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The unbearable whiteness of being

What's lost when we consider the history of racial violence from a white perspective.

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On Dec. 26, 1920, a mob in my hometown of Jonesboro broke into the jail to seize Wade Thomas, a black man and petty thief suspected of having murdered a local police officer the day before. Although Police Chief Gus Craig and Mayor Gordon Frierson had barricaded the jail with the intent of defending Thomas, they did not lift one finger to defend the man when the mob finally broke through. As Frierson later told his nephew, "When the mob opened the door, the first half-a-dozen men standing there were leading citizens — businessmen, leaders of their churches and the community."

We like to think of mobs as rowdy amalgamations of poor and uncouth whites, but they were more often prominent individuals in their communities, which helps to explain the complicity of certain agents of authority in these murders. After all, coroners' reports almost universally found that victims of lynching met their fate "at the hand of persons unknown," even when these "persons" marched down Main Street in broad daylight.

One of the ironies of study into racial violence is that historians typically know more about any one victim than they do any individual member of the mob — even the names of most of those "leading citizens" eludes historians to this day. This is no accident. American history has classically been viewed through the eyes of people who were white, male, educated and middle class or better. But what if Americans took what historian Richard W. Bulliet has called "the view from the edge" and look back at whiteness through the eyes of others? How does our perspective change?

Telling the history of racial violence from a white perspective places lynching exclusively within the domain of black history, given that such forms of violence had a huge impact upon black culture and consciousness, so much so that even those who never witnessed such an event themselves felt terrorized, knowing that the same could happen to them at any time. From the white center, these acts of violence are regarded as aberrations, not representative of the American "mainstream," not part of our own collective heritage, despite the fact that demographics for some lynching events included hundreds or thousands of white men and women, as members of the mob, per black victim. This fact has been obscured by the use of passive voice when talking about racial atrocities. Black people "were lynched," black people "were driven" from this town, black people "were warned away" from taking these jobs. But white people committed these crimes, and we need to understand why. White Americans need to incorporate this history into our broader culture and come to terms with it, lest the general framework that made such atrocities acceptable remain hidden, unacknowledged, and allowed to emerge again.

Let's go further back still. Let's go back to the time of slavery and see in what surprising places whiteness shows up. In July 1855, the slave Abby Guy of Ashley County sued her legal owner, William Daniel, claiming that her mother had never been a slave but rather was a white woman who was kidnapped by slave traders, who no doubt knew how much masters preferred lighter-skinned victims, especially light-skinned women. And Abby Guy herself, by all accounts, appeared as white as anyone else. The local jury ruled her white, and the Arkansas Supreme Court refused to overturn the verdict on appeal, partly due to a "reluctance to sanction the enslaving of persons" who appeared to be white. However, three years later, in the case of Gary v. Stevenson, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled differently. In that case, the enslaved Thomas Gary had sued his owner, Remson Stevenson of Van Buren County, arguing that he was not a "Negro" according to Arkansas law. So-called racial experts analyzed Gary and agreed that he was probably white in the legal sense: two experts testified that he lacked African ancestry entirely, while a third said that Gary might have a trace amount of African blood but not enough to meet the legal threshold for being defined "Negro" in Arkansas at the time. But the court held that because Gary's mother, who also possessed fair skin and straight hair, had never objected to her status as a slave, Gary was the child of a slave and thus a slave himself.

To make sense of this, we have to go back to the early days of the American colonies. Despite what you were taught in elementary school about indentured servitude in the Americas being an easy way for poor Brits to secure passage to the colonies, needing only to put in a few years' employment for a benign British lord before being freed from the contract, indentured servitude early on featured some characteristics later common to chattel slavery. Abuse was rampant, and servants could have their contracts extended at the slightest pretense. However, enough did manage to gain their freedom that the colonial lords decided to ramp up the importation of African slaves, especially after servants across the color line teamed up against their masters in Bacon's Rebellion of 1676. In response to that rebellion, authorities in the colonies began to pass laws that connected "race" to status, so that any child of an African slave inherited the position of slave, an innovation that, in the words of historian David Roediger, "became the basis for a new regime that sought to set poor people apart from each other much more clearly on the basis of 'race.' "

Eventually, race became codified with the "one-drop rule," so that any African ancestry marked one as a slave, no matter how white you appeared. So plantation lords often enslaved white people. "But wait," you say, "they did, after all, have some African blood in them, so you can't call them white-white, now can you?" First off, what does it say about the ideology of white supremacy if something like 1/64 drop of "black blood" gets to overrule everything else? It amuses me no end that a chief tenet of white supremacy is that whiteness remains so fundamentally fragile that even the slightest mixture threatens it.

