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Michael B. Roberts: Why do white Americans fear black Americans in 21st-century America?

Michael B. Roberts: Why do white Americans fear black Americans in 21st-century America?

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Michael Roberts

Michael B. Roberts, 72, is a longtime attorney based in Waco.

I’m a black man.

If white Americans are afraid of black Americans, how are black Americans supposed to be feeling? Black Americans did not enslave white Americans, nor are we the beneficiary of its aftermath.

We came to this country as chattel property. The question must be asked: What is our status hundreds of years after our arrival?

Willie Lynch reportedly claimed in 1712 in Virginia that his method of controlling slaves would endure for 300 years or more if applied correctly. His speech was memorialized in a letter titled “The Making of a Slave.” Lynch was a British slave owner operating in the West Indies. His techniques included psychologically and physically torturous behavior visited upon slaves in obviously inhumane fashion. Some have questioned Lynch’s very existence. Some have written that the word lynching was named for him, though the phrase is more likely attributed to another Lynch in 1735. Nonetheless, the impact of slavery on the institution’s descendants remains profound.

One hundred and forty-five years after Lynch gave his speech, the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Jacksonian Democrat Roger Taney, wrote in the Dred Scott case that slaves (black people) “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

And in Waco, 59 years after Taney authored his decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford — one that has long symbolized the fallibility of high court rulings — 17-year-old Robinson farmhand Jesse Washington was brutalized for allegedly killing Lucy Fryer. The illiterate young black was burned and hung, and his body was dragged through the city streets before his dismembered remains were publicly displayed in nearby Robinson. Gutsy civil rights activist Elisabeth Freeman’s chronicling of the incident a few months later for the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine (titled “The Waco Horror”) spread word of the incident far and wide.

I was 7 years old when I saw the misshapen remains of Emmett Till in Jet magazine. Emmett was 14 when he was beaten and shot in Mississippi in 1955. The black teen was killed for supposedly flirting with a white woman. His mother insisted on an open casket so that the world might see the grisly remains of her child. Images of his Chicago hometown funeral are indelibly seared in my memory.

James Byrd Jr., 49, was dragged behind a pickup truck in 1998, murdered by three white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. His headless torso was dumped near a black church and cemetery.

Too many such horrors of hatred exist to recount. Most are not academic references to a bygone era. The racist mindset is alive and well.


Members of the alt-right lead a torch march through the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on Aug. 11, 2017. The next day, one woman was killed and dozens were injured when a self-avowed white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of people protesting the white nationalist gathering.

It’s difficult to describe being black in America. Would my description include feeling ill at ease in attempting to communicate with my white friends about hateful looks and substandard treatment from white strangers and store clerks? Might my description include that Willie Lynch’s methods have survived the generations to permeate my being with thoughts of inferiority? Would it include the reality that black folks are guarded in speech and manner in the midst of white people because we know the history of our people and we know our current circumstances? It is not possible to be black and not know it; reminders of our differences are pervasive. How brutally honest can a black person be in disclosing the pain of racist treatment, yet preserve cordial and professional relationships in the majority society? How does one express the internal pain felt when another black person loses his or her life in a police shooting amidst the stark acceptance that it will happen again till hearts and minds change?

Now, I don’t write to indict white people. The Underground Railroad would not have been as vibrant without the involvement and assistance and kindred spirit of white folks. I am a product of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, founded as Ashmun Institute in 1854 by white Presbyterians and renamed in honor of martyred President Lincoln in 1866. It was this country’s first degree-granting college for black people.

Yet America’s original sin of slavery permeates all of our society, even after the whittling away of Jim Crow laws in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. The legacy of slavery is ever present including the lack of material wealth in black communities. Wealth is often passed down and expanded upon through the generations. It’s hard to win a race when you start far back from those with whom you are expected to compete in society and the workplace.

Those Caucasians who believe that blacks are inferior or even sub-human still exist and, from all indications, not in small numbers. For those white people who wish to return to the good old days — those days are not missed or viewed sentimentally by black folks. They weren’t good.

Those white people who believe in black inferiority are even more dangerous if given a badge and a gun. This can lead to instantaneous, often precipitous decisions born of a combination of sudden circumstances, prejudicial impulses and access to firepower and authority. Black people don’t, as often, get the benefit of the doubt. We get summary execution because we’re considered “suspicious” or “dangerous” or “thugs.” In other words, our fate is determined by subjective considerations of the moment.

Probably all people have prejudices. The real question is whether yours or mine are based in fact or fiction. When the mere appearance of a person heightens concerns, that person tends to lose valuable, constitutionally protected rights based on how he or she looks.

When cut, I bleed red. So do you. All cultures have their idiosyncrasies, values and customs. All have their philosophies, art, clothing, manner of worship and history.

I personally don’t believe any can claim superiority. It takes a lot of ingredients to make good gumbo.

American ingenuity is not all-American. Albert Einstein was not made in America. Neither was Alexander Hamilton. Those who have contributed to our country are citizens from the entire world, including, yes, the non-citizen slaves who physically labored to build our buildings and infrastructure. Other citizens were already here when claim to the land was made.

I believe in trying to love and respect all humanity. I have Muslim friends, Jewish friends, agnostic and atheist friends. I’m unapologetic that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior. Those who believe otherwise would have to invite me to persuade them. For those professed Christians, the greatest commandment dictates the love of God beyond all else. The second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. I don’t believe you can do one without doing the other.

What have my people done to bring you fear?

Michael B. Roberts, 72, is a longtime attorney based in Waco.

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