3 Tropes of White Victimhood

Leading conservative pundits today are pounding themes that were popular among opponents of Reconstruction.

Alamy; The Atlantic

In the conservative world, the idea that white people in the United States are under siege has become doctrine. In recent weeks, three prominent figures have each offered their own versions of this tenet.

In June, Brian Kilmeade, one of the hosts of Fox & Friends, claimed that activists were “trying to take down white culture.”

Also in June, Tucker Carlson, speaking on his nightly show with an Anti-White Mania graphic in the background, implied that racial strife was imminent and asked: “How do we save this country before we become Rwanda?”

The same month, Pat Robertson, a former Republican presidential candidate and the host of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s flagship show, The 700 Club, said that militants are telling “people of color … to rise up and overtake their oppressors.” He worried that, “having gotten the whip handle—if I can use the term,” people of color were now in a position “to instruct their white neighbors how to behave.” Robertson warned that if this trend continues, “America is over. It is just that simple.”

Kilmeade, Carlson, and Robertson all blamed critical race theory, a school of legal thought developed in the 1980s that has become the latest fixation of the conservative outrage machine. But the panic they expressed has a much longer history, with roots going back to white-supremacist rhetoric from before the Civil War—and particularly apparent during the attack on Reconstruction, America’s experiment in interracial democracy that lasted from 1865 until 1877.

Indeed, each of the three pundits expressed a key strand of the rhetoric of racial reaction that was pervasive among critics of Reconstruction: Carlson deployed inversion, by which white people declare reverse racism or anti-whiteness to be the crucial problem of prejudice and white people to be uniquely oppressed as a result of excessive power granted to Black Americans; Robertson deployed projection, in which white people assert that they will be treated the way they treated Black people during the Jim Crow era; and Kilmeade deployed victimization, as when a white southerner in 1875 described his region as “stripped of her honors, her glory, her pride … trampled into dust” by recently enacted laws.

These tropes of inversion, projection, and victimization overlap. During the Reconstruction era, and long afterward, white reactionaries in both the South and the North projected that the movement for racial equality was animated by what the Confederate-nostalgic newspaper The Watchman and Southron called a “hatred of the white people of the South and a determination to humiliate them as much as possible.” Using the language of inversion and victimization in 1875, the Louisville Courier-Journal—which was associated with the anti-Reconstruction Democratic Party—described Reconstruction as a “scheme of upturning society and placing the bottom on top: an effort to legislate the African into an Anglo-Saxon.”

Here it is worth pausing to state the obvious: Nothing akin to what the Mississippi politician John D. Freeman called in 1868 “negro superiority and supremacy” ever happened—or was ever even close to happening. Although many white people like Freeman maintained that Reconstruction would inevitably culminate with their being “enslaved and crushed out of civil and political existence,” the goal of Reconstruction was not oppression. It was racial equality.

Even during the most radical phase of Reconstruction—when the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments passed; the southern states rewrote their constitutions; Black Americans held a wide variety of national, state, and local political offices; and the federal government briefly committed to enforcing civil rights—that equality remained largely aspirational, as white southerners retained their tight grip on political and economic power. As the staunchly Republican Chicago Tribune observed in 1868: “How four millions of blacks can establish supremacy over eight millions of whites, both having the same political rights, has not been shown by any mathematician.” Rather than the future of “negro domination” many white southerners claimed to fear, the white supremacy they yearned for—and all its attendant violence—returned full throttle a little more than a decade after the end of Reconstruction. It was no longer underpinned by chattel slavery but by new relations of peonage, exploitation, legalized segregation, and disenfranchisement.

This reality did nothing to halt the emerging narrative of white victimization. “When the future historian comes to write up the history of the American union,” according to a Kansas City newspaper associated with the Democratic Party in 1867, only two short years after the abolition of slavery, “he can truthfully inscribe upon his last page this epitaph: ‘Here lies a nation, that in giving freedom and independence to the negro, lost its own.’” The enemies of Reconstruction described inclusive democracy as not just psychologically unsettling but illegitimate, what a letter writer to The Courier-Journal called in early 1868 an “inversion of … just and lawful relations.” The writer demanded a future in which “the white race would spring back to its position of natural supremacy, while the black race would fall back to its position of natural subordinacy.”

In 1867, the Charleston Mercury, which had been the South’s leading secessionist newspaper, translated white allegations of racial subordination into a diagnosis of political unfreedom: “the despotism of the barbarous negro over the white man.” The areas where critics of centralized state power identified overreach almost always involved efforts to promote racial equality. Anticipating an image that we tend to associate with Friedrich A. Hayek’s 1944 critique of the incipient welfare state, The Road to Serfdom, the former Union General Abram S. Piatt of Ohio said in 1867 that the “the Radical party has advanced on the road to despotism.” He singled out the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had been set up by Congress in 1865 to assist the roughly 4 million recently emancipated Americans, and the Civil Rights Bill of 1866, two of the federal government’s most significant efforts to legislate on behalf of Black freedom before the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.

