Today
Mon 1 March 2021

John Mitchinson explores how the mental structures that enabled slavery are still alive and thriving in the United States today

Like many British viewers, I found myself doing a lot of googling after the first episode of the HBO series Watchmen, which aired in October 2019.

The episode opens with a dramatisation of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, a historical event that had, until then, completely passed me by.

In one of the worst incidents of racist violence in US history, a large white mob attacked black residents and businesses in the Greenwood district of the city – the most prosperous black community in America at that time, known as ‘Black Wall Street’. Thirty-five blocks were destroyed, 10,000 black residents were left homeless and as many as 300 people were killed (although that number is still disputed). It turns out that many of the mob were deputised and armed by city officials and used private aircraft and a machine gun as part of their attack force.

To put my ignorance in perspective, the Tulsa Massacre was quickly deleted from the historical record and only officially recognised in Tulsa itself through the establishment of the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission more than 70 years later. Its report, published in 2001, concluded that the city had conspired against its black citizens and recommended a full package of reparations for descendants of the victims. In 2020, the massacre was finally added to the Oklahoma school curriculum.

The Tulsa Massacre was just one event in a long and bloody sequence that stretches over 150 years from Reconstruction to the recent coup attempt in Washington.

In Ocoee, Florida on Election Day in 1920, 60 black men were killed (and others castrated) by a white mob determined to stop them voting. In Wilmington in North Carolina in 1898, a genuine coup was staged when white supremacists forced the resignation at gunpoint of the city government, which included three elected black aldermen. Again, as many as 300 people died in the violence that followed and a whole black middle class – lawyers, policemen, journalists, business owners – fled, never to return. What before the coup had been a lively, mixed-race city with a majority black population now has fewer than 18% black residents.

If America is to move forward, and start to heal the divisions and conflicts that the Donald Trump era has served to widen, then the events of Tulsa, Ocoee and Wilmington deserve to be as widely known as Gettysburg, Antietam and Appomattox.

A picture depicting the aftermath of the Tulsa Massacre in 1921. Photo: Wikipedia

History can’t and shouldn’t be a stable succession of agreed version but a palimpsest on which successive generations of scholars attempt to inscribe their version of the truth.

In America’s case, it is the crime of slavery that casts the longest, darkest shadow. Almost as soon as the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment of 1868 were passed, granting citizenship and legal protection to all, they were undermined by Southern white leaders who had become so perverted by the mindset of slavery that they believed any attempt by freed slaves to achieve economic or social equality deserved to be met with legally-sanctioned violence. It took the Senate until 2020 to pass a version of an anti-lynching bill first introduced in 1918.

The mental structures that enabled slavery are still alive and thriving.

One of the most persuasive attempts to unpack this uncomfortable truth is Caste: The Lies That Divide Us by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. She argues that it is through the prism of caste rather than race that we should understand the baked-in inequalities that slavery has bequeathed to the American psyche. Comparing the American caste system with those of India and Nazi Germany, she attempts a powerful historical re-framing of the problem.

“Just as DNA is the code of instructions for cell development,” she writes “caste is the operating system for economic, political, and social interaction in the United States from the time of its gestation.”

For America to begin to move beyond a caste system that runs counter to the ideals enshrined in its Constitution requires it to face the ugly truths of  history and she suggests an American version of a truth and reconciliation commission as a useful start. She also recommends an attitude of  “radical empathy” – “to educate oneself” and “to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine we would feel”.

In this she echoes James Baldwin in his classic 1962 essay, Down at the Cross, which plants the “negro problem” firmly in the hands of white America.

“The white man is in sore need of new standards, which will release him from his confusion and place him once again in fruitful communion with the depths of his own being,” Baldwin writes. “And I repeat: The price of the liberation of the white people is the liberation of the blacks – the total liberation, in the cities, in the towns, before the law, and in the mind.”

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI

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