Racism and bigotry is among the most unsavory of realities in United States history. The injury inflicted on America’s soul will forever be a slowly healing wound as a result of the acts of violence and persecution minorities and homosexual communities alike have endured both in the past and present day.
In Jasper, Texas a black man by the name of James Byrd, Jr. became the victim of a crime most Americans hardly believe is still possible. James Byrd, Jr. had no known enemies, and was characterized by his family as a good-natured and loving man who was well liked and always willing to help others. James Byrd had done nothing to provoke his attackers, but James Byrd, Jr. was a black man, and in the eyes of those who sought him out, beat him, chained his body, and dragged him behind a pick-up truck to this death in the small Texas town, James Byrd, Jr. represented all that had gone wrong with the country in which they lived.
This incident became hailed in area and nationwide newspapers a modern day lynching, but it wasn’t the first attack of its kind and surely was not to be the last. Attacks similar to these continue to invade daily news stories around the world and expand to include violence against all minority groups, not just African-Americans, as these random acts of violence also spill over into the gay and lesbian communities as well. These occurrences have quickly been regarded as a re-emergence of one of America’s darkest periods in history where instances such as that of the James Byrd, Jr. case and many others like it came to be referred to as hate crimes.
There are many who argue that racism simply does not exist in modern day America or the rest of the world, and that any suggestion of such racism are merely observations of fanatical individuals who seek to keep America from progressing. However, present day occurrences, underlying subtle instances of discrimination and the ‘old way’ of confronting the race problem, which is practiced by many small town U.S.A. cities, paint a very different picture of the larger existence of present-day race and sexual orientation relations in this country.
Although issues of race are more often emphasized in small towns of the southern United States, issues of discrimination based on sexual-orientation are widespread in cities both large and small, and issues of racism, discrimination, and hate crimes are the ‘in-your-face’ issues documented wherever a newspaper is opened or a television is turned on. To African-Americans and other minority groups living in small Texas towns, discrimination, bias, and racism in small Texas cities such as Jasper, Paris, and Vidor, racism is not dead, but very much alive and well.
Racism is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as ‘The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.’ Racism’s history is firmly rooted in American society and provides a menacing reminder through the belief systems instilled within individuals, learned behaviors, and media coverage, that race and differences among people require a division in order to co-exist amongst each other.
Ignorance and ideologies surrounding concepts of superiority by certain groups merely added fuel to this already volatile and sensitive subject, and posed questions as to where the scourge of racism originated. With the enactment of Jim Crow and Jim Crow laws, it was becoming clear that America intended to manage the race issues it was facing by systematically passing laws to legally separate and segregate the races in an effort to diffuse the mounting race tensions. African-Americans in the southern United States during this period were especially susceptible to these laws as they specifically targeted these regions and sought to use legal means to enforce practices of unequal treatment towards African-Americans. The onset of Jim Crow laws began with the Reconstruction era and the freedoms it provided for African-Americans of the time. Whites felt as though too much equality was being given to African-Americans and that opportunities, which should have rightly been theirs, were taken away. Stereotypical images often surrounded the era of Jim Crow, and these images often served as tools to further degrade and dehumanize African-Americans. The constant use of images, which depict African-Americans with bulging eyes, thick, red lips, and buffoon-like mannerisms along with the portrayal of African-American women as either over-sexed whores for the purpose of justifying interest in them by white men, or unattractive, and undesirable individuals in order to deter that same interest, only further added to the stereotypes African-Americans were often subjected to. Images such as these provide a distasteful look into America’s history while clearly defining the extent to which items such as these would degrade African-Americans during this period of time. Various segregation practices regarding the expectations of behavior in a public sense, as well as in marriage practices were also greatly influenced by Jim Crow laws. In a majority of Southern cities, Jim Crow laws prevailed in nearly every aspect of life and generally outlawed the possibility that African-Americans could live in within a completely free society. While America continued on in its support of the separate but equal doctrines and its inability to successfully establish systems of equality for all racial groups, another groups sought to fashion an institute all their own.
The emergence of the Ku Klux Klan between the 1920’s and 1940’s in America sent waves of terror throughout the African-American community and later expanded to include various other racial groups the Klan deemed unfit to be considered American. Through the use of violent tactics such as beatings and murder by way of lynching, the Klan sought to successfully control ethnic groups, including African-Americans, who were beginning to take a stand and fight for racial equality. What is most disturbing about this era of time is the way in which the mob-like terrorism of the Klan went largely unpunished and that the laws of the land seemed to care little for the victims of the violence the Klan inflicted. During the 19th and 20th centuries the maintenance of white supremacy was among the most important issues for the Klan, but in order to ensure their goals would be accomplished the Klan reigned over much of the South by means of using widespread tactics designed to generate fear among newly established African-American communities to discourage economic advancement, voting, and social status. Many justifiable reasons were given for the senseless lynching of black men in the South during this period of time, the most prevalent of which was the myth that black men had an uncontrolled, animal desire to rape white women, but to the contrary, the justification for mob violence and lynching of black men during this period was often assault and primarily assault against whites. African-Americans during this time period also became competitors of white landowners, and as they became more economically prominent, many white landowners felt threatened and began instilling fear through lynching and mob violence as a means to control these occurrences. Lynching during this time period was often a community affair, and since a great many lynchings occurred in small towns, little was done legally to deter the violence and murder against African-Americans, in fact, it was noted that in these small towns it was not unusual for police and other political figures to be present and participate in lynch mob activity. These instances of violence against African-Americans were not the first of its kind and were merely the tip of the iceberg. As racial violence intensified, and as the legal system continued to uphold separate but equal doctrines and African-Americans lived in continued fear of violence, intimidation, and unfair treatment, the emergence of movements to fight against such intimidation and terror began to take shape in the form of resistance and revolution among the oppressed.
