Terrorism and Politics, Clarified

Yesterday, I wrote:


This kind of terrorism was never as effective as the kind of racist power deployed by the upper classes -- at the University of Chicago, for instance. Indeed, Hirsch's study left me thinking of terrorism as a weapon of the weak -- the unsubdued weak, but the weak all the same. Still, terrorism was a kind of power in Chicago, and Hirsch shows how it made it significantly harder for the advocates of integration to create housing across the city. Think of it like this: Al Qaeda can't end air travel, but it can certainly alter it. Likewise, the White Circle League couldn't stop black succession. But they could seal blacks in and thwart integrations.
Framing terrorism as a weapon of "the unsubdued weak" was cause for protest in comments, in a few e-mails, and even one phone call. I think I should have made it clear that the direct victims of terrorism are even weaker, and that "weakness," itself, is not noble. In other words, it needs to be clear the victims of white terrorism were not rich white developers, but black people who -- at that time -- existed almost beyond the protections of the state. 

During Chicago's race riots, police often arrested victims instead of offenders, and at times would put up only faint resistance to terrorist action. I think bringing Al Qaeda into this muddies the waters. The white terrorists of Chicago were not stateless -- they were often operating on of the same motives and working toward the same ends as people further up the class ladder. Indeed, what is so striking in Hirsch's work is that he demonstrates that the anti-black violence of mid-20th century Chicago was near total. The rioters were not only neighborhood toughs, but old men, working men, women with children. And the riots are only the most obvious part of the story. When once considers the actions of developers and the actions of office-holders, what is revealed is every sector of the city -- its business interests, its government, its people, and sometimes even its churches -- employing its particular weaponry to effect a single goal: the subjugation of black people.

I wish I could say I was being hyperbolic. Except that I'm in the middle of Beryl Satter's Family Properties, and I am seeing the same thing all again. This is not the talk of Illuminati or the Tri-Lateral Commission. This is rigorous scholarly history. And yet here is Hirsch again:

Unable to do anything to alter the plans that shaped their lives, Chicago's blacks responded viscerally, charging the planners with conspiracy and reviving an old strain of nativism in response to their ethnic antagonists. The dimensions of the conspiracy varied. Some believed the "plan" was to drive all blacks out of the area between 12th and 63rd streets; others stretched the territory to be "reclaimed" by whites down to 67th. The same new governmental agencies and powers that frightened white ethnics similarly affected blacks - only the latter saw no communists or subversives. "Land-grabbing" realtors, bankers, businessmen. and institutions provided explanation enough. 

There were as many reasons for the perceived conspiracy as there were villains: Blacks were to be pushed out of their desirable inner-city locations and herded to the outskirts of the city or to undesirable suburbs such as Robbins to make way for Loop workers (there was at least some truth to this - not all conspiracies were fantasies); the dispersal of black population was designed to dilute that community's political strength; the use of eminent domain was intended to reduce black property owners to tenancy. 

Whatever the validity of these contending explanations, the blacks employing them - as the whites who discovered their own conspiracies - were responding to the fact that large forces beyond their influence were controlling their lives, a perception as accurate as it was distressing.
How is it, after all our study and exploration; after all our theories of differing conscience, of labor, of capitol, of class struggle, of agrarianism, and industrialism, of plutocrats and workers, we end up where we started? How are we, again, employed in this same small talk, on this same damn corner? How can it be that in any serious investigation of American domestic policy, knowing nothing of the specifics, you can walk into a room, yell "White Supremacy," and have a 50/50 shot at being right?

History is absurd.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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