The Inevitability of a White Backlash to the George Floyd Protests
“Revolutions which are not controlled and held within reasonable limits produce counter-revolution.” – Union General Nathaniel P. Banks 1864
We are in unprecedented times. Conversations and comments about racism are taking place on a scale never seen before in American history. That’s the good news. History tells us that there will be a price to pay. Many whites that are not protesting and not having positive conversations are stewing in their anger that “Black Lives Matter” is okay to utter out loud. They don’t believe racism exist. Even if they acknowledge it does, they don’t believe it’s systemic in this nation and certainly not in policing.
A white female attorney in Shorewood tried to stop a George Floyd protest all by herself by blocking Oakland Avenue with her car, yelling at protestors to “go home” and eventually spat in the face of a black teenager. A 27-year-old white man in Seattle drove into a crowd of George Floyd protestors, exited his vehicle brandishing a weapon, and shot one of the protestors. A 36-year-old admitted Ku Klux Klan leader in Richmond, Virginia drove his truck through a crowd of protestors. All of the feel good stories of white people becoming “woke” hide the fact that a significant number of white people don’t support the protests and are angry that their voices are being drowned out.
Racism does not magically disappear or dissipate because of the events of the past few weeks. Without a doubt there is a shift in attitudes and conversations right now. In a recent poll by Monmouth University “Most Americans say the anger about black deaths at the hands of police officers that led to recent protests is fully justified…A majority of the public now agrees that the police are more likely to use excessive force with a black person than a white person in similar situations. Only one-third of the country held this opinion four years ago…the number of people who consider racial and ethnic discrimination to be a big problem has increased from about half in 2015 to nearly 3 in 4 now.”
A majority of Americans (57%) say that police officers facing a difficult or dangerous situation are more likely to use excessive force if the culprit is black, compared to one-third (33%) who say the police are just as likely to use excessive force against black and white culprits in the same type of situation. The current findings represent a marked change in public opinion from prior polls. In a poll of registered voters taken after the police shooting of Alton Sterling in Louisiana in July 2016, just 34% said blacks were more likely to be subject to excessive force while 52% said they were just as likely as whites. In December 2014, after a grand jury declined to indict a New York City police officer in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, the results were 33% more likely and 58% just as likely.
Nearly all black Americans (87%) feel that individuals of their race are more likely than whites to experience excessive force. This is up slightly from 77% in a 2016 poll, but the overall shift in public opinion on this question is due mainly to an increase among other racial groups. Currently, 49% of white Americans say that police are more likely to use excessive force against a black culprit, which is nearly double the number (25%) who said the same in 2016. Another 39% of whites say police are just as likely to use excessive force regardless of race, which is down significantly from 62% four years ago. Among Americans of Latino, Asian and other minority backgrounds, 63% say black individuals are more likely to be subject to excessive force by police, which is up from 39% in 2016. Just 27% of this group say police are as likely to use excessive force in a situation with a white or black person, which is down from 43% in 2016.
These shifts don’t necessarily portend major changes in actions. It’s great that more whites are “woke” but we’ve seen this before. After Dr. King was assassinated polls showed drastic shifts in the attitudes of whites about race. The effects did not persist and lead to real changes. The civil unrest, images of looters, burning cities and angry black people allowed a huge white backlash to occur.
This backlash led to significantly more whites dismissing the efforts of civil rights leaders and groups. It did the opposite of what the polls showed. Whites engaged in behavior that they have commonly showed when blacks made even a modicum of progress in America; they showed how unhappy they were and actively fought against that progress. History is replete with examples.
Some white leaders in the colonies supported an end to slavery and rights for blacks during the Revolutionary War but turned their backs on blacks when the British were defeated. During the years leading up to the Civil War, many whites advocated for an end to the cruel and inhumane system of slavery but refused to demand equality for black citizens. Lincoln the “Emancipator” consistently advocated for deporting free blacks and did not believe blacks should be treated as the equal of whites.
“If all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do as to the existing institution. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves and send them to Liberia, to their own native land…We cannot, then, make them equals.” – Speech at Peoria, Illinois (October 16, 1854)
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.” – Lincoln-Douglas debates, September 18, 1858
The Civil War ended in 1865 and white terrorists groups like the Knights of the White Camellia and Ku Klux Klan (KKK) were spawned by the white backlash after the Confederate States of America lost the war. People generally know about the KKK but have never heard of the Knights of the White Camellia whose members pledged undying support to supremacy of the white race, opposed marriage between the white and black races, and violently fought to restore white control of Southern governments. The order was organized in New Orleans in May 1867 by Col. Alcibiade DeBlanc.
