One snowy day in very late 1991 or early 1992, my mother parked the car in the lot down by the river. We got out and walked the half block to a decayed movie palace, now almost unrecognizable after four renovations, for one of the first films written for primarily for adults that I recall seeing on the big screen, Fried Green Tomatoes. One of the scenes therein has the spunky women in the 1930s flashbacks confront a man over his involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. I no longer have a copy of the film to check, but I recall that he denies it. Like any good Klansman, he wore a mask. She pointed to his singular shoe size as evidence of his involvement. Around this time, I read ahead in my history textbook and learned that the Klan adopted its odd rituals and unique dress sense to frighten “superstitous” freedpeople.
For many years, I did not put the things together. I didn’t think much about the Klan, except as a generic group of villains. My textbook didn’t dwell on what they did to actually scare people, only that they did. In 1999, I took my one class on the Civil War, where the teacher went a bit beyond the syllabus to inform us that the freedpeople could see that Klansmen left bodies broken on the ground or hanging from trees. Their horses made the same marks on the ground as any others, not ectoplasm-filled depressions. Probably most of their victims knew, or could make a pretty good guess, as to just which of their white neighbors stood behind the mask.
You don’t hear much from the Klan proper, these days. It has gone over the past handful of decades from a respectable (to whites) organization of white men bent on defending that most sacred and inviolate of American traditions, white supremacy, from the foreign influences of equality, immigration, and integration to a national laughingstock and whipping boy. If white-robed masses once marched on Washington, now when they gather the police appear to protect them from the much larger counter-demonstrations. The familiar hoods and robes come mainly from the Klan of the 1920s rather than the Reconstruction Klan, but both used masks when they felt necessary.
The theatricality served its purposes, then and now. I suspect most of us remember the Klan, when we think about it at all, as a collection of truly vile human beings known for their odd rituals. We know that they opposed the Civil Rights movement and have a record going back to Reconstruction. We might imagine them as violent, but mainly they have these ridiculous costumes. They offer up to us the kind of evil we most like, the sort from the cliche western where every villain declares himself with a black hat and optional kicked puppy. The Invisible Empire announced itself as something clear and distinct, an evil imagined as a country one could go out and conquer or an army to destroy. It even has the kindness to come down to us as a spent and dead force, around which we can do an unearned victory lap.
This memory, so far as it goes, has more historical evidence to support it than many. The Klan did have silly costumes. When one delves deeper into the subject, the violence takes center stage. Together or separately, they can do what stories of martial valor and romantic, nineteenth century manhood do to the memory of the Civil War and distract one from the reason for the whole affair. The Klan did not congeal out of some abstract desire to do evil by their own lights any more than any other group does. They had a politics, just as the original members had had when they signed up for their Confederate uniforms. Though I’ve called them Klan politics for purposes of illustration and brevity, the Klan did not invent them. That honor probably belongs to largely unknown Europeans in the early Chesapeake who discovered, to their delight, their own whiteness and its lack in others. Whatever the name, its practitioners acted in conscious pursuit of that politics, however random and anarchic their campaign of terror might seem from our remove. Black Americans could not live free; they would make sure of it.
A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to “take over” American life
The Klan, as an organization, has seen better days. Its politics have taken a beating too, but not nearly so much as we would like to think. Klan politics had a very good November this year. The Syrian refugees gave my governor, many others, presidential candidates, and congressmen a chance to put join the Invisible Empire. Few demurred. Syrians, as they share part of an address and part of a religion with ISIS/ISIL/Daesh/those murderous fanatics, must embody terrorism to the last particle of their beings. While not African, Klan politics construe the Syrian as similarly other and thus an abomination. In the Twenties, the Slav and the Catholic played the same part.
Hatred of the other in the United States probably must roll downhill to the nation’s most conspicuous other, Americans of dark skin. Even as nineteenth century Americans imagined the Irish as white, if a dramatically inferior sort of white, their racial theories and stereotyping linked them to black Americans. Scholars crafting races measured skulls and affirmed the Irish more apelike, much closer to African than the pure stock variously imagined as Anglo-Saxon, Teutonic, Caucasian, and in later generations Aryan. Thus it made perfect sense to want them controlled, limited, and ideally out of the country. Irish-Americans soon learned the best way to burnish their white credentials: hatred of black Americans. Solidarity with the victim made you a victim, a race traitor, miscegenationist, or other slur of the day. Solidarity with the white supremacist made you part of the club, at least if you worked hard enough at it for long enough.
