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Who should be afraid?

Counting the Cost

Julianne Malveaux | 2/27/2014, midnight

In the years after enslavement ended, Southern Whites did all they could to return to a manner of slavery. No White person “owned” a Black person, but many behaved as if they did. Theoretically Blacks were free to come and go as they pleased, but if they went to the wrong store, sat in the wrong part of the bus, or failed to yield narrow sidewalks to Whites, they could practically expect a physical confrontation. All a White woman had to do was cry “rape” and a Black man (and usually the wrong man) was beaten or lynched. Whites expected deference from Black people, and when they didn’t get it, they demanded it with physical threats or worse.

In the months after World War II, 12 million soldiers returned home from the war. Seven percent of them—nearly 800,000 Black soldiers—got something less than a hero’s welcome. Indeed, thousands of these World II veterans were beaten, often because they wanted the same rights at home that they fought for abroad. Their sense of dignity and equality seemed to embolden the Ku Klux Klan, which was responsible for soldiers in uniform being pulled off busses, beaten and shot. In some cases these soldiers had their eyes gouged out; in some cases they were tortured and lynched.

Whites engaged in the writing of Jim Crow laws that were imposed on Blacks but not Whites; vagrancy laws made it possible to jail a man because he had no money. These unequal laws made it as easy to find a nearly free labor market as it had in slavery. There was no relief from this unfairness until the late 1960s and early 1970s. Whites attempting to reinforce their myth of superiority by reinstituting the practice of deference found a Black population less ready to defer, and more willing to engage the courts (and in some cases the streets) in a quest for equality.

When the myth of superiority does not work, too many Whites hide behind their so-called fear as a way to force deference or provide penalties for those who will not engage in their fantasies. If Michael Dunn were so afraid of Jordan Davis and his friends, why did he get out of his car and confront them about their loud music. None of us, of a certain age, loves loud music, but most of us know how to close a window and tolerate it for a moment or two. Dunn says he was afraid of teens playing “thug” music. Those teens might well have been afraid of him, just as the World War II veterans had been afraid of the KKK. Jordan Davis and his friends might have been as frightened as former slaves were, when they refused to cross the sidewalk into the streets so that Whites could go first. Some of these Black folks ignored their fear and attempted to engage in their citizenship rights. Some were lynched because they would not defer to outmoded customs.

Gary Pearl could be Michael Dunn’s evil twin, with a pecuniary twist. In 1983, Pearl left his job as a city sanitation supervisor in Louisville, Ky. because he says he had a nervous breakdown because he had to work with Black people. A psychiatrist testified that Pearl suffered from paranoid schizophrenia; the judge ordered that he be paid $231 per week. The state appealed the award, it was eventually overturned, and Gary Pearl returned to the obscurity he had before the “fear” defense.