Confederate veterans founded the Ku Klux Klan, America’s first organized terrorist group, in Pulaski, Tennessee, in May or June 1866. They were founded on the same basic principles that the Knights of the White Camellia copied a year later. They were loosely affiliated with other organizations like the Knights of the Red Hand, the Pale Faces, the White Brotherhood, the Constitutional Union Guards, and the Knights of the Rising Sun among others.
United States Senate documents record how the government dealt with the violent hate groups:
“Members of the Ku Klux Klan, for example, terrorized black citizens for exercising their right to vote, running for public office, and serving on juries. In response, Congress passed a series of Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871 (also known as the Force Acts) to end such violence and empower the president to use military force to protect African Americans. In its first effort to counteract such use of violence and intimidation, Congress passed the Enforcement Act of May 1870, which prohibited groups of people from banding together “or to go in disguise upon the public highways, or upon the premises of another” with the intention of violating citizens’ constitutional rights. Even this legislation did not diminish harassment of black voters in some areas… the Senate passed two more Force acts, also known as the Ku Klux Klan acts, designed to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866… While the Force acts and the publicity generated by the joint committee temporarily helped put an end to the violence and intimidation, the end of formal Reconstruction in 1877 allowed for a return of large scale disenfranchisement of African Americans.”
The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and 1866 and 1875 Civil Rights Acts designed to ease blacks into a state of equal footing with whites, led to widespread pushback by whites. In 1883, The United States Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, forbidding discrimination in hotels, trains, and other public spaces, was unconstitutional and not authorized by the 13th or 14th Amendments of the Constitution. Bishop Henry McNeil Turner raged at the court for its decision.
“The world has never witnessed such barbarous laws entailed upon a free people as have grown out of the decision of the United States Supreme Court, issued October 15, 1883. For that decision alone authorized and now sustains all the unjust discriminations, proscriptions and robberies perpetrated by public carriers upon millions of the nation’s most loyal defenders. It fathers all the ‘Jim-Crow cars’ into which colored people are huddled and compelled to pay as much as the whites, who are given the finest accommodations. It has made the ballot of the black man a parody, his citizenship a nullity and his freedom a burlesque. It has engendered the bitterest feeling between the whites and blacks, and resulted in the deaths of thousands, who would have been living and enjoying life today.”
Blacks were lynched by the thousands in the years following this ruling. The widespread disenfranchisement of black voters accelerated across the country. And in 1896 the US Supreme Court cemented segregation as the law of the land in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case.
The last decade of the nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth century were the peak years for the lynching of blacks, 1891 (113), 1892 (161), 1893 (118), 1894 (134), 1895 (113), 1896 (78), 1897 (123), 1898 (101), 1899 (85), 1900 (106), and 1901 (105).
From 1890 until 1908 Southern states wrote new constitutions, constitutional amendments, and laws that made voter registration and voting more difficult for blacks nearly eliminating black voting in the South. In 1898 after an election led to a number of black elected officials and whites deemed friendly to blacks in Wilmington, North, Carolina whites rioted and conducted the first and only coup d’etat in American history. All of the black elected officials and those considered friends of blacks were removed from office at gunpoint and replaced by white supremacist supporters.
Ronnie W. Falukner described the events as follows. “The Wilmington Race Riot of 10 Nov. 1898 constituted the most serious incident of racial violence in the history of North Carolina. It has been variously called a revolution, a race war, and more accurately a coup d’état…the rioting Democrats had “choked the Cape Fear with [black] corpses… The emergence of an essentially all-white electorate and one-party Democratic rule was solidified two years later with the adoption of the disfranchisement amendment to the state constitution.”
The 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention was called with the intention by Democrats of the state “to establish white supremacy in this State,” “within the limits imposed by the Federal Constitution” according to the official proceedings of the Convention. “On Nov. 1, 1890, Mississippi adopted a new constitution with a poll tax and arbitrary literacy tests for voting, sections designed to disenfranchise newly-franchised African Americans and some poor whites. The new constitution was a nail in the coffin for Mississippi Reconstruction and a win for voter suppression” according to the Zinn Project.
