It may not have been the proximate cause, but I have to think that the economic, social, cultural, and intellectual vibrancy of Tulsa’s Black community gave the racist massacre in Tulsa in 1921 an intensity seldom seen. It must have been a too unambiguous refutation of the Big LIe of racism, that is, African American people are innately inferior, for the Black community in Tulsa’s Greenwood District not to escape the wrath of white racists in high as well as low places in Tulsa.
After all, this lie is the ideological underpinning of a whole system and structure of racism as well as the rationale for white privilege, corporate superprofits, and warmaking. Though the rationalizations for racism and inequality evolve and adapt to new circumstances, if you dig down enough – and in many instances you don’t have to dig down very far – you will still find the false notion of Black inferiority at the ground floor legitimizing racist practices, policies, and structures.
But the varied and notable achievements of African American in the Greenwood neighborhood gave lie to this Big Lie. By the force of their creative labor and intellectual acumen, Black Tulsans demonstrated for all to see that they were every bit as equal – and then some – to white Tulsans. And white Tulsans for their part couldn’t abide that reality, a reality which was so contrary to their understanding of the world and their place in it.
Or to put it differently, they couldn’t adjust their thinking to this historical reversal. The thought didn’t elicit admiration from them, but racist fury. And what followed was not only a racist assault on African Americans in Tulsa, but a total war to annihilate the Greenwood District in toto and then to erase this bloody massacre from our collective memory. To a large degree, they were successful. If the Tulsa massacre had any place in our memory, it was as a “race riot,” not worthy of national attention or remembrance.
That’s beginning to change, and no doubt President Biden’s appearance and speech in Tulsa helps out in that regard. But one day of witness is only a beginning. Much more needs to be done, including teaching the role, function, and history of white racism to white Americans.