Why “Race Riot”? On the Need to Change a Misleading Term

By Steve Light

In memory of Thelma Foote, ever in affection and gratitude.

Among events known as race riots in U.S. history, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, i.e. the destruction by whites of the African-American district of Greenwood, is among the most calamitous, albeit that all such events are immeasurably calamitous. But knowledge of and about this event from the moment of its occurrence until recent times was willfully suppressed in Tulsa and in the country as a whole. On the night of May 31, 1921 and continuing into the morning of June 1, 1921, large groups of whites, many police and other officials among them, impelled by an “alleged,” rumored, sexual assault on a white woman by a black man (who had, thereby, been arrested), descended upon the Greenwood district, an extremely prosperous African-American community, perhaps the most prosperous such community at that time, given that it was known as the Black Wall Street. The result of the attack was that 35 square blocks lay in ruin. Close to 300 people, if not more, were killed, with many more injured, and thousands left homeless. Over 1,250 homes and businesses were destroyed, as well as a school, several churches, and the two black hospitals. The historian, John Hope Franklin, was an 8-year-old survivor of this massacre. Lawsuits on behalf of the black inhabitants for claims of $4 million in lost property and wealth (an enormous sum in those days) at the time and in years following were refused and rejected in every instance.

Of course, the destruction of this black community was only one such event. Such events were not at all uncommon. There were 26 such events in 1919 alone. The 1997 movie Rosewood depicted such an event in Florida where during the first week of January, l923 the African American community of Rosewood was destroyed and a large but undetermined number of African Americans killed.  More recently in 2008 the Tulsa event was made the center of a documentary film by Reggie Turner, Before They Die: A Documentary Chronicling the Tulsa Race Riot, and Benefiting its Survivors.

Yet in the recent attention paid to the Greenwood massacre or to similar events, given the arrival of their centennials, such as the one of Atlanta in l906 and the one of Springfield, Illinois in l908, whether in electronic media or newspapers or in contemporary book titles and book reviews (i.e., Harper Barnes, Never Been a Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked the Civil Rights Movement [New York: Walker & Co., 2008]), and no matter whether it is a question of reporters, historians, writers, academics, etc., the naming and description of this event is always carried by the utilization of the term, “race riot.”  And this is how all such events have commonly been described, i.e.  “the 1906 race riot of Atlanta….” (The New York Times, September 24, 2006), etc. — and even Reggie Turner’s film carries this term in its title.

But what is a “race riot” and what “pictures,” what “meanings” does this term conjure up for contemporary Americans (and people in other countries as well) and what “pictures,” what “meanings” has it conjured up for Americans in past decades?  I know that when I was ten years old I began reading books about African-American history.  And I began to come across the term “race riot.”  Initially, I assimilated the meaning of this term to usages which had developed in the post-1960s period.  I pictured risings and insurrections in Black communities similar to those such as the rising in Harlem in l964, in Watts in l965, in Detroit and in Newark in l967, etc., which risings had become paradigmatic in terms of historical and documentary narratives. But as I read further I found out that these “race riots” of the pre- and the post-World War I period referred to attacks by large groups of whites against minority black communities.  I also read that increasingly after World War I the return home of African-American veterans of the war, combined with an ever increasing assertive and militant posture on the part of African-Americans meant that these attacks were met with resistance where possible (as they had been in the past too). Was it a question then of “fights”, “battles,” between whites and blacks?  In part, but not essentially and not by any encompassing definition, because all the power in numbers, in arms, and in “law” lay on the side of the white attackers. There were efforts at armed resistance in Tulsa but this resistance was overpowered by force of number and circumstance.

So why then did the massacres that took place in Tulsa, in Rosewood, in Atlanta and in other localities come to be depicted as “race riots” I wondered?  It seemed to me, even then as a youth, to be an inaccurate and misleading term.  And I began to realize that the usage of the term “race riot” willfully blurred the specificities of the events, and by this very blurring of specificity, had the precise effect, the precise function of removing blame, of shifting the blame away from the perpetrators of these attacks and massacres.  Which race, whose race? And who is rioting?  And what is the content of the so-called “riot”?  What is being done and in what manner and to whom?  All is left in doubt, all is left muddled in the term “race riot” at the same time that the term leeches meaning — in a distorted and misleading fashion — from contemporary conceptions of “urban riots”.

