When Oscar Grant’s
murderer involuntary manslaughter-er, Johannes Mehserle, was 1) found guilty and 2) sentenced to basically less than a year in jail, the news outlets wanted us out there in the viewing world to believe that black people in Oakland were going to explode with rage and riot through the streets, ala the LA riots/Rodney King verdict in 1992. It has also recently been reported that Haitians are angry and rioting as a response to the ongoing deadly cholera epidemic. This has been blamed on both these Haitians’ misunderstanding of where the cholera originated and political manipulation by those trying to win elections. Also, there was that whole post-Katrina “looting” vs. “finding” thing…
I believe that the coverage of crisis that focuses on the rioting of a black population is part of a long, long, long racist history. Black people in this country are often painted as angry, volatile, and always on the verge of plundering white people’s stuff. Of course, for someone who studies the history of slavery, it is obvious to me that these ideas are DIRECT descendants of racist ideas about slaves. These were ideas that were created by people who needed moral and practical reasons for exhibiting such extreme force on other people. Rioting black people in Oakland or LA are treated rhetorically in the same way as rebellious slaves were in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Caribbean or South Carolina.
Yet, I don’t know enough about the specific history of blaming black people for rioting and pillaging and destroying things outside of the history of a slave society (a society whose economy functions completely because of slavery, not simply a society that has slaves; the former would, theoretically, fall apart without slaves because the economy would cease to function) in order to really lay down hard facts (which is all I ever want to do as a historian). I want to PROVE that there is a continuity, not just that I am 95% that there is one. I want an example from a non-slave society is what I am saying.
This is all just to preface something I read just now in a book on abolitionism. It is a chapter on black abolitionism in the period of the American Revolution. It’s titled, “‘A Chosen Generation’: Black Founders and Early America”, by Richard S. Newman in Prophets of Protest. He begins his chapter with a story about two “former slaves who became two of Philadelphia’s leading free black figures.” Pennsylvania had begun abolishing slavery in 1780 (but it was a gradual process) and its economy was not at all contingent on the institution of slavery by the end of the of the eighteenth century (if ever – nothing like the Caribbean or, say, Virginia or the Carolinas at that time or the deep south in the century to come). The two men wrote a pamphlet in 1794 that they wanted to publish. One of their specific desires for publishing it was to criticize “the racist stereotypes perpetrated by printer Matthew Carey, whose own best-selling pamphlet about Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic [of 1793] castigated blacks for allegedly pillaging and plundering white homes.” They said this was simply not true and, if anything, “blacks saved Philadelphia through their virtuous volunteer work” (59). The pamphlet then goes on to make an appeal to antislavery.
I found this anecdote amazingly interesting. This was 1794 in a place where slavery was virtually non-existent and where it did exist, it was not part of the economy in a way that it was necessary to perpetuate ideas about the evils of the rebelling enslaved (of course, NB: Haitian revolution began in 1791 – that shit scared the hell out of white people). This idea that black Philadelphians used the yellow fever epidemic to pillage and plunder was just a racist idea about black people that came from racist ideas about slaves. Reports of rebellions always made the papers and probably spread like gossip through the streets and taverns. It was a small leap from the fear of black slave rebellion to the fear of black rebellion in general. It’s clearly a fear many Americans still carry with them over 200 years later.
So, there in 1794 Philadelphia, we find black Americans struggling to combat the idea that they did not riot and plunder during a scary time for the city (which most people must have believed in order for them to feel the need to publicly confront this popular sentiment). It is the same thing that Inoculated City was trying to prove following the clearly biased media attention of the “violent protests” in the aftermath of the Mehserle sentencing.
Basically, what I am trying to say with all of this (so that I can point to this whenever this issue comes up): when you jump to the conclusion that black people are going to riot and destroy property simply because they are black, you are making a racist statement that is seeped in a racist history that comes directly out of racist ideas created during the time of slavery in this country.