Revolution is often the result of the denial of equality; whether that inequality is by method of denial of basic human rights and dignities, racial animosity, political justice, or imbalances within economic structures. Revolutions occur to provoke change, and revolutions as a whole seek to restore, to some degree, the honor, integrity, and sense of self worthiness often misplaced when social structures become disproportionate. More often than not, disparities such as these lead to violence and conflict amongst those who are in the minority seeking elevation into certain superiorities denied them. Humankind encompasses certain acts of collective violence which varies in its outward appearance. These acts of violence include “terrorism, lynching, feuding, combat, rioting, as well as vigilantism” (de la Roche 103). While these occurrences are flexible in their descriptions, they exhibit varied degrees of distinction in the rationale for their existence.
Acts of violence, such as those inflicted by organized hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, first occur among groups or other persons, where the aggression can be one-sided involving one group, a single individual, or multiple groups, such as an instance of a majority group provoking conflict with a vulnerable minority groups in this case. This is commonly found in acts of terrorism, feuding, rioting, and vigilantism, where opposing sides differ and seek resolution for political injustices by means of retaliatory response. As a mechanism of ‘self-help by a group’ , issues such as these are often met with ‘collective violence’ as a response to the emotions associated with an individual or group in perceived acts of injustice where acts of rioting, looting, and the like are often prevalent. These deprivations of guaranteed human rights often leave groups and individuals with a sense of powerlessness over their circumstances. It is indeed the perception of the minority, who when left helpless over his circumstances by the controlling majority, will choose to revolt as his only means to ensure his dissatisfaction with the majority will be heard. Social pressure from political upheavals often serve as the catalyst for matters of collective violence among groups and individuals. Conflicts arise when these groups experience feelings of hopelessness within their circumstances stemming from violations of their human rights and perceived guaranteed liberties. Violent conflict, in most cases, is typically the result of mounting pressure within political structures and economic systems. Politics, which are extremely influential in spearheading violent clashes are the direct result of the abuses of political and economic controls by the more powerful and often dictatorship oriented majority. Political structures such as these encourage acts of collective violence by first ignoring human rights, and second denying access to the minority to participate in aspects of government within their areas of interest, leading to social inequality. Ultimately, however, the primary objective of the theory of collective violence is to attempt to forecast and propose solutions as to the overall rationale for social turbulence and collective violence.
In his first inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln supported revolt as a means by which to acquire justice in unfair circumstances noting that ‘If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might, in a moral point of view, justify revolution. This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their Constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember it or overthrow it.” (Lincoln 3).
Revolutions take on various forms, revolution by the people, referred to as proletariats, and are generally equated to revolutions initiated by the working class, who institute uprisings against those in power to effect the desired change in their circumstances. In questioning the necessity of revolution and whether human nature is capable of creating a just society, it must be understood that oftentimes in following the pathway to revolution the primary goal of the affected groups are only benefited for a minimal duration in order to fulfill an overall feeling of accomplishment in the introduction of their demands, however, the systematic removal of social organizations such as class and economic status provoke feelings of disillusionment with aspects of governmental control and oppressive dictatorships.
Human nature is incapable of creating just societies within constraints such as these because revolt then becomes the natural reaction when humanity is forced into an oppressive, fear-driven existence. When factors such as these reach their threshold with those who harbor feelings of restraint, revolution against established entities is the common result. The practice of communism is one such political movement which strips away basic human freedoms in exchange for universal social order in which all individuals can benefit. However, ideals such as these are seldom brought to fruition. Given these situations, one must also consider the state of the world as a whole, where there are many cases in which revolution brings about instantaneous change in society. Although instances of revolution are rarely unprovoked occurrences, the success or failure of revolutions are intricate in nature. Human rights activist and Muslim minister Malcolm X, who prior to his acceptance of true Islamic ideals, believed that resistance against oppressive governments was not only necessary, but required. Malcolm X, in his autobiography stated ” ‘We declare our right on this earth…to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.’ (Haley 371).
The state of race relations in the United States continues to be a subject that is sensitive for all racial groups. America’s history in confronting the racial issues and dealing with diversity among its citizens continue to be an ongoing issue, however, tolerance, and understanding can go a long way in the healing of the old wounds inflicted by racism.