Oklahoma was the site of one of the most heinous acts of racism in American history. I’m not referring to a video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers from the University of Oklahoma singing about why, though they might “hang from a tree,” “there will never be a nigger in SAE.” I’m talking about what happened in the Greenwood section of Tulsa in 1921, recapped on its 90th anniversary by the New York Times:
On May 31, 1921, hundreds of armed white men gathered outside the courthouse where the man was being held, and a group of armed black men arrived to prevent a lynching. A shot was fired. The black men fled to Greenwood, and the white men gave chase. The battle that ensued, enabled by the Tulsa police chief, who deputized hundreds of white men and commandeered gun shops to arm them, lasted through the night and well into the next day.
What those white men did was lay waste to the prosperous Greenwood neighborhood, colloquially known at the time as “Negro Wall Street.” As many as 300 people were killed and more than 8,000 left homeless. About 40 blocks were annihilated. That included more than 1,200 homes, many of which were looted prior to their destruction. And guess who got blamed for this white violence?
A grand jury at the time blamed the black community for the riot. No one was convicted of participating in the riot; no one was compensated for lost property.
Greenwood was a different era, to be sure. Black people aren't being massacred by the state. But they are still being blamed for their own deaths at the hands of police, part of a broader American tradition of blaming black people for the violence, racism, and discrimination perpetuated against them. We received two more reminders of this tradition on Wednesday morning, with Senator John Cornyn’s blithe dismissal of President Barack Obama’s concerns about voter suppression and in an embarrassing episode on MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" about the racist frat video.
"Morning Joe" host Mika Brzezinski reserved her outrage not for the two expelled students but Atlanta rapper Waka Flocka Flame, who backed out of an encore performance at the fraternity chapter over his disgust at the video. “If you look at every single song, I guess you call these, that he’s written, it’s a bunch of garbage,” Brzezinski said. “It’s full of n-words, it’s full of f-words. It’s wrong. And he shouldn’t be disgusted with them, he should be disgusted with himself.” Co-host Joe Scarborough and The Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol ignored that one of the expelled students wrote in his Tuesday apology that "Yes, the song was taught to us." They jumped in instead with fossilized arguments about hip-hop’s largely white audience learning racist terms not at home, but by listening to rap music.
What Cornyn did was considerably less clumsy and more insidious, but no less important. In an extensive interview with Yahoo’s Meredith Shiner, the senior U.S. senator from Texas addressed Obama's weekend speech in Selma, where the president advocated for a fix to the Voting Rights Act. As Shiner noted, Cornyn, who enforces voting discipline in the U.S. Senate, became the first top GOP Congressional leader to say that Congress should not take up legislation to amend the Voting Rights Act. He echoes Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’s justification for undermining the act: "I think," Cornyn said, "we’ve come an awful long way."
Cornyn said there are “some who want to continue to drive divisions and create phony narratives,” but he wasn’t referring to the false alarm Republicans sound about voter fraud:
I think Eric Holder and this administration have trumped up and created an issue where there really isn’t one. For example, the attorney general sued my state for requiring a voter ID, saying somehow that suppressed minority votes, when you can get one for free.… [A] lot of this is, I think, theatrics, to try to create division where there isn’t [any]. That, to me, is one of the shames of … the first African-American president of the United States. You would think this would be a great time of national pride and great national healing, but unfortunately, this president has tried to use his bully pulpit and his presidency to try to cause division, and that’s a shame.
Cornyn claims that Obama's the one creating division, not the Republicans who refuse to act to protect disenfranchised voters. And yet, nearly 400 voter restrictions have been enacted by states since 2011, there are many examples of just how onerous it can be for some of his own constituents to get that free voter ID. But Cornyn would rather put the blame on, as he was careful to note, the first African American president of the United States.
To Cornyn, those who merely point to obvious and proven voter discrimination, let alone advocate that it end, are provoking racial division. The "Morning Joe" crew employed the same logic for racial slurs.
Blaming white utterances of “nigger” on black people who say “nigga” is a frustratingly resilient bit of rhetorical dreck in our racial discourse. But what Brzezinski and her panel were also saying is that Waka Flocka Flame is the pot calling the kettle “nigger,” so to speak; that Waka’s disgust is invalid because he dares use the word. This line of thinking ignores the long history of the word, which obviously predates the creation of rap, but its real purpose is to silence a lot of black critics who keep the slur in their vocabulary.
This is no defense of Waka, an awful rapper whose tracks sound like they come from a "Chappelle’s Show" skit about awful rappers. But Scarborough went on to imply that these white frat boys who go to college in Oklahoma, of all places, didn’t know the word prior to listening to a Waka song or that they somehow were inspired by a Waka verse. From where did they learn the word “nigger”? Probably from the same source Waka, I, and so many other people originally encountered it: white people who uttered it in our direction.
You can survey Waka’s lyrics if you like. I couldn’t find a reference to hanging us from a tree, not that it matters. As the Oscar-winning musician John Legend tweeted in jest this morning, perhaps we should blame Kanye West because his on “Blood on the Leaves” samples Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” ("Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees"). Arguing that a rapper’s music means he can’t be upset about Oklahoma frat boys sprinkling a racial slur through their lynching rhyme makes about as much sense as blaming Obama for raising the specter of voter suppression.
“Strange Fruit” evokes a United States where domestic terrorism, often officially sanctioned or executed, was as rampant in cities and on back roads as it was that May day in Tulsa, 1921. But even if one would argue that episodes of racial hatred like the Greenwood massacre have become less obvious and frequent, the blaming of that hatred on the hated has continued. Racism has deep roots in our institutions and culture, but its permanence is achieved when we forget those roots, and instead let people curse the fruits of the tree.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Cornyn schedules votes in the Senate. As the majority whip, he rounds up votes. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell schedules them.