Yet, a term was already in existence which could have been used for the aforementioned attacks and massacres: pogrom.  What does “pogrom” mean?  “The organized killings of large numbers of people because of their race or religion”; “An organized, often officially encouraged, massacre of a minority group”; “A mob attack and killing either approved or condoned by authorities directed against people and property of a particular racial, religious, or national minority”; [etymology: From Russian, literally: devastation; from gromit: to destroy by use of violence]: etc.  So why was “race riot” used rather than pogrom or even massacre for example?  Of course, socio-historically, socio-politically, politico-historically, and so on and so forth, the answer is and was obvious — but nonetheless….The killing of African-Americans and the destruction of their homes and commercial and institutional buildings and structures in Greenwood was an officially sanctioned event, since scores of whites had been deputized by the police in order to carry out the attacks. Certainly the event could be called a “riot”, but it was a riot by whites.  In that precise sense it was a “race riot,” since the “race,” or at least since the skin color and the continental origin of those attacked was the preeminent reason why those attacked and killed were in fact attacked and killed.  And on the other side all the attackers were white. “Race riot”?  Well, certainly a white racist riot.  But, then, “riot” is rather imprecise since it blurs the willful, the organized nature of such events. Riot?  Well, certainly it is a question of a pogrom against the African-American community.  “Race riot”? No. Rather: a white racist pogrom — of which there were many — and for which events restitution should be made to the survivors and descendants of those who did not survive or who have passed away.  And this restitution should also include a restitution, or rather, to be more precise, the institution of the use of the real — and not the hitherto misleading and blame-shifting — name which would, thereby, carry the real characterization, the real description, the real signification of such events.

 


Afterword

This essay was originally written in 1997, spurred by the fact that the state of Oklahoma had formed the Tulsa Race Riot Commission that year to investigate the Greenwood event.  Alas, and not surprisingly none of the recommendations for reparations and restitution made by the Commission in its final report put forth in 2001 were implemented by any Federal, State, or local agency.  The Oklahoma legislature did pass a bill in 2001 shortly after the Commission issued its findings, The Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act, but it did no more than offer 300 college scholarships to descendants . A lawsuit on behalf of survivors put forth in 2003 by Johnnie Cochran and  Charles Ogletree, Jr. was turned away by a Federal court because it was said to have come “too long” after the event in question and in 2005 the Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal.  Representative John Conyers did introduce a bill in Congress in 2007 and again in 2008 but with the limited aim of facilitating action in courts on behalf of survivors, but it failed to get out of committee. As for this essay, it is only now that it finds itself in print. It appears in virtually the same form as when it was written with the exception of a few factual updates, stylistic changes, and the substitution by more contemporaneous references for the original ones cited in 1997, but with no additional ones past 2009. The reason why this essay only now appears is very simple: it was rejected by every single publication to which I sent it in 1997 and in subsequent years down to and including the present year.  I suppose in one way or another this is in keeping with the aforementioned rejections of restitution and lawsuit.  Now, despite whatever understanding I might have about editorial practices, etc. this fact surprised me, exceedingly, among other emotions and considerations of a stronger form.  I might note, parenthetically, that in the beginning I did receive a reply from an esteemed university-based literary and cultural review, which said: “We agree with everything you say, but we don’t publish op-eds.”  Well, this essay was not written as an op-ed although I did send it to the op-ed pages of several leading newspapers and even if it did belong to the genre in question I am certain that readers of the aforementioned review would not have canceled their subscriptions or otherwise been dismayed in any way. There are a few other anecdotes along this line which I could narrate, but it remained in each case that the essay was not published.

 

 

Steve Light, a basketball point-guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset — and akin as well to Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Earl Boykins — is also a philosopher and poet.

 

 

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