Opponents of Reconstruction regularly employed the freedom/slavery binary to describe their claimed loss of liberty. “There is no negro slavery now in the Southern States,” declared the white supremacist Daily Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, in 1868, “but a vast deal of white slavery.” This was a remarkable assertion of inversion, coming as it did only three years after the end of America’s nearly 250-year history of chattel slavery.

One term used to describe the process of the “inversion of … established order” —which the Charleston Mercury characterized in 1867 as “white slavery under negro rule —was featured in Tucker Carlson’s graphic: anti-white. Historically, those who deployed inversion almost always paired anti-white with pro-negro. In 1867, for example, The Chicago Times—a strongly Democratic paper founded with the backing of Abraham Lincoln’s foe, Stephen A. Douglas—complained that a civic group planning to invite as speakers some former abolitionists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and Anna Dickinson, was showing itself to be “pro-negro, anti-white man.” Variations of the “pro-negro, anti-white” pairing appeared frequently, sometimes using the N-word. In 1870, the strongly anti-Reconstruction Memphis Appeal described the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed suffrage to all adult, male American citizens, as the “crowning victory” of Radical Republican “anti-white negroism.”

Pat Robertson’s language of Black Americans holding the “whip handle” previously gripped by the slaveholding class was also a popular metaphor a century and a half ago, when it was employed to advance the view that Black Americans had usurped coercive power rightly belonging to white people. In describing the soon-to-be eclipsed political dynamic of Reconstruction, in which white politicians had to attend to the concerns of all Americans rather than just their fellow white men, one commentator wrote in the Georgia Weekly Telegraph in 1874 that “the negroes feel they have the whip-hand.”

This was one of many invocations of the material implements of enslavement and anti-Black violence that white opponents appropriated during the Reconstruction era and beyond. They also described themselves as manacled or having chains riveted upon them by Reconstruction’s indignities. Barely two years after the close of the Civil War, Mississippi Governor Benjamin G. Humphreys announced that, if the Radical Republicans were to succeed, he and his fellow white citizens would “have to take back seats or be elevated at the end of a rope”—two instances of projection in one breath.

Not all projection involved the threat of racialized murder or violence. Much of it focused on being forcefully rendered powerless. White opponents of Reconstruction routinely claimed that “social equality” was being “crammed down our throats, with the aid of the brute force of the negro”; or that white people’s rights were being “trampled into the earth, in order that an aristocracy of four million negroes shall be established upon their graves”; or that Black “iron heels” were stepping on white necks to “crush out their last hope of liberty.” All of these images reversed the reality of power in the postbellum South.

The self-pity and victimization expressed by Brian Kilmeade also reflects the ambient mood of Reconstruction’s enemies. The former Confederate and future United States Senator Ben H. Hill of Georgia declared in 1868 that the Reconstruction government aimed to “disfranchise and degrade whites for no reason but that of a vindictive hatred.” Similarly, an observer at Virginia’s Constitutional Convention of 1868 claimed to be sickened by being forced to listen to endless “encomiums upon the negro race,” alongside “wholesale denunciations of the whites of the South.”

Another way that opponents of Reconstruction projected the topsy-turvy world they claimed Radical Republican rule had created was to reverse the most infamous passage in the 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford case. In what scholars have since described as the worst decision in American judicial history, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote that Black Americans had “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Ten years later, in 1867, a Virginia newspaper decrying “negro rule” claimed that Reconstruction was based on “the arrogant assumption that the true white men of the South have no rights which need to be respected.” The following year, The New York Times, reporting on conventions that were rewriting constitutions across the South to make state laws equitable, noted that the “colored delegates” to those conventions “evidently think the people … have no ‘rights’ or sympathies which the Conventions are bound to respect.” The “people” the newspaper referred to were understood to be white.  In 1870, Pennsylvania’s Northumberland County Democrat, whose motto was “We Support the White Man’s Ticket,” repeatedly employed the N-word to characterize those, including the state’s Republican governor, John W. Geary, who, in the newspaper’s view, would deny that white men had rights worth respecting.

Setting a template for future backlashes, critics of Reconstruction voiced their opposition as besieged victims in registers of humiliation and disgust, and they married their victimization with promises of imminent violence. President Andrew Johnson modeled this language when he said that Reconstruction amounted to a form of “military tyranny” that would “precipitate” a violent response “more damaging than the last civil war,” a deadly threat given the destructiveness of that conflict.

