White Terrorism: The Ordeal of Black Philosopher George Yancy

On Christmas eve in 2015 the leading Black philosopher and New York Times opinion writer, George Yancy, penned a poignant “Dear White America” article in the Times. Yancy bravely sought to encourage each white reader to, as he summarizes in his disturbing new book Backlash

risk yourself, to undergo a process of moral and existential perplexity” and to assess very deeply what being white in America means. He also sought action from white readers, calling for “a refusal to lie, a refusal to live another day within a white supremacist system where Black people and people of color continue to be oppressed. . . . I wanted you to tell the truth to yourselves and tell it to others.

Yancy is writing from what I have termed in the The White Racial Frame book as strong resistance counter-framing. Counter-frames are grounded in counter-system thinking and have been very important for Black Americans in surviving and resisting oppression over many generations. In these anti-racism counter-frames whites are defined as highly problematical, and strategies on how to deal with whites and white institutions are expressed and foregrounded. As Backlash illustrates, a well-developed Black counter-frame includes deep understandings of how white racial hostility and discrimination operate and how to deal in everyday practice with white discrimination, including teachings about safety for Black youth and passive and active strategies of anti-racism resistance.

Resistance counter-framing like that demonstrated by Yancy is necessary in this highly racist society. The “Dear White America” letter was not long out before white America roared back angrily in reply. Hundreds of whites replied to Yancy’s honest pleas and counter-framing with vicious replies developing most of the major racist themes long common in this country’s omnipresent white racial frame (defined below). These came as online comments, emails, phone messages, and letters, and have continued to the present. Many missives were filled with intense emotions and extensive and venomous “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger” language (no exaggeration). This is indeed, as Yancy puts it, “21st century white terror.

The impact on Yancy and others around him has been severe. He has feared for himself and family and colleagues, to the present day. Campus police have monitored his Emory University office, patrolling his office floor; his department has had to quit providing his office hours to callers; his department chair, higher administrators, and other colleagues have been attacked as well, some called “nigger lovers.” At other universities, his talks have required the presence of police officers to protect him from possible white violence. His colleagues across the country have circulated large-scale supportive petitions on his behalf.

Yet Yancy did not submit to this extreme, often violence-oriented white onslaught quietly. A major countering effort can be seen in his Backlash book, in which he critically recounts and counter-frames many white-racist responses. This book clearly took great personal strength to write and has much that Americans, whites in particular, must read and heed if this country is to survive even remotely as just and democratic. Here he emphasizes the personal impact of everyday racism most African Americans face–some more than others, but virtually all too often, and ranging from subtle, to covert, to blatant discrimination. Yancy’s book makes clear what it means today to be Black, to live in an often threatened Black body, and to be a recurring target of chronic racist framing. As he insists, this is a “window into the life of a Black philosopher who believes that the practice of philosophy, the love of wisdom, must speak to those who formally reside outside of” academic settings.

What is this horrifying white racial frame to which Yancy has had to respond? It is far more than just prejudice (bigotry, animus, etc.) Some years back, in the books Systemic Racism and The White Racial Frame I suggested the analytical concept of the white racial frame. Since its development in the 17th century, this white racial frame has been dominant, a framing that provides a generic meaning system for a highly racialized U.S. society. For centuries this powerful racial frame has provided the broad white-generated worldview from which whites (and many others) regularly view society. It includes (1) racial stereotypes/prejudices (the verbal-cognitive aspect); (2) racial narratives & interpretations (the integrating cognitive aspects); (3) racial images (the visual aspects) and preferred language accents (the auditory aspect); (4) racialized emotions; (5) and inclinations to discriminatory action. This broad framing has a very positive orientation to whites as generally virtuous (pro-white subframe) and a negative orientation to racial “others” frequently viewed as unvirtuous (anti-others subframes). The pro-white subframe aggressively accentuates white superiority, civilization, virtue, and moral goodness.

There are numerous major themes from this old white racial frame’s anti-black subframe in the messages Yancy received. As he underscores in his book, these commentaries are far more than signs of “white fragility,” for they signal old white racial “world-making” that is usually imbedded in white character structure. Some of these white racist messengers, often angry white men, use racialized sexual references (e.g., speaking of the supposed threat of Black men to white women) or references to Blacks being excrement (“shit,” this and that). There is a recurring animalizing of Yancy and other Black Americans, including President Barack Obama, something whites have been doing at least since the founding era. White messages regularly describe African Americans as apes or ape-like. White images of Africans and African Americans as ape-like or ape-linked date back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and are another way of portraying Black Americans as racially inferior. For example, our third president Thomas Jefferson, a theorist of supposed “liberty and equality,” wrote in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, that Black Americans are racially inferior to whites in many ways, including reasoning, imagination, intelligence, and beauty. He further asserted that even black Americans prefer white Americans’ beauty, “as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan [Orangutan] for the black women over those of his own species.” That is, as a prominent white-racist thinker, Jefferson believed the imperialist myth that in Africa nonhuman primates actually had intercourse with oversexed African women.

