Just before the Thanksgiving break, flyers appeared on the University of Tennessee at Martin campus asking if students were “PROUD TO BE WHITE?” and suggesting that if they were, they should “Contact Like-Minded People” – giving a website address. A second flyer read, “HEY, WHITE MAN … JUST WHAT IS IT GONNA TAKE TO GET YOU TO FIGHTBACK?” Under this headline the flyer depicted in cartoon-fashion a huge goonish-looking black man, drooling, his eyes hungrily lusting over a dazed and battered looking white women he is dragging along beside him. Looking on from behind we see a frowning white man, his shoulders stooped, his hands in his pockets, his body facing the wall, his head turned, staring at the couple, obviously upset by what he sees, but seemingly unable to do anything about this “horror.”
“Hey, White Man” perpetuates an old, old stereotype about black men’s supposed uncontrolled sexual aggressiveness, a stereotype that whites have used to justify murdering and jailing black men thousands and thousands of times. Making it all the more dangerous is the fact that most of our students do not understand the history of this stereotype or the oppression out of which whites created the stereotype. Because they do not understand this history, they more easily buy into the stereotype.
Here is the grim reality: white men created this stereotype by projecting onto black men the white man’s own practice of sexual aggression –white men’s rape of black women. White male slave-owners, with absolute control over their human “property”, raped black women with complete impunity. To understand the “Hey, White Man” cartoon, reverse the colors in the cartoon and you have the truth: the brutish, sinful, animalistic white man, salivating over the black woman he owns, as the black man, his hands at times literally chained behind his back, can do nothing but look on sadly. This is the reality we’ve turned on its head, making the victims – black men and women – into the villains.
Unfortunately, not many people in the United States know this real history. But we all know the stereotype, and in the recesses of our hearts, many of us still hold the stereotype as true.
The hardness of the times in which we live make young white people all the more vulnerable to white supremacy. Many folks around here, our students, their parents, are struggling to make ends meet. Many of us are living month-to-month, hand-to-mouth, racking up credit card debt, or pay-day loans. In an environment in which more and more of us find ourselves scrambling for survival, blaming black people for economic problems becomes increasingly attractive to young whites today.
Compound these vulnerabilities with the sexual ignorance and insecurities of many young men as they enter adulthood and we have a perfect storm of anger and confusion that opens up the road to explicit white supremacy for many of our young white men.
Luckily, the university’s Chancellor gathered and destroyed as many of these flyers as people could find. Yet, the danger is still here, not because we failed to get every flyer, but because we have young people at our school who are susceptible to this type of explicit white supremacy.
We have only one way in which we can secure the minds of our young white people, safeguard them from the appeals of this new old white supremacy: teaching them the truth about race in this country, the truth about the role that black people have played in building this country, the truth about the unfairness and cruelty and indifference of far too many whites, and the tremendous courage and resilience of black people resisting their oppression. A required class in African American history. That kind of required class, that kind of ongoing discussion, is the only proof we have against open white supremacy making deeper and deeper inroads onto our campus and into our society.
The real test for our campus is not how loudly we denounce white supremacy, how “disgusting” we find it, but how steadfastly we commit ourselves to really educating our students in the history of this country, a country born in white supremacy.
UT Martin needs a required class in African American History.
This article was originally published by History Network News.
David Barber is a professor of History at the University of Tennessee at Martin and the author ofA Hard Rain Fell: SDS and Why it Failed and a recent essay, “The Failure of Higher Education: A Tale of Two Diplomas.”