Tulsa: P45’s Pivot on Date Flunks

Editors’ Note: Reposted from The New York Times, June 18, 2020.

By Paul Krugman

Smoke billowed up from fires set during the Tulsa Race Massacre in June 1921.

Tulsa race riot, June 1921.

When Trump campaign officials scheduled a rally in Tulsa, Okla., on June 19, they sent what looked like a signal of approval to white supremacists. For June 19 is Juneteenth, a day celebrated by African-Americans to mark the end of slavery. And Tulsa was the site of the 1921 race massacre, one of the deadliest incidents in the long, violent offensive to deny blacks the fruits of their hard-won freedom.

It’s now being claimed that the Trump campaign didn’t understand the date’s significance, but I don’t believe that for a minute. President Trump did, grudgingly, push the rally back one day, but that was surely because he and his inner circle were surprised by the strength of the backlash — just as they’ve been surprised by public support for the Black Lives Matter protests.

But let’s talk about Tulsa and how it fits into the broader story of racism in America.

Joe Biden has declared that slavery is America’s “original sin.” He’s right, of course. It’s important, however, to understand that the sinning didn’t stop when slavery was abolished.
If America had treated former slaves and their descendants as true citizens, with full protection under the law, we would have expected the legacy of slavery to gradually fade away.

Freed slaves started with nothing, but over time many of them would surely have worked their way up, acquiring property, educating their children and becoming full members of society. Indeed, that started to happen during the 12 years of Reconstruction, when blacks briefly benefited from something approaching equal rights.

The corrupt political deal that ended Reconstruction empowered Southern white supremacists who systematically suppressed black gains.

But the corrupt political deal that ended Reconstruction empowered Southern white supremacists who systematically suppressed black gains. African-Americans who managed to acquire some property all too often found that property expropriated, either through legal subterfuge or at gunpoint. And the nascent black middle class was effectively subjected to a reign of terror.

Which is where Tulsa fits in. In 1921 the Oklahoma city was the center of an oil boom, a place to which people in search of opportunity migrated. It boasted a sizable black middle class, centered on the Greenwood neighborhood, which was widely described as the “black Wall Street.”

And that was the neighborhood destroyed by white mobs, who looted black businesses and homes, killing probably hundreds. (We don’t know how many because the massacre was never properly investigated.) The police, of course, did nothing to protect black citizens; instead, they joined the rioters.

Not surprisingly, violence against African-Americans who managed to achieve any economic success discouraged initiative. For example, the economist Lisa Cook has shown that the number of blacks taking out patents, which soared for several decades after the Civil War, plunged in the face of growing white violence.

Violent repression helped drive the Great Migration, the movement of millions of blacks from the South to Northern cities, which began five years before the Tulsa massacre and continued until around 1970.

Even in Northern cities, blacks were often denied opportunities for upward mobility. For example, in 1944 white transit workers in Philadelphia went on strike — disrupting war production — to protest the promotion of a handful of black workers.

But discrimination and repression were less severe than in the South. And one might have hoped that the terrible saga of black repression would finally have wound down after the Civil Rights Act, enacted a century after Emancipation, put an end to overt discrimination.

Unfortunately, for many African-Americans Northern cities turned into a socioeconomic trap. The opportunities that lured migrants disappeared as blue-collar jobs moved first to the suburbs, then overseas. Chicago, for example, lost 60 percent of its manufacturing employment between 1967 and 1987.

When the loss of economic opportunity led, as it usually does, to social dysfunction — to broken families and despair — all too many whites were ready to blame the victims. The problem, many asserted, lay in black culture — or, some hinted, in racial inferiority. Such implicit racism wasn’t just talk; it fueled opposition to government programs, up to and including Obamacare, that might help African-Americans.

And when the loss of economic opportunity led, as it usually does, to social dysfunction — to broken families and despair — all too many whites were ready to blame the victims. The problem, many asserted, lay in black culture — or, some hinted, in racial inferiority.

Such implicit racism wasn’t just talk; it fueled opposition to government programs, up to and including Obamacare, that might help African-Americans. If you wonder why the social safety net in the U.S. is so much weaker than those of other advanced countries, it comes down to just one word: race.

Strange to say, by the way, that you didn’t hear many people engaging in comparable victim-blaming a few decades later, when whites in the eastern heartland experienced their own loss of opportunity and a rise in social dysfunction, manifested in surging deaths from suicide, alcohol and opioids.

The good news is that America may be changing. Donald Trump’s attempt to use the old racist playbook has led to a plunge in the polls. His Tulsa stunt appears to be backfiring. We are still stained by our original sin, but we may, at long last, be on the road to redemption.

As I said, then, while slavery was America’s original sin, its dire legacy was perpetuated by other sins, some of which continue to this day.

The good news is that America may be changing. Donald Trump’s attempt to use the old racist playbook has led to a plunge in the polls. His Tulsa stunt appears to be backfiring. We are still stained by our original sin, but we may, at long last, be on the road to redemption.

 



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