Controlling the Black American Man

The Oppressive Seeds of the Colin Kaepernick Backlash

Many white Americans think that hate speech short of explicitly inciting violence should be permissible as something allowable – anywhere, anytime and in all circumstances – under the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.

With regard to race I think many whites who think this way are giving support to the historical transition away from lynching and toward non-violent measures that have a broader appeal among whites. Those being: housing red-lining, Jim Crow laws, gerrymandering, voter suppression, hate speech, white anger at black athlete protesters – all as means of maintaining control of and supremacy over African Americans, especially black males.

Essentially, many whites have backed off violence and found legal and moral cover under free speech and discriminative laws and practices. The have thereby fortified their sense of justification and legitimization, and been emboldened.

That real, debilitating harm continues to be inflicted by these non-violent, legal yet immoral actions and speech is undeniable. This essay supports this view.

“Some might think that [professional American football player Colin] Kaepernick’s words and actions, together with the subsequent backlash, represent a watershed moment. They don’t. Spanning back to America’s founding, there’s an entire history of blacks stepping outside of the social order – or protesting it – only to be told they can’t.

“As a psychiatrist, I’ve long been interested in how racial identity affects mental health, and the chronic stress that racial minorities experience when they’re exposed to racist messages, particularly in the media. In the controversy swirling around Kaepernick, I see racially encoded messages about power, place and punishment of black people. Obviously, there’s a difference between antebellum lynching and social media outrage. But though the overt responses may have changed, the underlying hatred, disgust and impulses to punish prominent, ‘poorly behaved’ black figures still remains. Spanning back to America’s founding, there’s an entire history of blacks stepping outside of the social order – or protesting it – only to be told they can’t.”

“To enforce the racial hierarchy and police the boundaries of what blacks could say and do, whites often resorted to lynching. Although no one is exactly sure, it’s estimated that over 3,400 blacks were lynched or publicly murdered from 1882 to 1968. One of most famous examples was Emmett Till, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman.

“Economist Dwight Murphey has written that lynching was different from other forms of violence. Unlike, say, a domestic dispute or an act of revenge, it functioned to maintain the social order. It was, Murphey wrote, ‘motivated by a desire to vindicate the moral sense of community, and has as its target a specific person or persons.’ In other words, it was used to enforce a racial hierarchy, foster a sense of community among whites, and ensure that black men knew their place.

“Although the methods of lynching varied, it was common practice for white mobs, seeking to reaffirm the racial order, to hang or castrate the victim. (A number of psychoanalytic theories have sought to account for the phenomenon of castrations, but many scholars agree that castration served as the ultimate act of ‘taming’ the black male, assuaging the fears and anxieties about uncontrolled black masculinity.)

“As the number of lynchings decreased in the early 20th century, the mechanisms of enforcing the boundaries of black identity were reshaped. White majorities enforced social and civic confinement for most of the African-American community through redlining, voting restrictions and Jim Crow laws.”

“Critics of black athletes often claim they have ‘character’ concerns – that they’re bothered by arrogance or poor sportsmanship. But I wonder if the same social and psychological processes that fueled the phenomenon of lynching are the undercurrent of so much public disgust with Newton and Kaepernick.”

“Today no one can lynch a professional athlete, so the pressure to conform must be exerted more subtly. In this way, old expressions of racism are simply being recrafted and reshaped in modern, more socially acceptable forms.”


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