The classic form of Klan politics remains, of course. To give that up would surrender the entire edifice and leave one open to charges that one should give up the many pleasures of the centuries spent looting lives. Here too, November proved a banner month. A group of Black Lives Matter activists protested outside a police precinct in Minneapolis. Their concern, as usual, involved the police shooting of an unarmed black person, Jamar Clark. For this crime, three white supremacists arrived at the protest and shot five protesters. Since then, others have cruised by brandishing firearms and racial slurs. The perpetrators, unsurprisingly, had the usual sort of interests and affiliations. They even wore masks. One cannot, short of bringing out the white robes, burning cross, and rope, better embody Klan politics.
And then we have Donald Trump. Trump does not wear a mask, but when a protester disrupted one of his campaign events the crowd attacked him. Mercutio Southall committed no greater crime than engaging in a protest chant at a Trump speech. Had Trump pulled a Stephen Douglas of legend and told him off. That probably would have made the news as conduct somewhat unbecoming a presidential candidate. Calling Trump boorish barely registers more than looking askance at his coiffure, but people seeking the White House just don’t behave like that. Or so we tell ourselves. But his supporters launched themselves at Southall, shouting racial slurs and attacking with fits and feet:
I got punched in the face, I got punched in the neck. I got kicked in the chest. Kicked in the stomach. Somebody stepped on my hand
The man himself had a chance to distance himself from the altercation. The Donald could have condemned his fans’ violence. We know he likes to speak his mind. He even anticipated that one of his events might erupt in violence should someone try what Southall did. Did he take responsibility? Did he stand up and say that when he ordered the crowd to remove Southall, he did not mean to start a fistfight? Not quite:
Trump was asked to weigh in on his supporters’ actions on Fox & Friends Sunday morning. “Maybe he should have been roughed up,” he said. “It was disgusting what he was doing.”
Trump supporters have built up a record for this kind of thing. Two men who urinated on a sleeping , Latino homeless man and then beat him credited Trump as their inspiration. He declared
that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.”
On twitter, Trump later decided he doesn’t condone violence. Maybe Trump likes to see and sign off on attacks personally, which he could do in Mercutio Southall’s case.
Members of the Reconstruction Klan in costume
Trump’s actual response involved segregating the media away from his crowds, which calls to mind how the Chicago Police killed Laquan McDonald. McDonald, running from police, went into a Burger King. There he died, with his killer pumping plenty of extra bullets into the body. This all took place last year, but it took until just now for him to face charges. In the interim, we have learned that the Chicago PD destroyed evidence and intimidated witnesses to protect one of its own. They surely regretted the lack of masks at the time, and endeavored to don them retroactively.
I suspect that I could fill a post with events like these most every month. The particulars would change; we shall not always have Donald Trump to give voice to our national hatreds. But we have done these things for a very long time and show little to no inclination to stop. Instead we take each as a carefully isolated event. None constitute a program. None tell us much about the nation. None of them have a politics. They just happen, no more to do with us than the wind and rain. We cast ourselves not as purposeful agents participant in a culture, but as the perpetually innocent and bewildered. Even people with clear white supremacist ties shooting black protesters, or even just ordinary people in church, doesn’t seem like an act of terrorism, though such behavior comes as routinely in our history as elections.
And why would it? Terrorists do things we disagree with. We respect the masks their Klan politics wear. We must, as we wear the same ourselves. To reveal them reveals us.
I have used the first person plural through this and began with a personal story, because I must include myself. The most deadly act of terrorism on American soil took place in 1995. A skinny white guy, in conjunction with another and probably some others that the FBI didn’t find enough evidence on, parked a truck full of fertilizer and gasoline next to the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. It exploded, as he planned, and killed 168 people. On hearing this, the day of the attack, I consulted the roll of media stereotypes in my head and assumed we would watch a band of Muslim men with beards. I did as told; as I had been trained for all my fourteen years. I too wore the mask.
We don’t have to keep wearing it. Federick Douglass used to introduce himself to crowds as the possessor of stolen goods; he stole his body. He had little choice in the matter; we insisted. We imagine we have little choice in the matter, but we also insist upon that. Most of us will never make history. We live ordinary, boring lives. Given the sort of excitement that features in notable lives, you can’t really blame anyone for taking a pass on historical fame. Maybe even all together we couldn’t turn this thing around, take off the mask, and do any better than we have. Maybe even if we did, we have arranged things too well to ever fix. We do things every day that we cannot undo.
We also do things which we say we cannot undo because we do not want them undone. We put on the mask to hide things we don’t want seen. Once slavery seemed permanent too, impossible and even inconceivable to end. Now few of us make excuses for it. The mask works for wearer too.