Currently in my history course I am having the privilege to learn about the civil rights movement in America ranging from the end of slavery in 1850 to the election of Barack Obama in 2009. One constant discussion that I have noticed popping up in class is about the motivations of some white people to commit such atrocities towards people of my race. As a result I began to wonder whether ‘fear is a legitimate justification for the oppression of black people.’
One argument that has been raised is that many people were motivated by their fear. The argument entails that white people were scared of the threat of releasing slaves. This fear of the unknown was very prevalent in the US climate because people were worried about what could happen with the rising power of black people. In other words ‘it was one thing to tame the lion and keep it in a cage but would those same people be ready to release it and face its rage?‘ To a certain extent, I understand the argument. However, I don’t believe it is legitimate enough to justify the actions carried out by the perpetrators.
In some instances such as interracial relationships or friendships, if you were caught by extremist groups such as the KKK those who were known as “nigger lovers” would be subject to the same conditions as their black counterparts. Consequently, when it came to saving their own/family lives, disassociating yourself seemed like the best alternative.It was either your life or theirs. When you are put in such life threatening positions the most obvious option is to save yourself. Therefore, it was better be a passive bystander than an active citizen (especially in a country where the majority would be against you). In these circumstances I can understand to an extent their rationality. I haven’t been in such a situation (and God forbid that I ever will) so I can’t judge them for the decision that they took.
However, these people were the minority so I can’t deny the fact that if there were more active citizens standing up against the injustice then change could have occurred a lot quicker. Yet again, having said that, I live in a relatively liberal society where the government generally listens to large scale demonstrations or dissatisfaction. Maybe at the time, the same sort of ‘protest’ wouldn’t be as effective.
Regardless of this claim, we can’t forget the most important stakeholders in this situation, the victim! In such a situation it was always the black person who was severely punished. The white person had a chance to get off ‘scot free‘. Even though the chance might be minimal, it was still a chance – one that the black person wouldn’t get. Furthermore, no one would care for the victims family. As a matter of fact the family would be at more risk because they were associated with such a ‘criminal’ which then ‘blacklisted’ them within their own community. With the increasing segregation of the two races, especially during the period of the Jim Crow laws, any interaction amongst the races seemed risky and stupid.
But…. Where do we draw the line between an excuse and justification? How far down the line do we say that your fear is acceptable to be acted upon? I understand being afraid of the unknown but how can the mass lynchings, oppression or racism still be a justifiable solution? If we forever lived in fear then we would have an unbroken and dismantled world. One where a society couldn’t function since all we act upon are our prejudices.
When you are scared of something, surely the first thing you do is avoid the fear? Surely at some point, you ask yourself, why are you scared? Then you try to find a way to cure the fear. Just like an illness- you detect the symptoms, diagnose the illness then you treat it! However, from the history I have learnt, people haven’t taken those precautionary measures. Maybe it is because they have ‘diagnosed’ their ignorance but don’t want it to be treated or they just don’t want to diagnose it in the first place. In these cases the fear isn’t justified, its just an excuse.
In many cases using fear as an excuse is the easy way out. It’s easier to keep fighting than to accept defeat. Why? This is because, I believe we inherently have a culture of blaming others to defend ourselves. It is easier for me to say that you’re wrong, than to confess that I am! It is easier for me to blame my teacher for my bad grades than to accept that I could have done better had I spent more time revising. It is easier to keep arguing with someone even though you know you are wrong. Why? It is probably another one of those natural human habits that we can’t help but do!
However, it takes a brave person to accept that they’re wrong! It takes an intelligent person to get to know someone before they believe their preconceived assumptions. This is a lesson I have learnt throughout History to this present day. During the Holocaust, many Jews feared for their lives but they didn’t stop being Jewish! During and since the Orlando shootings, the LGBTQ+ community didn’t stop being who they were! So why should I? I can’t physically stop being black! I can’t mentally stop being black and I never will! Just because some people don’t accept me for my melanin doesn’t mean I will! Yes, I live in fear for my life and many others because my existence is already a political statement. However, trying to oppress another community isn’t the answer!
In response to the question: Is fear a legitimate justification for the oppression of black people, my answer is NO! It will always be NO! Why? Fear is just an excuse. We don’t have time for excuses because we need solutions so we don’t keep asking ourselves these questions for decades to come.
Featured Image Source: Sophisticated Ignorance