Historian Rayford Logan in his classic 1954 book, The Negro In American Life And Thought; The Nadir, 1877-1901 described what he considered the lowest point in American race relations for blacks. This sustained white backlash against black progress led to a period when blacks were stuck in a state not much different than what they faced during centuries of enslavement.
Because the Thirteenth Amendment, the one we were all told in history class ended slavery stated, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” a new form of slavery replaced the former system. It was known as the convict lease system.
Douglass A. Blackmon wrote the definitive work on this ugly and little known part of American history. In Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II, Blackmon described “how even as chattel slavery came to an end in the South in 1865, thousands of African Americans were pulled back into forced labor with shocking force and brutality. It was a system in which men, often guilty of no crime at all, were arrested, compelled to work without pay, repeatedly bought and sold, and coerced to do the bidding of masters. Tolerated by both the North and South, forced labor lasted well into the 20th century.” This system was a part of the backlash following the end of the Civil War when over 200,000 black sailors and soldiers helped turn the tide of the war to the Union forces.
The famous 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision led to an extreme backlash by angry whites. Most states refused to implement the “all deliberate speed” dictate of the US Supreme Court. One of the most intense backlashes came from Prince Edward’s County Virginia. The Virginia Museum of History and Culture documents the events.
“After Virginia’s school-closing law was ruled unconstitutional in January 1959, the General Assembly repealed the compulsory school attendance law and made the operation of public schools a local option for the state’s counties and cities… Prince Edward County, ordered on May 1, 1959, to integrate its schools, the county instead closed its entire public school system… The Prince Edward Foundation created a series of private schools to educate the county’s white children. These schools were supported by tuition grants from the state and tax credits from the county. Prince Edward Academy became the prototype for all-white private schools formed to protest school integration. No provision was made for educating the county’s black children… some pupils missed part or all of their education for five years.”
The most strongly worded white backlash came in the form of the infamous 1956 Southern Manifesto issued by 82 Representatives and 19 Senators — roughly one-fifth of the membership of Congress. This included nineteen of the twenty-two Southern senators, every member of the Congressional delegations from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, all but one of the representatives from Florida, all but one from Tennessee, all but three from North Carolina, and half of the Texas delegation.
Mirroring language heard recently about protests for police reform, they stated “outside agitators are threatening immediate and revolutionary changes in our public school systems. If done, this is certain to destroy the system of public education in some of the states… We pledge ourselves to use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.”
Similar backlashes occurred in the late 1960s. President Richard Nixon after being soundly defeated in the South during his 1968 election win decided to shift the “solid” South from the hold of Democrats to the Republican Party in the 1972 election. He used a strategy described by former aid Lee Atwater in this way:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
The effects were shocking. The results in many of the states in the South from 1968 to 1972 tell how successful the strategy worked. Nixon’s voting percentages: Alabama 1968 (13.99%) 1972 (72.43%), Arkansas 1968 (31.01%) 1972 (68.82%), Florida 1968 (40.53%) 1972 (71.91%), Georgia 1968 (30.40%) 1972 (75.04%), Louisiana 1968 (23.47%) 1972 (65.32%), Mississippi 1968 (13.52%) 1972 (78.20%), Texas 1968 (39.87%) 1972 (66.20%).
There was a white backlash to the two terms of Barack Obama. Despite many arguing that his elections ushered in a “post racial America” exit polls showed a majority of whites voted against him in 2008 and 2012. Obama only received 43 percent of white votes when he defeated John McCain in 2008 and even fewer with just 39 percent of white votes when he beat Mitt Romney in 2012 according to the Roper Center. In 2012 black voter turnout surpassed white voter turnout for the first and only time in American history. As a result dozens of states passed voter ID laws, and began purging millions of voters. The black voter turnout dropped drastically by the 2016 election. After being near 67 percent in 2012 it decreased to 59.6 percent in 2016, the largest decrease ever recorded. 765,000 less blacks voted in 2016 than did in 2012.
Attempts to disenfranchise black voters are one of the latest manifestations of a white backlash to black progress. I don’t doubt that the coming months and years will herald a new wave of white backlash across the country. We can not rest on our laurels and assume the support of whites during these protests won’t lead to some of them not being as strongly onboard as they appear right now.
We have played this game before. We are not naïve enough to not allow the past to teach us to be careful moving forward. This is not optimism; it’s the reality of our lived experience.
“Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research. And when you see that you’ve got problems, all you have to do is examine the historic method used all over the world by others who have problems similar to yours.” – Malcolm X