31 May 2012


This morning I came across a sorrowful, disturbing item in the "on this day in history" summary at Wikipedia ~ "The Tulsa Race Riot was a large-scale racially motivated conflict on May 31 and June 1, 1921, between the white and black communities of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in which the wealthiest African-American community in the United States, the Greenwood Distict also known as the 'Negro Wall Street' was burned to the ground.  During the 16 hours of the assault, over 800 people were admitted to local hospitals with injuries, more than 6,000 Greenwood residents were arrested and detained at three local facilities.  An estimated 10,000 were left homeless, and 35 city blocks composed of 1,256 residences were destroyed by fire.  The official count of the dead by the Oklahoma Department of Vital Statistics was 39, but other estimates of black fatalities have been up to about 300.

"The events of the riot were omitted from state and local history.  The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was rarely mentioned in history books, classrooms, or even in private.  Blacks and whites alike grew into middle age unaware of what had taken place."  (my italics)

Anyone who lived through the 1960s and 1970s understands that race riots are not limited to the distant past.  Wikipedia ~ "The term had entered the English language in the United States by the 1890s.  Until 1968 the use of the term in the U.S. referred to race riots which were often violence by racial groups against people of other races.  In the late 1960s the term came to describe riots involving large numbers of members of racial minority groups.  Physical aggression was often aimed at their neighborhood businesses, government representatives, and law enforcement agencies perceived as unfairly targeting racial groups .... Mob rule, religious intolerance, vigilantism, Jim Crow, lynching, racial profiling, economics, police brutality, institutional racism, urban renewal, and racial identity politics are often cited as causes of these riots."

At the risk of over-simplification, the appearance is that before the 1960s, race riots were instigated by whites against blacks, often with the collusion of law enforcement, as an instrument of oppression..  But with the advent of the civil rights and Black Power movements, especially after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, riots were initiated by blacks in response to that oppression.

It is remarkable that the further back in history one searches, the more one encounters a willful determination on the part of the victims to resist talking about those terrible events.  Thus these gruesome and very public acts were expunged from our collective memory, even within the families of those involved.

As happened after the 1921 Tulsa race riots, the victims of other mass racial violence became members of the culture of silence.  "In 1923, the Rosewood Massacre was a violent, racially motivated conflict that took place during the first week of January in rural Levy County, Florida.  At least six blacks and two whites were killed, and the town of Rosewood was abandoned and destroyed .... Florida had an especially high number of lynchings in the years before the massacre.

"Rosewood was a quiet, primarily black, self-sufficient whistle stop on the Seaboard Air Line Railway .... white men from nearby towns lynched a Rosewood resident.  When black citizens defended themselves against further attack, several hundred whites combed the countryside looking for black people, and burned almost every structure in Rosewood.  Survivors hid for several days in nearby swamps, and were evacuated by train and car to larger towns.  Although state and local authorities were aware of the violence, they made no arrests for the activities in Rosewood.  The town was abandoned by black residents during the attacks.  None ever returned.

"Although the rioting was widely reported around the country, few official records documented the event.  Survivors, their descendants, and the perpetrators remained silent about Rosewood for decades."

On the part of the victims, the culture of silence seems to spring from two sources ~ the fear of reprisal, and the desire to shield family and loved ones from the knowledge of what happened. For the race riots of the early 20th century, it was often investigative reporting done many years later which uncovered those horrible times.  In the case of Rosewood, that reporting led to a lawsuit against the state of Florida by descendants of Rosewood residents, and also led to John Singleton's 1997 film Rosewood.

Sociologist James W. Loewen (Lies My Teacher Told Me) wrote a book which has a direct bearing on the culture of silence.  It's titled Sundown Towns, and chronicles the widespread practice ~ in the North as well as the South ~ of excluding blacks and other minorities from thousands of towns "after sundown", in effect creating all-white communities.  Sundown towns were not shy.  One encountered signs upon entry which might read "Whites only within city limits after dark".  And the implied threat was not idle ~ those caught lingering faced lynching.  Yet until Loewen's book, the existence of sundown towns was itself a part of the culture of silence, at least in my awareness.

The race riots of the 1960s were qualitatively different, in that they were precipitated by blacks rising up against oppression.  In this respect, they appear to be immune from the culture of silence.  Or are they?  According to an essay by George Scialabba, studies conducted over the past twenty years indicate that "70 percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels.  50 percent believe that the earth has been visited by UFOs.  70 percent believe that the U.S. government is covering up the presence of space aliens on Earth.  40 percent do not know whom the U.S. fought in World War II.  40 percent could not locate Japan on a world map.  15 percent could not locate the United States on a world map.  60 percent of Americans have not read a book since leaving school.  Only 6 percent now read even one book a year .... The average American's day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert 25 seconds making or viewing art, and 4 hours watching television.

"Among high school seniors surveyed in the late 1990s, 50 percent had not heard of the Cold War.  60 percent could not say how the United States came into existence.  50 percent did not know in which century the Civil War occurred.  60 percent could name each of the Three Stooges but not the three branches of the U.S. government.  60 percent could not comprehend an editorial in a national or local newspaper."

How can so many people be so culturally ignorant?  Have our schools fallen so low?  Surely the culture of silence cannot explain such abysmal awareness of the events which shaped our lives?  Have social media and instant gratification diluted the process of learning?  It is a disturbing prospect.

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