Second, once you have a one-drop rule in place and slaves as white as anyone else, what is to prevent an enterprising capitalist from preying upon poor whites? Abby Guy's was not the only court case alleging the kidnapping and selling of poor whites, and newspapers of the time were filled with stories expressing horror at the very idea of "white slavery" being visited upon "innocent" people. At the same time, slaveholders occasionally expressed sadness that they could not simply enslave many of the poorer whites in their communities and put them to profitable labor. In your typical grade school history class, you probably heard some variation of the statement, "They were enslaved because they were black." But, in fact, the reverse is true — they were labeled as black because they had been enslaved. As historian Barbara Fields has written: "Probably a majority of American historians think of slavery in the United States as primarily a system of race relations — as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy rather than the production of cotton, sugar, rice, and tobacco."

As the Gary v. Stevenson case reveals, designations of blackness were a convenience for ensuring captive labor. Had they been able, these plantation owners would have eagerly enslaved all of those they saw as beneath them. And yet these still managed to get poor whites to devote their time and energy to forming slave patrols and keeping black people in line. According to historian Kelly Houston Jones, the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1854 "affirmed the right of any white person to subdue a slave in rebellion. Thus, whites policed and patrolled slave communities even if they did not act as formally organized 'patrollers.' " Whites, especially poorer whites, acting against their own self-interest is not a new story — in fact, whiteness as a valuable social construct was manufactured precisely to ensure that people at the lower end of the scale don't recognize what they share with each other. As a poor white person, you couldn't kick up, because the rich kick back, but you could kick down, and that offered a little compensation for your plight.

And this brings us back to lynching. Many people assume that the lynching of blacks was exclusively a post–Civil War phenomenon, for there was too much value wrapped up in a black slave. But at least 13 slaves (and almost certainly more) were lynched in antebellum Arkansas. To give one example, the sons of James Boone led the Fayetteville mob that lynched the two slaves accused of murdering their father in 1856. And remember, there were also those slave patrols, and they occasionally killed escaped slaves who allegedly resisted capture. As Kelly Houston Jones asks, "When does a posse gathered for the purpose of policing slaves become a lynch mob? It may not be that these men gathered for the premeditated purpose of killing the slaves they pursued, but it is true that they were acting as a group in a police effort and were ready and willing to use lethal force."

So what do we see when we decenter the white experience? We see a moneyed elite whose system of slavery may have had a nominal, official reference to skin color or place of origin in its definition of human property, but who were willing and eager to enslave whoever was available so long as their cotton got picked. We see other poor relations of these elites ready and willing to employ violence in the preservation of the same system that denied them labor and dignity, for who can compete with cheapness of slave labor? With all of that, can we really be surprised that "leading citizens — businessmen, leaders of their churches and the community" participated in the reign of butchery that engulfed the United States, especially the South, for nearly a century following the Civil War? Violence, after all, was the very foundation of their "civilization," as they liked to think of it.

Seen through the eyes of others, whiteness ceases to be an innocuous social category but, instead, is riven with contradictions that continue to facilitate vast inequality, in this supposed nation of equals, down to the present day. This is Black History Month, and those who think of themselves as white (to use Ta-Nehisi Coates's phraseology) can feel excluded from such celebrations by dint of pigmentation and indignation. But instead of seeing Black History Month as the domain of someone else's heritage, try letting that history inform you about the truth of your own past. Looking at your own history from the edge, through someone else's eyes, you can finally see just where you stand within this vast tapestry of Arkansas and American history. The truth will likely surprise you. And maybe, just maybe, it will set you free. ♦

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