He was a fourteen year old black boy from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1954 when two white men lynched him to death for whistling at a white woman. That in itself, sadly, wasn’t so unusual. Thousands of African Americans were lynched to death during the first half of the 20th century. What was different about this particular lynching was his mother’s response.
Till’s mother demanded her son’s body be returned to Chicago instead of getting a quick burial in Mississippi. She then insisted upon an open-casket funeral so the world could see what they had done to her boy. The black press covered the funeral as upwards of 50,000 mourners passed by the coffin. Jet magazine and The Chicago Defender newspaper published photos of his body, mutilated almost beyond recognition. Afterwards, mainstream (white) national publications also ran the pictures and covered the story in depth, and Emmett Till entered the larger white consciousness as a martyr of racial violence.
Needless to say, there have been countless black (and Latinx and Indigenous and Asian) victims of racial violence in America over the last four centuries. How many black people have been killed or maimed by whites for, essentially, being black? The number is impossible to know. As an American historian, I suspect that tens of thousands would be an underestimate. When considering the ravages of slavery and decades of subsequent lynch violence, the number could easily be in the hundreds of thousands.
Yet prior to Emmett Till, almost none of them ever entered white consciousness as martyrs. Till became the first, the token black, the only one from among the countless thousands who most white people ever learned about in school or could cite by name. That Slavery and Jim Crow repression wrought horrible violence was no secret. But upon whom, specifically?
In the 1960s, Till was joined in this sad canon only by Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers (briefly), and Malcolm X (but only to a minority of whites). However, with the death of King in 1968, white consciousness considered the civil rights era over, largely went into hiding on the issue of race, and stopped acknowledging new black martyrs of white racial violence.
White self-satisfaction with the end of the civil rights movement undoubtedly played a large role. Many white Americans were apt to say: We had a racial problem, we dealt with it, we moved on. However, there’s more to it than that. Particularly for the tens of millions of white Americans who recognize that racism is still a problem, a basic tension emerged after the civil rights movement.
One of the civil rights movement’s major achievements has been that mass American culture now publicly marks racism as “wrong.” As a result, the vast majority of Americans do not want to be racist, and certainly do not want to be seen as racist. Even blatant racists such as Donald Trump fervently insist they are not racist. Indeed, almost no Americans, barring the small rabble of Klansmen and neo-Nazis we saw represented at Charlottesville, will ever publicly admit to being racist.
At the same time, however, about three-quarters of all Americans recognize that racism is still a problem.
And so the large majority of Americans realize that racism exists while almost no one admits to being racist.
This tension creates a disconnect for many white Americans. They know there is racism in America. But since neither they nor anyone they know admits to being racist, racism becomes largely invisible to white people in daily life, and is dispersed into the social ether.
With most white people denying they are racist and rarely encountering any open racists, white consciousness classified racism as part of the “other.” Both the victims of racism (minorities) and actual racists (unknown, theoretical whites) are others. And as racism becomes part of the “other,” it is minimized and even erased from white consciousness.
The phenomenon of white consciousness erasing racism is compounded by modern segregation. The vast majority of white Americans: live in largely segregated worlds; have very little substantive experience with minority people or their views on racial matters; and manage their few encounters with dark people on their own terms (and get nervous when they can’t).
So at the same time white consciousness distracts or partially blinds individuals’ acknowledgment and understanding of racism, most whites, including those who actively speak out against racism, often have no substantial interaction with black (or other minority) consciousness. Even opponents of racism are often enmeshed in white consciousness, and will typically focus on unfamiliar minority perspectives only when minorities force them to. That is, they rarely encounter black (or other minority) consciousness, are unfamiliar with it, and do not even recognize it much of the time. Thus, many whites are left to grapple with only their own understandings of racism, which is influenced by the erasure and limitations of white consciousness.
The result is that many (a majority?) of white Americans are ill equipped to deal with or even understand the nation’s enduring legacy of racism. When forced to confront the ugliness of white racism, they are often surprised and even shocked because it disturbs their own limited experiences and challenges their white consciousness.
Simply put, many white people are quite naive about racism, whether it be modern, resentful denialists who claim racism no longer really exists, or savvier white opponents of racism who nonetheless live in largely white worlds, rarely encounter racism, do not personally suffer from it, and have only limited understandings of it.
As the calamity at Charlottesville unfolded, there was no shortage of incredulous white people, shocked that such a thing could possibly happen in modern America, and naively assuming it could never possibly happen in their town.
Thus, the erasures of white consciousness partially explain why it took until 1954 before white people widely accepted a black martyr of racial violence, fourteen year old Emmet Till. By then, the black press had matured to the point that it could help shoe horn a black martyr of racial violence into white culture and consciousness.
The erasures of white consciousness help explain not only white society’s reticence to adopt black martyrs, but also its eagerness to adopt as martyrs those relatively few white people who die while working against racism.
The ultimate sacrifice in the face of evil cries out for the acknowledgment and reverence of martyrs. That is only human. And the selection and elevation of martyrs is always a highly selective and complex social process. But in a general sense, if white consciousness erases black people and their relationship to race, then it will by default martyr white victims.
