Herb Strentz: White residents of Tulsa 100 years ago could not bear the success of Black citizens any more than Republican legislators today can bear the notion of communities of color helping to vote them out of office.
With all the dreams about achieving “herd immunity” to counter the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worrying to consider how our nation may have already achieved a kind of “immunity” from the promise of our constitution.
Columnist Paul Krugman suggested as much in a recent column called “The banality of democratic collapse.” He was referring to democracy, not the Democratic Party.
He warned, “America’s democratic experiment may well be nearing its end. That’s not hyperbole; it’s obvious to anyone following the political scene.”
And Krugman noted,
White rage has been a powerful force at least since the civil rights movement.
What’s different this time is the acquiescence of Republican elites. The Big Lie about the [2020 presidential] election didn’t well up from the grass roots — it was promoted from above, initially by Trump himself, but what’s crucial is that almost no prominent Republican politicians have been willing to contradict his claims and many have rushed to back them up.
Krugman’s reference to “white rage” resonated as I was struck in recent months on how the voter suppression efforts in GOP-controlled state governments — including Iowa — were under way as we began to mark the centennial of the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma. More than 300 Black citizens were murdered in the fires and rampage that destroyed the Greenwood District of Tulsa, commonly called “The Black Wall Street.”
White residents of Tulsa 100 years ago could not bear the success of Black citizens any more than Republican legislators today can bear the notion of communities of color helping to vote them out of office.
Too damning of GOP governance? Consider the suppression actions of state legislatures and then take a look at what internet sources will report on thousands of lynchings and the executions of civil rights martyrs by the Ku Klux Klan, white law enforcement officers, and others infected by “white rage.”
The diabolic contrast between legislative efforts to undermine civil rights and the record of our nation’s systemic racism suggested an evil game of “mock the martyrs,” in which those in power deride the sacrifices made by those who stood for equality, and the loss of those who died simply for being Black.
Only, it is wrong to call it a “game” when what it is is an atrocity — an atrocity from which we risk having herd immunity.
Herb Strentz was dean of the Drake School of Journalism from 1975 to 1988 and professor there until retirement in 2004. He was executive secretary of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council from its founding in 1976 to 2000.
Top image: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, who were murdered in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. Photo group originally published on the Southern Poverty Law Center website.