Sadly, such ape imagery remains commonplace not just in the attack messages Yancy has received but also all over the Internet. One recent online study of 447 self-proclaimed white nationalists found that, using a scale from zero (as ape-like) to 100 (as human), they rated blacks and other people of color as much more apelike and much less human than whites. Numerous other studies (see here) of ordinary whites, the latter mostly not openly connected with white nationalist organizations, reveal this regular linking in white minds of apelike imagery to Black people, such as in the commonplace form of everyday “nigger” joking.

Perhaps most disturbing in these white commentaries to Professor Yancy is the constant threatening of violence against him and other Blacks. Most of these violent verbal attacks appear to come from white men of various ages and classes. There is much anger in their messaging, like this one: “Somebody needs to . . . knock your fucking head off your shoulders.” As Yancy underscores,

there was very little love shown toward me. There were white threats of physical violence, talk of putting a meat hook in parts of my body, threats of knocking my “fucking head off” (their words), of beating me and leaving me dead, and vile demands that I kill myself immediately.

This viciousness came in response to Yancy’s honest pleas seeking to move whites to understand who they are racially and the scale of the racial oppression they have created.

Striking too in these hundreds of attack messages is the high level of white emotion. Many whites, especially white men, pride themselves on not being emotional; they reserve emotionality for those who are not white or male. Yet white men are probably the most emotional Americans when it comes to racial issues, especially when their racial status, enrichments, and privileges seem endangered, Coming through the many white verbal attacks on Yancy is stunning white emotionality, including anger, fear, outrage, bitterness, and, almost always, arrogance. Hundreds of the comments have a tone like this: “Dear nigger . . . fuck you. I am a racist. I’m ok with that now thanks to your nigger community and their actions over the last few years.” These hundreds of comments clearly demonstrate how most elements in the dominant white racial frame are very emotionally loaded.

Yancy’s belligerent responders also demonstrate great ignorance about many racial matters. For example, their white comments often reflect a serious illiteracy in regard to what the word “racism” means, especially in its origin. They periodically call Yancy a “racist” for calling out the white-racist ideas and discriminatory patterns of whites. The term “racism” is widely used by whites and many others for an individual’s ideas and actions, yet the modern term “racism” was originally constructed to refer to collective ideological and systemic racism. The first modern use of term “racism” was by German researcher Magnus Hirschfeld (in his 1933 book) for what German Nazis were systematically doing to European Jews, Roma, and Africans —that is, extreme ideological and institutional racism. This was far more than a matter of Nazi prejudices. Today, white racism also involves the deep structures and surface structures of racial oppression. It includes a complex array of white anti-other (e.g., anti-black) discriminatory practices, the unjustly gained economic/political power of whites, the continuing economic and other resource inequalities along racial lines (unjust enrichment/unjust impoverishment), and the white racial framing created by whites to rationalize white privilege and power. This racism is a material, social, racially framed reality—that is, manifested in all societal sectors, institutionally enabled, and socially reproduced for about 20 generations. White attempts to apply the term racism to yet other groups demonstrates not only ignorance of its history and reality but also, and quite remarkably, that most of these whites actually do understand at some level that racism is undesirable and immoral.

The many racially hostile messages recorded in Backlash further suggest that our contemporary era of overt and politicized white racism has liberated many whites from the necessity of suppressing their extensive white racist framing of society in public settings. For example, there is recurring positive reference in these attack missives sent to Yancy, and in similar hostile communiqués on white nationalist websites, to the white nationalism of our current president, Donald Trump, including recurring phrasing similar to Trump’s main slogan (e.g., “make America white again”). Such racially framed sentiments are not just limited to more extreme white supremacist missives and websites, for much recent social science research shows that central to the thinking of many of Trump’s many white voters has been great worry about their losing their “superior” racial status in US society.

Perhaps the most poignant and deeply insightful aspect of Backlash is Yancy’s reflections on being Black and the matter of death resulting from white terrorism’s many forms. Yancy describes an incident when he was growing up in an impoverished urban area. Having gotten a telescope as a present, a white officer saw him with it, and framing him as a poor Black youngster, almost shot him because he thought it was a weapon. Reflecting in the book on this incident, Yancy concludes that he cannot be a complete pessimist because he is alive today, yet “being alive feels like borrowed time.” Being Black, that is, means the constant and well-institutionalized possibility of racially marked death at any time of life. This is the critical difference between blackness and whiteness, for no institutionally grounded practices have marked “whiteness as a target for death” at any time. So, given the entrenched reality of persisting white racism, Yancy also concludes he cannot be truly optimistic in regard to the possibility of substantial racial change in this society.

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