Michael Harriott, The Grio, July 11, 2023
What is the opposite of backlash?
On Friday, Tulsa County Oklahoma District Court judge Caroline Wall dismissed the lawsuit filed by survivors of the Tulsa Race Massacre seeking compensatory justice for the 1921 destruction of the once-thriving Black business district known as Greenwood. The dismissal follows the Supreme Court decision that effectively erased race-based considerations in college admissions. Over the last five years, the long game of white supremacy has stymied police reform, thwarted student debt relief, criminalized Black history, ousted Black educators attempting to equalize education and made it harder for Black people to cast ballots.
Perhaps nothing is as reliable as the metronomic predictability of white people’s reaction to even the prospect of racial progress. However, a careful examination of America’s past shows us that “backlash” is an ineffective descriptor for the racial hostility defined by these setbacks. The slash-and-burn racial animus that gave us separate but equal, Jim Crow, countless massacres, unequal schools and disenfranchisement laws is not a reaction to anything that Black people achieved.
Most white Americans (57%) disapprove of selective colleges considering race and ethnicity in affirmative action. Eighty percent of whites do not support reparations for the descendants of enslaved people, compared to 77% of Black Americans — most of whom descended from enslaved people — who approve. The vast majority of Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans feel more needs to be done to ensure equal rights for all; only 42% of whites agree. In fact, most whites (62%) think our country has done enough or too much to give Black people equal rights. Perhaps it is a “frontlash.” Maybe “prelash” is a better word. “Forwardlash” sounds too benevolent. In any case, these pro-white victories are simply byproducts of the constant, unchanging stream anti-Black sentiment that periodically pierces the wall of Black defenses. And while Black America is furiously defending itself, the white reaction is always the same:
White people come to take things.
Defense vs. Offense
Every movement for Black liberation and equality was about defending ourselves. When Black Americans unchained themselves from the bonds of race-based slavery, our quest for full citizenship was a measure to defend our humanity. The anti-lynching movement was a defense of our lives. The Civil Rights Movement was a defense of our constitutionally guaranteed human rights. Voting rights protect our participation in democracy. Affirmative action simply prevents further disparities in education and employment.
We play defense because America takes our things.
After the Civil War, whites responded to emancipation with a campaign of racial terrorism and murder that possibly killed more Black people than slavecatchers. We wanted to be free, they wanted our lives. Nonviolent resistance during the civil rights era resulted in beatings, church bombings and resentment even in the liberal North. They didn’t oppose our quest for equality, they opposed us. When Black voters elected Black politicians during Reconstruction, whites didn’t just want to take our voting rights, they killed the people we elected. They were not protecting their power; they wanted to take ours. Black financial gains weren’t met with “economic anxiety,” it was bombed and burned from existence. Segregationists didn’t create massive resistance, segregation academies and decimate the population of Black teachers because they wanted whites-only schools. They spat on our children and bombed them in churches because they wanted Black taxpayers to continue funding their children’s educational advantages. The conservatives who believe affirmative action is anti-white also want to end the Department of Education. Perhaps, instead of defending our rights and fighting for white people to treat us as equals, we should culturally appropriate their proven strategy.
We should take things from white people.
Affirmative action is not what prevents Asians from attending elite unities like Harvard. According to a 2019 study, 43% of white students at Harvard gained admission because they were a legacy, related to a donor, a child of a Harvard employee or an athlete, populations which are overwhelmingly white. When asked, the researchers noted that eliminating these white privilege loopholes would increase the number of African-American, Asian-American and Hispanic students but the white acceptant rate would decrease.
We should take that.
The University of North Carolina, also a plaintiff in the Supreme Court cases that upended affirmative action, is about 8% Black, while the state is 22% Black. Because of the Supreme Court ruling, UNC can no longer consider race as a factor in its admission standards, but it is still free to admit legacies who make up about 17% of the student body. UNC is a state school. Why should African-American taxpayers fund an educational institution that disproportionately excludes them?
Someone should take that from white people.
One of the arguments against Black reparations is that it would cost too much. However, the $10 to $12 trillion in federal expenditures that the leading scholars estimate pales in comparison to the principal and compounding interest on the stolen labor that created the racial wealth gap. It certainly wouldn’t cost white people $800,000 — the difference in the wealth of the average white household compared to a Black household.
We should take that, too.
We should remove their slaveholding heroes from social studies lessons that make Black children feel uncomfortable. We should eliminate job recommendations, unpaid internships and other policies that promote anti-diversity, inequities and exclusion. We should ban white Santas and Christmas songs and pro-police rallies and violent national anthems and cisgender bathrooms and books about heterosexual relationships.
We should not take things from white people out of anger, payback or retribution. It is impossible to recover the blood spilled by white anger and the land stolen by their thievery. But it is an injustice to pretend that not considering race can fix a problem that is real. Justice demands an equal response to the infraction committed. This is just the most logical approach to the history of proactive anti-Blackness.
Whiteness is a storm that is always brewing. The tidal waves cannot be stopped by plugging our fingers into the walls we have built to protect our rights and our lives. It will always find a way to breach our defenses. And yes, it is as real as the wind. We will never be able to take away their whiteness.
But we can take their lash.