New Haven, CT - Last weekend, two white men went on a shooting rampage in Tulsa, Oklahoma, killing three African Americans and wounding two others. One of the men, Jake England, has suggested the slaughter was meant to avenge the death of his father at the hands of a black man who was not among the killed or wounded. Four days prior to this, one of my students, in a class presentation on American journalism that touched on the civil rights movement of the tumultuous 1960s, innocently used the phrase "race war".
I say "innocently", because he didn't possess a full understanding of that phrase's racist pedigree. He merely tried to capture the tensions and frequent pangs of violence that sprang from that historic uprising. Black Americans mobilised in great numbers to demand that the United States live up to its values and grant the blessings of liberty, equality and justice to all, even Americans whose ancestors embodied the diametric opposite of freedom.
What my student, a self-identified liberal, couldn't have known is that "race war" is a trick of political rhetoric that at the time was meant to mask the dynamics of racism - who was on the receiving end, who on the giving end. Political spin takes on the weight of history if it's repeated enough, and journalists are great at repeating political spin, especially when that spin helps satisfy an item on the checklist of journalistic writing: balance. Balance requires presenting both sides of the story as if they are equal even if they are unequal. Balance, at least in theory, gives the appearance of impartiality but in practice it can distort more than it reveals.
I touched on this recently when I wrote about the media's use of the word "clash" to describe conflicts between law enforcement and protesters of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Last fall, cops in cities around the United States were dressed in body armour, face shields and helmets while wielding various and sundry forms on "non-lethal" weaponry like pepper spray, rubber bullets and sonic grenades. Protesters possessed nothing of the sort. "Clash" implied equal forces, but protesters were targets of police violence. "Clash" not only concealed this reality, but gave credence to the movement's opponents who claimed Occupy Wall Street was merely a carnival of thugs whose calls for justice were illegitimate.
"Race war" similarly distorts reality when used to describe, say, conflict between black protesters and Alabama state troopers in 1965. Protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery during the peak of the civil rights movement and police deployed the "non-lethal" weaponry of the day: fire hoses, batons and dogs.
"Race war" was often brandished as a threat to civil libertarians. Demands to end to apartheid laws in the South, they were told, would spark a race war. Translated: They'd unleash more white violence. Of course, that was half true. White violence had been part of the African-American experience since Europeans brought slaves to the colonies. The only thing new would be a resurgence of white violence. A threat certainly, but hardly a new one.
Representing reality is problematic
As I say, my student didn't know any better, but it was a happy accident that provided occasion to discuss how representing reality is problematic even when you mean well. This led us to a brief talk about "racism", a term that can also be redolent of false balance. It can obfuscate who's doing what to whom and its use can put ideological debates about race on the road to nowhere.
Everyone agreed the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager killed by a neighbourhood watch volunteer, was tragic, but liberals and conservatives disagreed on what caused it. On the left, racism was ultimately to blame. Why else would the shooter, George Zimmerman (who was recently arrested), spot Martin walking around a gated community, call the police, follow him and then later shoot him? On the right, race had nothing to do with it. This was a case of horrible judgment, bad policy and a tragic wrong that should be righted.
These are two views of racism. In one, racism is a concrete social force that exerts power over individuals. In the other, racism is an abstract universal human failing like any other that can be overcome with the right attitude. While the liberal view is often exaggerated, the conservative view does not account for who is doing what to whom. In this case, a half-white man killing a black boy.
The conservative view of "racism" is ambivalent, unmoored from history and freed of its long association with white violence. This has given rise to laughable locutions like "reverse racism" of which conservatives regularly accuse blacks whenever they rage against the racist machine, as Al Sharpton and others did in the wake of Martin's death and the fact that justice did not prevail.
Yet when conservatives say race doesn't matter, what they are saying, hopefully without meaning to, is that white violence doesn't matter - and obviously white violence matters. In US history, blacks did not lynch whites with the blessing of the establishment, but whites did lynch blacks in the name of white supremacy.
Conservatives rightly say blacks kill more blacks than whites kill blacks. But that's another one of those false equivalencies that hides what's really going on. Black violence, even on those very rare occasions when whites are its victims, is scary and unjust, but white violence, especially when the victims are black, echoes through the web of history and can terrorise African Americans into submission. That's been the historical purpose of white violence. If explicit laws and pernicious social norms didn't control you, then the threat of violence did. That's why racism is not about race so much as power - who has it, who doesn't, what's done with it and why.
And power is often above the law. Zimmerman and the man who killed Jake England's dad are equally protected under a similar law that allows you to "Stand Your Ground" when facing life-threatening situations. Neither man was changed, because both claimed they acted in self-defence. But that's where the similarities end. Trayvon Martin's family has appealed to public opinion for justice. Jake England appealed to his gun. The present is a product of the past. To take white supremacy out of racism is to willfully ignore that reality.
John Stoehr is the editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnastoehr
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.