Excerpted From: Thomas E. Baines, White Terror, Black Threat, 84 Albany Law Review 131 (2020-2021) (173 Footnotes) (Full Document)


ThomasEBainesThis article analyzes the societal factors that contributed to the proliferation of white domestic terrorism on black communities in American history. My research includes several recorded acts of extreme terror including, lynchings, burnings, maimings, and shootings of black people, specifically addressing the societal and judicial response to such acts. Not exhaustive, my research and analysis extracted four common elements that address the following questions: “How a civilized society accepts openly conducted barbaric acts of terror?” and “What role did/do the courts play in supporting or disavowing such acts?” With these questions in mind, the following elements became apparent in all researched cases of white domestic terrorism: (1) the dehumanization of the threat group; (2) the sensationalized and propagandized fear of the threat group; (3) the terroristic acts by the threatened group upon the threat group; and (4) the role the courts and the law played in the system of terrorism.

For purposes of clarity, the threat group is used to describe the group of people perceived to be encroaching upon the positioning of another group in the Racial Caste System. The threatened or majority group are those unwilling to compromise and who actively defend their position in the racial hierarchy. More specifically, the latter is generally white Americans, including the court system, government, and law enforcement officials-- considering whites make up a great majority of people in these positions. The former is comprised of people of color primarily of Black and Latino communities.

This article is also an exploration of how each of the elements offers insight into the seemingly contradictory idea that a civilized society can participate in such extreme acts of terror, without the threat of a major humanitarian upheaval of society, or at least of that racial group. Further, I will attempt to highlight specific instances of terroristic acts to further illustrate and exemplify the four elements. Additionally, the discussion pertaining to element four (the role the courts and the law played in the system of terrorism), will address the societal perception of the judiciary, contributing to the conscience and behavioral response of the majority group toward overt acts of terror.

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The long history of dehumanization from the days of slavery, reinforced by science, then repackaged in forms of propaganda, effectively reduced blacks in the minds of whites to the effect that extreme acts of terror became a part of our societal culture. The question remained: how could rational people have engaged in such horrific acts? Adults encouraging their children to participate in such atrocities highlighted the depth the racial hierarchy penetrated their psyche. I carved out children as a subset of the threat group with the assumption that since children are treated differently in society and in the law, they too would be met with a softer hand as compared to others. Yet, the findings tell a much different story of a child's plight by either the threat or threatened group. On one hand, to simply be viewed as a child, and on the other, an unwillingness to shield children from the exposure of such barbarism for the purpose of perpetuating and teaching superiority.

The evolution of dehumanization exists mostly in the media and criminal system today, acting as a continuous current of oppression that remains constant throughout history. This additional factor moved the analysis from physical acts to propaganda, to societal factors pertaining to the law. Having assessed many cases of violence toward blacks over time, this revealed a justice system that is obviously not designed to offer justice to black people. The courts essentially awarded impunity to participants of terroristic acts, and in many cases garnered sub-standard investigations, lacking an earnest effort to achieve justice. So, is it as simple as racism, or white supremacy? Or is there something more sinister at play?

My conclusions are based on the notion that very few things are as coincidental as they seem. The common themes of oppression speak to an invisible hand guiding and manipulating circumstances, situations, and relations to the same benefactor. This is the Racial Caste System that Michelle Alexander speaks of. As demonstrated in Bacon's Rebellion, a potential solution may be for the poor and middle classes to unify their efforts to achieve better social and economic positioning, on the basis of shared circumstances, not race. Much in the same way as in the 1960s, when the Black Panthers, Young Lords, and Young Patriots set aside their racial differences to focus on issues of poverty, homelessness, and police brutality that plagued their communities. Unfortunately, that solution cuts both ways. Bacon's Rebellion resulted in division between the races to the benefit of the elite. As a consequence, there may always remain some iteration of dehumanization toward black people, serving the same purpose to justify terroristic acts by the threatened group, reinforced by a broken justice system.

As an update, this article was written prior to the killing of George Floyd in 2019. As his name is almost synonymous with the civil unrest experienced since his death, it seems befitting to mention this moment in American history. Upon hearing the story and watching the footage, I could not help but parallel Floyd's story with Claude Neal's: the spectacle, the lack of humanity, the devastation, the terror. Eighty-eight years later, another black man helplessly held on as his life, with every breath, seeped away. Yet, this time the world watched, some in horror, some in disbelief, others with pleasure. There is a difference, however, one that is yet to be defined, perhaps only a feeling, but unquestionably a difference. Or, maybe, this is the same feeling my parents had in 1968 after the passing of the Civil Rights Act--the feeling of a long-awaited breakthrough. But if the past is any indication of the future, George Floyd may only be a mere droplet in the tidal wave of a racial revolution needed for change in this country. My grandmother, now 91, was two years old when Claude Neal was murdered; a stark reminder of our proximity to that era. A proximity that captures both how far we have come, and still how far we must go.

The awakening of American society to a sordid history of race relations has beckoned some change since the death of George Floyd. The previously mentioned Aunt Jemima pancake mix, Cream of Wheat, and Uncle Ben's Rice all plan to redesign, or have since redesigned, their racially charged product packaging. Many other businesses have followed suit, some I presume for economic gain, others for fear of loss. Though necessary and long since overdue, each win is a win nonetheless, but one can only hope the acknowledgment of black humanity moves beyond changes in marketing strategies.

As a result of my research and the recent events, I understand with more acuity the gravity of Derrick Bell's theory of Racial Realism. Per Bell, Racial Realism is perceiving the law or the courts as a system that preserves the status quo, and rarely and sporadically serves as a solution for oppressed black people. The quote below captures the ever-present nature of racism and the urgency for blacks to accept the obvious “truth,” and work within that framework, as opposed to a more idealistic view of racism. Although I am not wholly in agreement with Bell, I certainly value his point of view and, based on my study, Bell's point of view unfortunately resonates now more than ever. Prayerfully, this is more than another “peak of progress.”

Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary “peaks of progress,” short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it and move on to adopt policies based on what I call: “Racial Realism.” This mind-set or philosophy requires us to acknowledge the permanence of our subordinate status. That acknowledgment enables us to avoid despair, and frees us to imagine and implement racial strategies that can bring fulfillment and even triumph.

Juris Doctor, Albany Law School, 2020; M.B.A., Medaille College 2008; B.A., SUNY Oneonta 2005.