On the Persistence of White Progressivism
As a black feminist scholar specializing in nineteenth- and twentieth-century African American women’s history, I often turn to the archives in search of the voices of women like Ida B. Wells, a famed anti-lynching activist and journalist. One of the joys of archival research is that it can sometimes take us on detours and unexpected journeys through the past. As researchers, we must be wary of the notorious “rabbit hole,” which can trap unsuspecting scholars in a never-ending spiral away from their intended destinations. But sometimes, stumbling into the unknown can surprise us with the historical context that we never thought we needed. Such was the case when my research in the Ida B. Wells Papers at the University of Chicago Library led me to reflect on the persistence of white progressivism.
I happened to read an article, “A Wicked Libel,” written by an unknown author in the May 30, 1892 issue of the Memphis Appeal-Avalanche. The article was a response to a Chicago Inter-Ocean political cartoon by Thomas Nast about how lynchings threaten American democracy. The writer begins by explaining, “Considering the circumstances, the colored race have made wonderful progress in education and in the accumulation of property. With this progress there has sprung up a respect for him among the better class of whites. The chief trouble now comes from the ignorant whites, who begin to see the superiority of the colored people in acquirements. It is largely from this class that the mobs and the lynching come.”
Later, the author states, “It is quite true that the press of the South has protested against the lynchings, because justice, working through the courts, is swift and sure in the South. But it is false and wicked to make it appear to the Northern mind, as the Inter-Ocean strives to do, that the lynchings of the South are without cause, and that the hanging of negroes is due merely to a spirit of malevolence on the part of the whites toward the blacks. When an unprotected woman is assaulted, whether the crime take place in New Hampshire, Oregon or Texas, chivalrous men in the neighborhood forget there are such things as courts, and they at once seize a rope. This is human nature, and it is quite the same the world over.”
I was immediately struck by how closely the article mirrored ideas that remain prevalent today. First, it established a dichotomy between exceptional black people who are intelligent and rich, and those who fail to meet middle-class standards of respectability. Second, it suggested that “the better class” of whites do not perpetuate racism; rather, violent racists are “ignorant” whites who feel threatened by black people’s social mobility. Third, in spite of evidence to the contrary, the article posited that African Americans can rely on judicial systems to provide justice. Fourth, it asserted that there is a valid reason for extrajudicial killings – whether it be nineteenth-century lynchings, or contemporary police violence—and that such attacks cannot be attributed to white racism. To make an argument to the contrary would be “false and wicked.” Fifth, the article assumed that black men pose a threat to defenseless white women, who, naturally, must be avenged by chivalrous white men.*
Although the article initially appears to sympathize with African Americans, its ultimate aim is to defend white people from allegations of racism. Much like in the contemporary moment, when African Americans are frequently accused of “race-baiting” or charged with being “the real racists” for critiquing white supremacy, a seemingly progressive writer was more preoccupied with protecting white people’s reputations than protecting African Americans from real threats of violence.
In the course of my research on black women’s intellectual history, my detour proved to be instructive for evaluating the persistence of white progressivism. It also offered important context for interpreting the political climate in which black women’s theorizing and activism took shape. Hidden treasures occasionally appear in the archives. While they may temporarily lead us astray, they can nevertheless help us to understand the historical moments that we seek to engage.
- Nneka D. Dennie, PhD
*Similarly, NBC News reports that on Sunday June 27, 2015, Dylan Roof proclaimed “I have to do this because you are raping our women and taking over the world” as he killed nine African Americans in the Mother Emanuel AME Church.