The Racial Cold War Is Heating Up

Is the spate of race-related killings—most recently in Tulsa—a backlash against the Obama era?

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Tulsa Police Department / AFP / Getty Images

Jacob England, left, and Alvin Watts after their arrest for what appears to be a racially-motivated shooting spree in Tulsa, OK, April 8, 2012.

If you found the Trayvon Martin situation frightening, then you should find the story out of Tulsa to be a nightmare. A pair of white men, one of them angry about the murder of his father by a black man two years ago, drove through the Tulsa night early on Friday, shooting blacks at random. Two were injured, three are dead. This is hate crime serial killing. Any black person who happened to cross their path was gunned down. And it was clearly premeditated. Jake England, one of the accused, wrote this on his Facebook page earlier that night: “It just mite [sic] be time to call it quits I hate to say it like that but I’m done if something does happen tonite be ready for another funeral later.”

This is scary for so many reasons. Jake England may have seen himself enacting specific revenge but it seems there is something larger going on. Historically, after a surge in black power there is a retort, a reassertion of white power. After emancipation and Reconstruction came Jim Crow. After the Civil Rights Movement came the rise of mass incarceration, which Professor Michelle Alexander calls “the New Jim Crow” because legalized discrimination against ex-convicts means that they lose all the rights won in the Civil Rights Movement.

(MORE: Michelle Alexander: The Myth of Desegregation)

Now in the wake of the rise of Obama, we see the power structure responding by continuing to implement voter ID laws tailored to functionally disenfranchise poor blacks. We see an increase in violent crimes that target blacks but not specific blacks, any black person will do. So we get people driving cars into blacks in Mississippi and now this in Tulsa. These violent manifestations of hate are not isolated incidents.

The anxiety about Obama’s success has led to many reactions, most of them not physical but still emotionally violent. I sense a widespread anger with the continued discussion of race, as if Obama’s election should have ended the conversation forever, so why are you still talking about it? I see anger toward those who bring it up in media, as if talking about racism is the problem as opposed to racism being the problem. I hear people attempt to silence those of us who discuss these issues by flinging meaningless neologisms like “race pimp,” “race baiter,” and “raceaholic,” phrases that are meant to intimidate and shame and kill necessary conversation. But a horrifying series of hate crime killings requires us to talk, as does the linguistic violence.

(MORE: Why I Speak Out About Trayvon Martin)

One of the weirder linguistic attempts to silence the discussion is the bizarre assertion that commentators are talking about Trayvon and now Tulsa in hopes of starting “a race war.” Not only is that impossible, and indicative of extraordinary cynicism, but it’s directly related to the racist idea that black anger at whites and black lawlessness are interrelated and must be controlled.

Recent polling shows we are more divided on race than we have been in years. I can hear it in the way we talk, with blacks upset that we’re not farther along despite the age of Obama while many whites are upset that we’re still talking about this stuff because we’re in the age of Obama. I can see it in articles like John Derbyshire’s (“The Talk: Nonblack Version”) which asserts that most whites are smarter than most blacks and that whites should avoid situations where there are too many blacks or risk getting hurt. Rather than pulling us together, the rise of Obama has left us more confused than ever. If we cannot find a way to live together and instead must continue living in two Americas, physically entangled but emotionally distant with separate laws, then we will continue the racial cold war we have been waging for centuries. And we can expect more like Tulsa.

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