February is Black History Month, and this is the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa race riots. PBS is running a short documentary on the event, available for free on their website or through the PBS television app.
The Tulsa incident was one of the worst race massacres in American history. The racial animus was directed at the Greenwood neighborhood, home to many prosperous Black merchants who made a good living on Tulsa’s Black Wall Street. Dozens upon dozens were killed by vigilantes in broad daylight, and most businesses were burned to the ground.
Tulsa was a microcosm of broader racial tension in society, so allow me to provide some context.
After World War I, Black soldiers returning from Europe were increasingly asserting their rights in a segregated America. Woodrow Wilson sent young men to Europe to make the world safe for democracy, so Black veterans were clearly motivated by the irony of Wilson’s war cry.
Southern whites saw the assertiveness as a challenge to their supremacy, and there was a significant uptick in racial violence across the nation. The Ku Klux Klan, which had slipped into dormancy after the end of Reconstruction, suddenly found new life.
Not only did the KKK experience growth in the south, it dramatically expanded its numbers in northern states like Indiana and Oregon. Much of the animus in the north was anti-immigrant, but the racial component was always there, especially in the south.
The marauding Tulsa mob was obviously racist, but their prejudices were animated by pure envy. Many of the rioters were deeply resentful towards successful, middle class Black merchants.
Like most Americans in 1921, the Tulsa working class struggled to make a living and get ahead, but whiteness gave them a small measure of social status. Tulsa’s Black Wall Street was a slap in the face, because it stripped Tulsa whites of their social rank and self-worth.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the rioters targeted successful businesses and a prosperous neighborhood. Poor Black sharecroppers and tenant farmers in rural areas did not represent a challenge to the established racial hierarchy.
The most perplexing part was the casual disregard for the rule of law. It is easy to blame the mob mentality for sweeping people up into a frenzy, but it never occurred to many of the thugs that they could be held accountable for breaking the law. They felt that they were fully within their rights to engage in arson and murder.
The psychology of the Tulsa mob provides insight into the mindset of the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
The Capitol stormers were a mash-up of numerous far right groups who occupy the lunatic fringe of American politics. They included comical publicity hounds, hapless conspiracy theorists, and extremely dangerous neo-fascists, but white nationalism was their common thread.
It never crossed their minds that they were breaking the law and undermining the democratic process. They thought they were the Sons of Liberty at the Boston Tea Party, and many were absolutely stunned when they were arrested.
The Capitol and Tulsa incidents illustrate the difference between ethnic and civic nationalism. Ethnic nationalists praise America and the Constitution, but only if the law preserves the power of their racial or ethnic group. If their group loses an election, violence is an acceptable and legitimate response.
Sane Americans subscribe to the idea of civic nationalism, a system of individual rights where all are equal in the eyes of the law, regardless of their background.
Dr. Steve Showalter is a government professor at Lee College in Baytown.