Update: This article originally included an embedded tweet from an account that was reported in October 2017 to be a Kremlin-created Russian account. It has been removed.
One of the more shocking images circulating on social media this week is one of a sign vandalized with 30 bullet holes. The sign marks where the body of 14-year-old black student Emmett Till was found in 1955.
Kevin Wilson Jr., a New York University graduate student working on a film about Till, shared the image on Facebook. Till was a black teen who was brutally murdered after he spoke to a white woman. The perpetrators were acquitted, but Till’s murder is one of the most infamous examples of individual, racism-inspired violence whose perpetrators walked free. The photo has gone viral, with accompanying commentary about how American racism persists.
The fact that Emmett Till's memorial sign was shot up is so evil & depressing, I can't even wrap my head around it.— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) October 22, 2016
It’s bigger than the sign: Some people see civil rights, diversity, and equality as threats to their well-being
Dave Tell, an associate professor at the University of Kansas, works with the Emmett Till Memory Project. Vandalism to civil rights memorials is common, and symptomatic of bigger problems, he said to the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi. “These are easy targets, a low-risk outlet for racism,” he said. In the minds of some Americans, he explained, monuments to civil rights are perceived as “a form of reverse discrimination, a threat to their own well-being.”
Interpreting a focus on civil rights as a threat to white Americans is, of course, not new. Just think of the pushback against Black Lives Matter’s expressions of despair over police killings of unarmed African Americans, or the outsize hostility toward San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protests during the national anthem before games.
Like the destruction of the sign, these reactions can be interpreted to reflect something bigger. As Wilson told WJTV’s Malary Pullen, this type of vandalism speaks to “the racial climate in this country, not just in the area,” he said. “There are still people who are living in those areas who still hold those ideologies dear to their heart — ideologies that we’re trying to get away from.”
There’s a link between the sentiments that fuel vandalism of civil rights monuments and those that fuel support for Trump
This election season, it’s clearer than ever that the ideologies Wilson refers to are persistent. Moreover, white resentment can be a powerful motivator — not just of headline-grabbing destructive behavior like this but also of political choices.
If you believe Tell and Wilson’s theories that racial hostility and anxiety could motivate a person to destroy the Till memorial, it’s not hard to see a connection to the sentiments that have helped fuel Donald Trump’s improbable rise to become his party’s nominee.
In fact, there’s evidence of this: UCLA's Michael Tesler, for example, has found that support for Trump in the primaries strongly correlated with respondents' racial resentment, as measured by survey data.
As Vox’s Dylan Matthews wrote about data on the underdiscussed concerns and motivations of Trump supporters:
The white nationalist wing was gaining in strength, and due for a win. It got one in Trump.
Even in the general election, while support for Trump is correlated most strongly with party ID, the second biggest factor, per the analysis of Hamilton College political scientist Philip Klinkner, was racial resentment. Economic pessimism and income level were statistically insignificant.
The message this research sends is very, very clear. There is a segment of the Republican Party that is opposed to racial equality. It has increased in numbers in reaction to the election of a black president. The result was that an anti–racial equality candidate won the Republican nomination.
...What’s needed is an honest reckoning with what it means that a large segment of the US population, large enough to capture one of the two major political parties, is motivated primarily by white nationalism and an anxiety over the fast-changing demographics of the country. Maybe the GOP will find a way to control and contain this part of its base. Maybe the racist faction of the party will dissipate over time, especially as Obama’s presidency recedes into memory. Maybe it took Trump’s celebrity to mobilize them at all, and future attempts will fail.
But Donald Trump’s supporters’ concerns are heavily about race.
A fundraiser to replace the destroyed sign has already accumulated $19,000 in donations as of Monday afternoon, surpassing the original $15,000 goal, the Washington Post reports. While that’s great news for the repair of the memorial, it will unfortunately take much more than a crowdfunding effort to strike a blow to the stubborn and politically powerful attitudes behind this act of hate.