Two months. That’s how long it took for white Americans’ support of Black Lives Matter—which climbed to an unprecedented peak in June after the brutal police murder of George Floyd—to tumble back toward preprotest levels. Over the same period, surveys show, declining numbers of white respondents cited anti-Black racism as a “big problem” in American society. An NPR/Ipsos poll from late August found white people are the racial group least likely to report taking even the most minor “actions to better understand racial issues in America” since protests began sweeping the country. Just half of white Americans concede “racism is built into the American economy, government, and educational systems.” And 49 percent believe America has already done enough “to give Black Americans equal rights with white Americans.”
It’s always true that most white folks are unbothered and unmoved by anti-Black discrimination and violence; the steadfast endurance of American institutional racism proves that. It is also clear from history that white anti-racism has always had a dangerously short shelf life. Ignore the barrels of digital ink spilled lately about white people’s new willingness to reckon with structural racism. When the pendulum swings toward Black equality and full citizenship, white supremacy mounts a counteroffensive.
Cornell University historian Lawrence Glickman notes the word “backlash” gained circulation during the civil rights movement in 1963 as a shorthand for the “topsy-turvy rebellion in which white people with relative societal power perceived themselves as victimized by what they described as overly aggressive African Americans demanding equal rights.” The term summed up the most reliable white reaction to Black rights dating at least to Reconstruction, when the mere facts of Black emancipation and voter enfranchisement were construed as provocations for justifiable white racist terrorism. Between 1865—when six former Confederate soldiers founded the Ku Klux Klan—and 1950, nearly 6,500 Black men, women, and children were lynched for affronts that included bumping into a white woman and not using “Mister” when talking to a white man. “The more I studied the situation,” wrote Ida B. Wells, “the more I was convinced that the [white] Southerner had never gotten over his resentment that the Negro was no longer his plaything, his servant, and his source of income.”
Refugees of the Great Migration, the mass movement of African Americans to the North and West to flee that terror, were subjected to yet more white violence. Enraged by Black folks seeking equal employment and housing, as well as returning Black World War I veterans’ demands for the rights at home they had fought for abroad, white mobs in at least 25 riots around the country—including in Chicago; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Washington, D.C.—killed over 250 African Americans during the Red Summer of 1919. Those murders foreshadowed anti-Black pogroms in the thriving Black enclaves of Tulsa, Okla., in 1921 and Rosewood, Fla., in 1923.
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The white backlash is typified by what Glickman identifies as “its smoldering resentment, its belief that the movement [for Black rights is] proceeding ‘too fast,’ its demands for emotional and psychological sympathy, and its displacement of African Americans’ struggles with its own claims of grievance.” Case in point: Just months after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, The New York Times reported pervasive white anger over “inverse discrimination.” Then as now, backlashers maligned Black protests and uprisings, insisting property destruction canceled out Black deservedness of human rights. In one 1963 survey, 73 percent of white Southerners and 65 percent of white Northerners said civil rights demonstrations “hurt the Negro’s cause for racial equality,” and multiple white New York City dwellers told the Times in 1964 that “nonviolent civil rights demonstrations had hurt Negroes’ chances” (my emphasis). Historical revisionism has attempted to erase the fact that 75 percent of white folks disapproved of Martin Luther King Jr. in early 1968. In the 1960s, when he was leading protests, a survey found that just 36 percent of white Americans thought he was helping “the Negro cause of civil rights.”
“The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement,” Carol Anderson wrote in her 2016 book White Rage. That rage helped ardent segregationist and presidential candidate George Wallace win five Southern states in 1968 and five primaries in 1972, including Michigan and Maryland. Promises to send “welfare bums back to work” and to defend white home sellers’ right to “discriminate against Negroes” propelled Ronald Reagan to California’s governorship in 1966 and later to the Oval Office. It is right to call the 2016 election of Donald Trump a white backlash against the first Black president—one so fervent, it won poorly educated, college-degree-holding, and young white folks alike—but it is also critical to recognize it as just one white backlash among many. Trump’s presidency is no anomaly but a confirmation of America’s pattern of Black political progress and white retaliation.
So here we are again. White vigilantes have attacked Black Lives Matter protesters nearly 500 times this year. In recent incidents, MAGA racists poured into Portland, Ore., and fired pepper spray and paintballs at protesters from moving vehicles. In Kenosha, Wis., a white 17-year-old who is accused of murdering two protesters was treated like a brother-in-arms by cops. Trump labeled the violence a “big backlash,” without realizing what he was admitting about the tradition of white American terrorism. And despite the violence of white actors, protesters are being demonized for stating unequivocally that Black folks have a right to exist. The dwindling white support for that declaration is a reaffirmation that white liberals and moderates, to quote King, are “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” and will always opt for “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” White supremacy is again making its resilience known. And the backlash, sadly, is only getting started.