamined, or at least un-evidenced, is the question of why the mob is angry in the first place. It’s not “racial resentment” or any of the other catch phrases casually tossed into public discourse as though the reality wasn’t the exact opposite of what the speaker intends. To be sure, I think history shows time and again that, aside from occasional confrontations, oppressed minority groups are more likely to be the victims of inter-group enmity than its perpetrators. Black folks are smart enough to know that even if they were inclined to mass violence (which they aren’t), the state is more than capable of inflicting mass casualties on black bodies. There will be no race war, at least not the kind that WorldNetDaily’s linkbait warns about.
Helter Skelter exists only in the minds of fearful whites and the marketing strategy memos of gun sellers, but things that don’t really exist can still exert a terrible influence. Helter Skelter might not be real, but the belief in it is. And that belief is enough to justify the continuation of the policies that ensure the perpetuation of anti-black violence, economic and otherwise. And as long as we keep refusing to accept our societal complicity in creating the very conditions we fear, the more powerful our fear will become.