Armed Angry White Males the New Domestic Terrorists

Barack Obama.(Photo: David Katz / Flickr)Today, lynch mobs have been replaced by Zimmermans and Dunns, who feel empowered by Stand Your Ground, believing that juries of their peers will exonerate them of their use of deadly force when black youths are involved.

“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania, and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. . . . And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

– Senator Barack Obama, April 6, 2008

While out on the presidential campaign trail in 2008, Senator Obama made this statement and was castigated by both Democrats and Republicans. Hillary Clinton responded by saying, “Pennsylvanians don’t need a president who looks down on them. They need a president who stands up for them, who fights for them, who works hard for your futures, your jobs, your families.” Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) said, through his spokesman Steve Schmidt, “It shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking . . . It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans.”

Eventually, instead of standing behind his very astute assessment of the fear that plagues rural White America, Senator Obama backed away from his remarks with an apology, “If I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that.”

I wish Senator Obama had held his ground.

To put Senator Obama’s comments in historical perspective, one can look to Federalist #10 in which James Madison wrote, “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” Madison saw factions as groups of citizens, with interests contrary to the rights of others or the interests of the whole community. Madison’s violent “factions” from 1787 are Obama’s angry small town Americans in 2008.

When viewed from our country’s racial context, these “factions” have reared their ugly heads time after time. In their book A Festival of Violence, Stewart Tolnay and E.M. Beck “identified 2,805 victims of lynch mobs killed between 1882 and 1930 in 10 southern states. Although mobs murdered almost 300 white men and women, the vast majority – almost 2,500 – of lynch victims were African-American. The scale of this carnage means that, on average, a black man, woman or child was murdered nearly once a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930 by a hate driven white mob.”

As African American soldiers returned from fighting in WWI and keeping the world safe for democracy, they attempted to exercise their social, political and economic rights here at home. They were met by riots and lynchings led by white mobs throughout black communities in 15 states and 27 cities across America from April to November, 1919. According to Cameron McWhirter’s book Red Summer: The Summer of 1919 and the Awakening of Black America, the NAACP’s James Weldon Johnson called it the “Red Summer” because it was so bloody. In total, millions of Americans had their lives disrupted. Hundreds of people – most of them black – were killed.

On June 1, 1921, a white mob in Tulsa, OK burned and bombed 34 square blocks of Tulsa’s Black Greenwood Community to the ground. According to Tim Madigan’s The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, the actual death toll was never determined. Conservative estimates put it around 100. More commonly accepted estimates place the death toll between 300 and 400.

The lynchings documented by Tolnay and Beck, the Red Summer of 1919, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 are historic examples of American domestic terrorism.

More recently, on June 7, 1998, James Byrd, Jr. was murdered by Shawn Berry, Lawrence Russell Brewer and John King. At least two of the murderers, Brewer and King, were admitted white supremacists. They dragged Byrd for three miles behind a pickup truck along an asphalt road in Jasper, Texas. Mr. Byrd, who remained conscious throughout most of the ordeal, was killed when his body hit the edge of a culvert, severing his right arm and head. The murderers drove on for another mile before dumping his torso in front of an African-American cemetery in Jasper.

Today, lynch mobs have been replaced by Zimmermans and Dunns, who feel empowered by Stand Your Ground, believing that juries of their peers will exonerate them of their use of deadly force when black youths are involved.

Unfortunately, all too often these events and so many others do not get discussed or analyzed in that context.

Not only were Senator Obama’s comments astute in terms of their historical accuracy, as we look at the George Zimmermans and Michael Dunns of the world, his comments could be considered prophetic.

It is my contention that the recent murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis should not be viewed as isolated incidents; they did not occur in a vacuum. They are part of a larger murderous American historical continuum. At the heart of this murderous continuum are race and xenophobia (a fear of others) and a violent reaction to those fears. To many in the dominant culture, their America is changing. The “browning” of America has evoked a return and acceptance of the murderous continuum. Former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo best expressed this sentiment when he proclaimed: “I want my country back.”

Conceal Carry permits, Stand Your Ground laws and inept prosecutors are creating a climate that provides the Zimmermans and Dunns of the world with a license to kill as long as juries are predisposed to letting them do so.

As the American economy continues to contract and full-time, well-paying jobs become harder to find, the face of poverty in America is changing. The stereotypical “urban” or “black” poor have now become the “suburban” or white poor. According to CBS, “Hardship is particularly growing among whites, based on several measures . . . More than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line . . . accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation’s destitute, nearly double the number of poor blacks.”

According to the Christian Science Monitor, “Suburbs are increasingly becoming the address of America’s poor. Suburban poverty across the country grew 53 percent between 2000 and 2010, more than twice the rate of urban poverty . . . ” Many of those newly poor suburbanites are white and many of them are angry, blaming people of color for their misfortunes, instead of directing their ire toward corporate greed, the outsourcing of factory jobs to overseas companies, and governmental policies that favor the wealthy.

Senator Obama’s assessment in 2008 was historically accurate and more prophetic than pundits and commentators have been willing to give him credit for. Armed angry white males like George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn have been operating in our midst for centuries. Their actions are not new; the lack of analysis of them in the context of terrorism is not surprising. The narrative has to change, and we must engage in a broader discussion of them as the new domestic terrorists.