The way things have been shaping up this past year and a half, Missouri has become the Alabama of this generation’s civil rights movement (Black Lives Matter). From the year long civil unrest that unfolded in Ferguson, to the Saint Louis demonstrations against police terror in black communities, to now, the recent events that have transpired on the campus of University of Missouri (Mizzou), Missouri has been situated in the center of an ongoing dialogue of race, policing, and mass incarceration.
The student movement at Mizzou began when a graduate student, Jonathan Butler, went on a hunger strike to protest the University administration’s luke-warm response to the recent instances of racism that have surfaced around campus. Butler petitioned to go on a hunger strike until president Wolfe filed for resignation. Butler, out of protest, has used his body as an instrument of direct action. Days went by and Butler’s body begins breaking down. News about his worsening condition circulated the web, raising awareness to the student’s bravery, the unresolved cases of racism present in the university, as well as the cold inaction of a university administration to do anything about it. But, just then, something amazing happened. The football team took a stand in solidarity with Butler by refusing to play or practice in any of the university’s football games. Following this boycott, students around the university made collaborative efforts to see the resignation of president Wolfe and that the racism on campus be brought to the center stage of discussion. This movement picked up steam. Eventually, president Wolfe was forced out of office. Victory was won, photoshoots were taken, Jonathan Butler was given something to eat, and the university triumphed over its racist legacy in a single bound. Roll credits, right?
Well, not exactly.
It’s true that the students at Mizzou have reached an incredible victory—a victory that was the result of direct action, intelligent planning, and unity. However, the celebration of such an incredible feat was short lived as death threats were made against the black student protesters just a day later. One of their fellow classmates; a 19 year old white male, made a statement on Yik Yak, “I’m going to stand my ground tomorrow and shoot every black person I see.” Other terroristic threats were made against MU’s Oldham Black Cultural Center. Social media buzzed with hostile remarks such as, “Some of you are alright. Don’t go to campus tomorrow” or “Tomorrow, Mizzou will really make national news.” Other reports detailed a group of black students who were aggressively cornered in a parking lot by an unmarked blue pick-up truck. Some have even rumored that the Missouri Ku Klux Klan made an appearance on campus.
The hostility these black student activists received was profound. This visceral response, to what can only be considered an inch of Black progress, mimics the racist southern hostility imposed against the student demonstrators of the Civil Rights Movement. This type of response, however, should be expected whenever racism is exposed and especially when there is some semblance of triumph over it. It should come to no surprise that black students, who live in a historically racist environment, who exposed racism on campus and successfully organized a movement that held administrators accountable for inaction, would be on the receiving end of a racist reaction. This, however, unearths a term that has been familiar to the black community for centuries: White backlash.
What exactly is it?
The white backlash, basically, is white supremacy reacting after being stripped from its barriers of caution and politeness. It is racism set in a frantic mode of defense. This is a response to any measure of Black progress and when institutions of racism and control are put on trial. We’ve seen this for centuries. When the slaves were emancipated, southern whites raided black farms, churches, and towns. When the period of reconstruction offered promising signs of black political and economic mobility, the white politicians reacted by harping on white anxieties for votes, and after having been elected, signed multiple pieces of segregation bills into law. When Tulsa Oklahoma (the black wallstreet) was a bustling center for economic prosperity during a time when white communities were impoverished, the United States government bombed it into obscurity. When the civil rights movement picked up steam the Klu Klux Klan strengthened its membership and a series of terroristic attacks took place against black churches, offices, and homes. Eventually, the civil rights leaders became the targets for U.S sanctioned assassinations. In school we were taught that it ended there. But it didn’t.
After the success of the Civil Rights movement white politicians and police chiefs developed a “get tough on crime” movement which aimed to control black urban populations in cities where civil disobedience was a popular liberation strategy. This law and order movement spiraled out of control during the Reagan administration after he declared the War on Drugs. From there on, prison populations boomed, police became militarized, and Black communities found themselves subject to permanent occupation and under heavy scrutiny from municipal courts and law enforcement agencies.
Even more recently, the white backlash has responded to the Black Lives Matter movement. Since this summer, we’ve seen nearly 18 black churches burn to the ground, the climactic tragedy of the Charleston massacre, the bombing of an NAACP building in Colorado, and a general resurgence of radical anti-black terrorism. In other words, the white backlash is VERY real. It has resulted in numerous cases of injustice and tragedy. It’s no question whether the death threats at Mizzou must be taken seriously.
What’s more, we have to look at this backlash for what it is—a sign of progress. These are the terrorizing signs of change. Although wrapped in promises of death, the white backlash serves as an indication of black mobility. Such a response should actually be reassuring, really. For the half century that followed in the shadow of the civil rights movement, America blanketed its racism under a thinly sewn veil of colorblindness and denial. This type of thinking has done little to address racism. Rather racism was immunized from public discourse. Our colorblind rhetoric has managed to become a safe haven for racist attitudes to run rampant.
However, as the situation at Mizzou demonstrates, the white backlash to black progress releases racism from its colorblind restraints, making it less resilient, less deniable, and difficult to ignore. This generation can no longer sit complacently with the accomplishments of generations past. We can no longer deny that a problem exists. We can no longer look at older generations with a naive curiosity without first thinking of the racism present in our generation.
In the words of Dr. King, “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be properly dealt with . . . injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.” (Martin Luther King Jr, Why We Can’t Wait pg. 85)
To the student activists at Mizzou:
You are leading a flagship example of student activism. Your accomplishments are great and I pray that many more victories will come. As you gaze into the hallow eyes of your enemy do so without feeling deterred. Such a beast will kick, moan, wail, and scream, but you must keep pushing forward. Remember, your anxieties may be great, but your support is much greater! Live with your head in the lion’s mouth, because that’s where change happens! Raise hell in there!