Lessing’s Prediction of Racist Violence

British Nobel-Prize novelist, Doris Lessing, said that she thinks Senator Barack Obama might be assassinated if elected:

“He would probably not last long, a black man in the position as president. They would kill him.”

She did not indicate who she thought such assassins might be. The public and political reaction has mostly rejected her comments and their implications as “wild” and “fearmongering.”

Lessing probably said what many observers of the revolutionary change of a black man running for U.S. president secretly fear might happen.

Lessing has long been an outspoken feminist and opponent of antiblack racism. She became famous as a fierce critic of European colonialism in Africa, and was attacked for her feminism in her 1960s writings. She was banned as a “prohibited alien” for a long period from South Africa by its apartheid regime.

Her fear that Obama might be targeted is likely conditioned on her awareness of how much violence has targeted U.S. presidents and other U.S. officials in her lifetime.

Her statement seems to many extreme and, as some put it, “fearmongering,” but the U.S. has a four-centuries tradition of whites attacking black Americans. Life under legal segregation for millions of still living African Americans was one of constant white violence (unprosecuted white murderers and other perpetrators are still living too). At least 6,000 lynchings targeting African Americans took place from the 1880s to the present. A large proportion of hate crimes, many violent, each year now target African Americans.

Recall that the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building was by antigovernment activists who were white supremacists. Months later other bomb plots were uncovered, one targeting federal buildings in Spokane and Austin. Today, numerous antigovernment militia and supremacist groups are made up of white men (and some women) very angry about current societal conditions. In 1998, a black man, James Byrd, Jr., was walking down a Jasper, Texas, road a few miles from where I am now writing. Three white men, with white-supremacist tattoos, beat him savagely and dragged him along a road dismembering him. One reportedly said to the others, “We’re starting The Turner Diaries early,” referring to violence by white supremacists in that racist novel still popular with supremacists. The Jasper lynching triggered copycat crimes in other cities. (See my book Racist America for details.)

In recent years members of white supremacy groups have reportedly stockpiled explosives and prepared bombing ventures.  In 2006, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center there were at least 844 active Klan, neo-Nazi, skinhead, and other white supremacist groups. An estimated two hundred thousand whites are active or passive supporters of such groups.  And, there are hundreds of U.S.-based Internet sites disseminating extreme, with tens of thousands of active members, often violent racist diatribes.

It is time to recognize that what Lessing said could really happen at the hands of white supremacists in the United States and to deal with this chilling possibility and its likely white supremacist perpetrators openly and critically in the media and other public discussions, as well as by public safety actions. In my view, we should also provide stepped-up, super-protections for the courageous Senator Obama and his family, especially if he is the Democratic nominee.

As a white researcher who gets death threats now and then just for doing research on racism in the United States, I can personally attest that Lessing’s fears are neither “wild” nor unrealistic.


  1. Interesting timing on this post, as I just mentioned a similar story to my undergraduate class on race last week.

    I was a senior in college in 1988. Our Social Justice class had a guest speaker on race, and she, a black woman, said she would not support Jesse Jackson’s run for president because she didn’t want to feel responsible for his eventual murder. I used the story as background for discussing Obama’s current run.

  2. Seattle in Texas

    All of the last posts are interesting and I am going to just throw it all out here quickly (and Jessie thank you understanding below) I have to first say, we do not live in a colorblind society (regardless of which party is in charge or takes over—long way to go) and with relation to whiteness…we don’t live in an ethnic blind society either. Simply voting for Obama won’t make them non-racist, perhaps engaging in an anti-racist act, but not necessarily non-racist or even anti-racist more generally. And all the negativity? Heh, I grew up in the rain—so, Republicans and racist Democrats, rain on my parade all you wish—I refuse to lose hope.

    Racism is everywhere and reveals itself in different guises throughout different regions. As we see with Hillary, it does exist among Democrats and with things such as Planned Parenthood (promoting eugenic practices in various ways… though am personally pro-choice—but not going to go there) among the Left. (growing up in an “ultra-Liberal” state if you will—I have no problem being critical of my own…it is not perfect up there either—just the other side of the coin with relation to racism) This nation needs much work…and for those whites who believe that we have achieved a colorblind society, they only need to date outside their race, have a child of color, and so on, for a reality check to kick in…otherwise because they are in positions of privilege bestowed by the color of their skin, which allows them to see things from afar and even segregated if they wish, they are granted privilege to come to such conclusions…. Or perhaps they can come to Texas and see the million dollar gated communities with dilapidated homes only miles away where families of color are barely surviving. Or perhaps they can go up to the Pacific Northwest and see undocumented communities in similar conditions making less than the state minimum wage and so on. Or perhaps they can go to Eastern Washington/Idaho a with a Black or Jewish friend and allow them to interpret the social interaction and surroundings—and for the Jewish folks, speak directly with a Neo Nazi and see what he has to say…. It’s all around and for a person free of color and/or ethnicity to come to that conclusion only demonstrates the level of privilege they have…in my opinion…and whites will not give it up easy, I agree.

    And for anybody to assume Obama is not at risk? Hmmmm. A tactic to avoid common sense preventive measures and precautions as far as I’m concerned…. He has to watch out for both the right and left—no risk? I’m just going to stop here because that is the most absurd and ignorant claim somebody could make in my own humble opinion. And, to emphasize the racial divide among the fellow and madam Democrats? One had suggested in a recent conversation that if Obama does take it, the Independents will vote for McCain…I don’t know of any Independents who would go that direction, at least where I come from…So, my guess is that the racism is so deep among some Democrats that they would vote Republican over a presidential candidate of color who is a Democrat and who would take us back closer to the Civil Rights Movements that all Democrats supposedly take so much pride in. Come on. And high fives to all Obama supporters—regardless of color and ethnicity!!! Come together!!!

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