Many Democratic opponents of Radical Republicanism, echoing Johnson, claimed that white humiliation would inevitably set off a spate of extralegal violence, which they framed as fully justified. “If ever a people had a right to rebel against tyrannical Government,” said a Missouri newspaper editorial headlined “The Cost of Negro Government,” “the people of this country possess this right.” When the paper referred to the “people of this country,” it meant, of course, its white citizens. “We are a law-abiding people,” wrote Elbert Hartwell English, who had served as chief justice of Arkansas before Reconstruction and would do so again in 1874, when Redemption came to his state, “but the meanest reptile will sting when trampled upon,” implying that a violent response was not only justified but instinctive and inevitable as long as the “trampling”—in the form of the “radical political schemes and theories” promoting equality—continued.

Long after the defeat of Reconstruction, these tropes persisted. They reemerged in especially robust form in the 1940s and ’50s, with the onset of the period that historians call the “long civil-rights movement.” In an echo of the earlier rhetoric of coercion, Sam Englehardt, a segregationist leader from Alabama, said in 1958 that the federal government was “attempting to ram integration down our throats.” Opponents of civil rights began to talk about the onset of what they called the “Second Reconstruction”: the government stepping in again to promote Black Americans’ civil rights after many decades of inaction. Reviving the language of victimization and self-pity, they made explicit and repeated references to the horrors of the first Reconstruction. “In recent months and years,” The Southern Watchman, a vehemently white-supremacist newspaper published in Greensboro, Alabama, by a man named Hamner Cobbs, said in 1943, “the South has been subject to an organized campaign of vilification, the likes of which no section of America has witnessed since the original Reconstruction.” Two years later, Cobbs requested that the government provide “assurance to the white people” concerned about losing their status. The specific assurance he asked for was a promise from the nation’s “political leadership” that “there will be no tampering with white rule,” meaning no effort “to repeal or tamper with the poll tax,” one of the means of preventing Black Americans from voting.

As the civil-rights movement accelerated, claims of “anti-whiteness” emerged again. All manner of supposed provocations—the 1961 documentary Walk in My Shoes, which focused on the lives of Black Americans; the Kennedy administration; the Black Arts Theater of Harlem—were labeled “anti-white and pro-Negro.” In 1979, a letter writer to a Louisiana newspaper, identifying himself as a high officer (“Giant, Province of Rapides”) of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, described Freedom Road, a historical drama on NBC, as an “even bigger anti-white show” than Roots. Anti-white continued to be a favorite term of white supremacists even in the post-civil-rights era.

Robertson’s metaphor of the whip handle has been used less often since the advent of the civil-rights era—which may be why he seemed to seek permission to use the phrase (“if I can use the term”)—but analogies to slavery continue to be an important part of the vocabulary of what I have called “elite victimization.” During the coronavirus pandemic, for example, Attorney General William Barr and other critics of commonsense public-health measures compared mask wearing and state and local shutdowns to enslavement.

The path from the backlash to Reconstruction and the civil-rights movement to Kilmeade’s, Carlson’s, and Robertson’s modern-day declarations did not follow a straight line, and claiming that the template for the 21st-century Republican Party was fully set during the 19th century would be reductionist. Yet the posture of resentment that once undergirded the reactionary response to Reconstruction continues to characterize an important tendency in the American right. According to a recent New York Times analysis, most people who participated in the Capitol insurrection of January 6 came from areas that are “awash in fears that the rights of minorities and immigrants were crowding out the rights of white people in American politics and culture.”

Such a perspective, however at odds with reality, is authorized by the tropes of victimization, inversion, and projection, which encourage white Americans to inhabit a fantasy world in which they are disempowered, degraded, humiliated, and vulnerable to abuse and violence, while people of color are given “special advantages.”

All of these rhetorical gestures boil down to one issue about America that remains as relevant today as it was in the 1860s and ’70s: Whose country is it? Who belongs here?

Many white people have long rejected the idea of sharing political power. It was this conviction that led them to view Reconstruction as the “great political crime of the century,” as J. P. Thomas, the superintendent of a military school in South Carolina, said in 1868. It also led them to proclaim the appointment of a Black man as the postmaster of Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1868 to be not a shining example of the possibilities of multiracial democracy, but hurtful and demeaning, an “expression of contempt—a slap in the face of the State—an unprovoked and unfeeling insult.

And it was this same conviction that led Tucker Carlson to claim, just this past April, “I have less political power because they’re importing a brand new electorate. Why should I sit back and take that?” Carlson was echoing the zero-sum logic that white reactionaries have spouted for more than a century.

One of the most telling moments of Donald Trump’s presidency, and our present political moment, came last December, after he was voted out of office but before the insurrection he fomented. “We’re all victims,” he told a crowd in Georgia. “Everybody here. All these thousands of people here tonight. They’re all victims. Every one of you.” Like the opponents of Reconstruction, Trump milked feelings of humiliation to authorize a politics of what President Johnson called “restoration”—the Reconstruction-era version of “Make America great again.”

The opponents of Reconstruction succeeded in their campaign against racial equality, setting the country on a path to great division and intolerable oppression. Those who traffic in these tropes continue to threaten to defer the promise of justice and democracy—yet again.