The election of Barack Hussein Obama as the first African American President was hailed by most as a watershed moment in the centuries old struggle for racial equality in America. This miraculous achievement was in the minds of many proof positive that we had overcome the barriers of endemic and systemic racism in this country. While Mr. Obama’s election indeed was an accomplishment that most thought would never come, it by no means has signaled an end to the structural and systemic racism that is part and parcel of the DNA of the United States of America. In fact, what was widely viewed as a victory for black progress, has in reality mobilized the forces of white supremacy like no other event in this nation’s history, since the debacle of Reconstruction after the Civil War. We’ve been down this road before. There is an historical precedent for white backlash against black progress, real or imagined.
Mr. Obama’s election, like Reconstruction, began as a moment of great promise in tearing down the walls of inequality and leveling the playing field between blacks and whites in this country. In reality, it did nothing more than stir the pot of anti-black sentiment. This backlash against black progress, then and now, has a similar origin. It is grounded in the principle of white supremacy. After President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the question of “What to do with the Negro?” was paramount in the minds and hearts of the leaders of this nation.
The answer to that question was influenced in part by the acknowledgement that the Negro had contributed mightily to the victory of the North over the South, and the preservation of the Union. Over 200,000 black troops fought valiantly for the Union army to overcome what started off as a losing cause against an elite Confederate army led by some of the most able military men in the country. This infusion of newly freed black slaves into the Union army, fighting for their freedom and hoped for equality, is what tipped the scales in the Union army’s favor. Additionally, the Negro’s thirst for knowledge, evidenced by a voracious appetite to become literate was an indication that perhaps blacks were not the dim witted, sub-human beasts of burden as portrayed by white Anglo-Saxons in Europe and the States. Finally, there was the tacit acknowledgement by executive and military leaders that the Negro was the driving force which made the modernization and industrialization of the United States possible. As historian Edward Baptist reveals in The Half Has Never Been Told, “In a single lifetime, the South grew from a narrow strip of worn out tobacco plantations to a continental cotton empire, and the United States grew into a modern, industrial, and capitalist economy.”(Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. New York: Basic Books, 2014. 528pp.) Although there was an acknowledgement by most northerners that the atrocities of slavery were wrong, there was never an intent to give the Negro, rights or equality commensurate with the white man.
After the issuance of Special Field Order 15 by General Sherman which set aside 400,000 acres of land along the South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coast for freed Negro slaves, it might appear that this country had momentarily found its moral compass. The perception that America was ready to move ahead with a new sense of purpose, in its stated quest to provide fairness and opportunity for the Negro’s integration into society was short lived however. There were many whites who feared that providing equality to blacks would lead to their disenfranchisement, and Negro supremacy. Consequently, after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, President-elect Andrew Johnson began to seize on the rising anti-black sentiment and dismantle the legislation, executive orders and other actions taken by the government to aid in the Negro’s transition from slavery to freedom. With the stroke of a pen, President Johnson reversed Special Field Order 15, also known as “40 Acres and a Mule,” along with the dismantling of the Freedman’s Bureau and other government initiatives. Mr. Johnson’s actions effectively returned lands confiscated and reallocated during the Civil War, back to the southern plantation owners and Confederates who now sought to exact vengeance against the Negro—the easiest and most visible target for losing the Civil War. This was the catalyst for a period of lawlessness and anti-black sentiment which produced the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), White Citizens Councils, and other organizations whose sole purpose was to intimidate, murder and turn back the clock of progress for the Negro.
This anti-black revolt was fueled in part by fear of a black rise in social, economic and political power. During Reconstruction, there were more black senators and state representatives then than any time in this country’s history. Whites in the South and the North were fearful that black progress would threaten white prosperity and economic superiority. As a result, the period after Reconstruction saw meteoric rise in Negro murders, Jim Crow, and white supremacist rhetoric and actions which nullified and reversed many of the economic and political gains of the newly freed Negro. There is a similar anti-black revolt taking place now in this country being disguised with terms such as the “Tea Party,” States Rights” and “Balancing the Budget.”
The actions and inactions of federal and state legislatures since the election of Barack Obama as President are painfully reminiscent of actions taken during and after the death of Reconstruction. Evident are the legislative blocks to the Obama agenda, prophetically voiced by Rush Limbaugh and the political right. After the Presidential inauguration of 2008, Limbaugh unabashedly proclaimed, “I hope he fails.” This sentiment, though not expressed in such direct terms by the Republican-led Senate, is clearly shown by their actions in stalling almost every major initiative put forth by the President since his inauguration. The blatant disrespect for the office of the President and the man holding it is unprecedented in the annals of U.S. history. We all know the reason, but are too afraid to say it. The reason Mr. Obama has been treated with such disrespect is due to the color of his skin. Obama is Black.
From the framers of the Constitution to the architects of democracy, it was never envisioned or intended that a black man would hold the nation’s highest office. Now that a black man is in the White House, it has caused a full scale panic among the white Americans giving rise to the extreme political right, and movements like the Tea Party and other right wing groups who have vowed to “take their country back.” Mr. Obama’s election has also mobilized and revitalized other fringe movements by white supremacist and “survivalist” organizations who view black progress as a threat to their domination. The escalation in police brutality and murder of unarmed black males also harkens back to the lawlessness of post-Reconstruction, and seems eerily reminiscent of a time when blacks were either preyed upon or not protected by law enforcement.
The backlash against perceived or imagined black progress is nothing new. History reveals that whenever whites perceive black progress as a threat to the natural order of white supremacy, there is a social and political backlash. This is done by a myriad of tactics which include playing to the fears of white America through the use of propaganda and exaggerated threats of black lawlessness which necessitate forceful constraints by judicial and extra-judicial authorities. The war on drugs, the war on welfare fraud, the war on deadbeat dads, and the recent meteoric rise in police killings of young black men are all examples of how the politicians and wealthy power brokers control public opinion through misinformation and propaganda. All lies. This in turn influences legislative and judicial action which has the effect of reversing black progress, and eliminating the perceived threat of a rising black populace.
Gerald Torrence is a lawyer, educator, writer, social and political activist, and motivational speaker living in Atlanta. You can find more insightful opinions from TheTruthTeller at the-truth-teller.com. You can follow Gerald on Twitter @tttspokentruth.