White-on-black violence is everywhere recently, but also nowhere.
On the one hand, white nationalist groups have been marching publicly; seemingly every month brings a new report of a police shooting of an unarmed black man; and white terrorists like the Charleston church shooter are armed and emboldened. Just last week, cellphone footage was released of the 2015 traffic stop that led to the arrest of Sandra Bland, a black woman who died by apparent suicide in custody, triggering widespread Black Lives Matter protests. The release of the video, by the Dallas news station WFAA, raises questions about if police are withholding video evidence of Bland’s arrest.
Yet what should be a clear picture of violence always looks blurry. Faced with incidents of state and private white-on-black violence, various forces scramble to invert the narrative: President Trump notoriously responded to a violent and deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 by claiming that “there is blame on both sides.” The FBI apparently decided that antifa groups in California were the dangerous ones, and seemed more focused on whether they were interfering with Klan members’ rights than on investigating the Klan itself.
Locally, when police across the country are accused of illegal violence against a black suspect, we are fed subtle and unsubtle narratives about how the victim’s behavior caused the attack against them. Most recently, after Michael Rosfeld was found not guilty after killing Antwon Rose in East Pittsburgh, Rosfeld’s defense predictably smeared the reputation of the 17-year-old honors student with zero criminal record, characterizing him as dangerous and threatening. Rosfeld supporters put up a billboard labeling a picture of Rosfeld with the words “Police Officer” and of Rose with the words “Criminal,” demanding that protesters “Get Over It.”
These inversions blame the victim. They also make us question what we know. White violence, so central to our nation’s history, has continually been made invisible in this way. Defenders of white supremacy have repressed reports of it consistently and skillfully with time-worn tactics: They assert the culpability of the victim and reasonableness of the attacker, and they back that up by intimidating victims or witnesses who give evidence of white violence. When they fail to silence them, they publicly question their motives, competence, or sanity.
This cocktail of abuse, denial, and blaming the victim is often remarkably effective. Today, we call it “gaslighting.”
Gaslighting of those who call out racial injustice goes back to our nation’s roots
Efforts to hide white violence have been most aggressive when white dominance has been least secure.
During the last decades of slavery, anti-slavery reformers revealed that slave owners used horrifying violence against enslaved men, women, and children. Enslaved people who escaped like Frederick Douglass spread stories of torture and murder through a growing network of black and white Northern sympathizers. Gradually, these accounts made many Americans uncomfortable with the morality of slavery.
Slavery supporters insisted that slavery was more consensual than coercive, and that slaves (with a few dangerous exceptions, who had to be controlled) were happy with their lives. They came down hard on anyone who spread stories of their violence. In extreme cases, slavery apologists threatened or even killed them. Black anti-slavery writer David Walker died under mysterious circumstances in 1830. White anti-slavery editor Elijah Lovejoy was shot and killed by a pro-slavery mob in Illinois in 1837.
But methods more subtle than direct violence could shut down stories just as well. Defenders of slavery called escaped slaves liars and con artists, and slavery opponents fools, suggesting that people gained money and power by spreading their false and sensational claims to the ignorant.
South Carolina Sen. Robert Y. Hayne, in an 1830 debate with Daniel Webster, condemned slavery opponents for “shedding weak tears over sufferings which had existence in their very sickly imaginations.” Seven years later, John C. Calhoun famously claimed on the Senate floor that slavery was a “positive good,” calling its opponents “this fanatical portion of society” who were dangerously influencing “the ignorant, the weak, the young, and the thoughtless.” While opposition to slavery grew over time, this relentless discrediting always made it possible for Northerners to choose to deny, even in the face of the testimony of survivors and other witnesses, that slavery was a violent, coercive institution.
After the Civil War, Southern whites again used gruesome and relentless violence to bring newly hopeful freedpeople under their control. Some of the worst was committed by the Ku Klux Klan from 1868 to 1871. These Southern whites — who wanted people to believe that their return to mastery in the South was simply the outcome of their natural superiority — used familiar tactics to hide this violence. They lied about their actions. They regularly denied the very existence of the Klan. They called freedpeople who testified to their violence superstitious, ignorant, dishonest, and unreliable. They called whites who exposed their violence power-hungry carpetbaggers. They smeared Northerners sympathetic to reports of violence as dupes and effeminate.
But violent whites during Reconstruction left such a trail of corpses that total denial was unconvincing. So, while mocking and explaining away victims’ claims, they simultaneously justified white-on-black violence, suggesting that certain freedpeople were so dangerous that they brought it upon themselves, and that Northern whites would do the same if faced with a substantial number of free black neighbors. This worked: Despite massive evidence, many Northern whites never acknowledged the very existence of the Klan.
The KKK, fittingly, came to call themselves “the invisible empire.”
These gaslighting tactics have popped up whenever white racial control has been most in question. In 1894, responding to an international anti-lynching movement, Texas Gov. Jim Hogg denied and justified lynching in the same breath, saying that “ignorant people” took rumors seriously while, in fact, “the negro of the South is the least abused, the most liked, and gets along better and happier than the negro in Europe … the north, or elsewhere. ... The upright, honorable ones thrive. The vicious, savage ones do not.”
Technology altered civil rights tactics. But gaslighters stuck to the script.
During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, denial of both public and private white-on-black violence was made more difficult by television cameras, and by people like brutal Birmingham, Alabama, Police Chief Bull Connor, who bragged about his department’s treatment of protesters. Black Americans demanded police protection from white hate groups, and called for reform and accountability in police use of violence against black people.
Still, white supremacists stuck to the script. Defenders of white supremacy denied violence outright when possible and worked to limit information about it: In 1971, when a well-respected black firefighter in Pittsburgh witnessed a group of white police officers pursue and beat a black teenager with mental disabilities and tried to intervene, they threatened to arrest him too, unless he walked away.
Urban police everywhere in the ’70s fought the development of systems like civilian review boards that might gather such evidence in more systematic and credible ways, which they dismissed as the “unfair abuse and undeserved criticism” brought against them by private citizens. Meanwhile, defenders of police violence against black people predictably argued that victims’ actions invited, even required, violence: Civil rights workers attacked by the Klan were stigmatized as communists who hated the American way of life; black youth attacked by police were labeled dangerous gang members.
Gaslighting works so well because it does not need to give a coherent account of the world: it only needs to keep introducing enough doubt and confusion that people find it hard to look directly at the oppressions around them.
Each generation is shocked at America’s skill at making white violence disappear. When many people today refuse to recognize evidence of police brutality, when it seems impossible to convince people of the dangerous rise of white nationalist groups, when individuals who name and condemn white violence are dismissed as liars and frauds, this is another round in a long and often ugly relationship.
Elaine Frantz is a professor of history at Kent State University. She is the author of Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 2016). She is writing a book on the history of violence in Pittsburgh.