In the decade following the murder of Emmet Till, a backlash of white racist violence erupted against the black civil rights movement. Yet very few black martyrs entered white consciousness even as dozens of black civil rights workers and common black folk alike suffered fatal white violence. They were acknowledged by white society in general terms, and specific individuals briefly identified. However, black victims of racial violence were almost never venerated for a prolonged period and celebrated as martyrs in white consciousness.
Yet white consciousness immediately helped elevate two white activists into martyrs of racial violence when they were killed for participating in the movement ten years after Till’s death.
During the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to register black voters in Mississippi, white supremacists murdered two white college student volunteers from New York City: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. Whites around the nation immediately canonized them as martyrs in the fight against racism. However, they paid only scant attention to the many black individuals who were killed during the same Freedom Summer campaign. Black activist and college student Charles Eddie Moore, along with his friend Henry Hezekiah Dee, were also murdered by Ku Klux Klansmen a month earlier. Theirs and the bodies of eight other murdered African American activists, including a 14 year old boy wearing a civil rights t-shirt, turned up in the rivers and swamps of Mississippi to comparatively little fanfare as FBI agents conducted a massive manhunt for Goodman and Schwerner.
The only murdered black activist to substantially enter white consciousness that summer was 21 year old Mississippi native and civil rights activist James Earl Chaney. Why? Because Klansmen had killed him along with the two white college students, and so he was simply swept up in the ensuing outcry over the triple homicide. James Chaney achieved martyrdom by association in white consciousness; the trio of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were recognized in the press and popular discussions as a bloc.
An even clearer case study, outside the context of civil rights, of white consciousness elevating white martyrs and not black martyrs, can be found in the Vietnam War protests. The martyrdom of four white students killed by National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University in May, 1970 was instantaneous and persists nearly half a century later. The photo of a wailing, young white woman leaning over the body of a fallen fellow student remains iconic. Musician Neil Young wrote a song about the massacre that still gets radio air play.
Eleven days later, police killed two black student war protestors at the historically black Jackson State College in Mississippi. This tragedy never achieved anywhere near the same level of recognition as Kent State and is now all but erased from white consciousness.
In recent years, white consciousness has acknowledged additional black martyrs, particularly of police violence (which represents institutional racism more than it does white racism). But once again, this has happened only because blacks, now aided by accessible digital technologies, used social media to leverage new black martyrs of racial violence into white consciousness. Had they not, such names as Philando Castille, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and even 12 year old Tamir Rice would be almost entirely unknown to white America.
So why does white society still not readily recognize black victims of racial violence as martyrs, at least not without serious prompting from the new black media? Why must black people continue to push black martyrs of racial violence into white consciousness?
There is no single reason, but one factor is that as mainstream society confronts brutal racial violence only sporadically, and in those episodic moments, the racial erasures of white consciousness encourage white people to think about what white society is doing wrong instead of what blacks and other minorities are enduring. That is, white consciousness frequently reacts to racial violence by focusing inward upon itself.
When forced to confront white power and white mistreatment of non-whites, white consciousness has a tendency to self-examine and self-criticize. Mainstream white consciousness primarily interprets white racism as reflection of itself, and only considers racism’s effects on minorities as an afterthought.
The lynching of Emmett Till is a good example. When Till’s mother forced her son’s martyrdom into the popular white consciousness, the result was not a broad based quest to understand African Americans and their circumstances. Rather, white consciousness focused first on the individual horror and graphic tragedy of Emmett Till, and then used that as a platform to react to itself.
How so? Specifically, white Northerners began washing their hands of racial discord and injustice by pointing fingers at white Southerners and the system of Jim Crow oppression. Many white Southerners responded by calling out racist, segregated white Northerners for their sanctimonious hypocrisy.
Thus, for many whites, confronting racism did (and does) not mean working with blacks and other minorities to better understand their situation and help them advance their agenda. Rather, it often means confronting other whites, whom they condemn for being on the wrong side of a vital issue.
In white consciousness, whiteness is the subject and blackness is the object.
Yet it is important to remember that white consciousness functions on a social level. The prevailing problem is not that most individual whites are so self-absorbed or so stupid as to believe that white racism is only relevant to white people. Even in 1954, many whites actively decried racism against blacks in the aftermath of Till’s funeral. Rather, it’s that the larger white society tends to focus on the evils of racism as a self-indictment of white Americans at large (“What’s wrong with us?”), which leads to widespread white frustration and anger with, and anxiety about other whites instead of widespread white action in alliance with blacks.
Charlottesville is an example of that. Even though the core issue of Confederate monuments is a debate about race and how we remember the Civil War (which really was first and foremost about slavery), the entire affair was, despite the presence of some black activists, mostly a clash of white people.
Of course critical self-examination of white consciousness can be a very good thing. After all, it was a much uglier version of white consciousness that helped build and hoist all these monuments to Confederate slave owners in the first place. Critical self-examination, whether on the individual or social level, can reap rewards. And personally, I’m glad a group of white protestors turned up to stand against white nationalists. But this kind of critical self-examination can also speak to a self-absorption that narrow’s people’s vision and creates blind spots.
At times, it seems like the debate over confederate monuments and symbols is nothing more than a family argument among white people. You and your uncle fighting across the dinner table about whether it’s racism and revisionism or history and heritage. Another illustration of white society grappling with and paying more attention to its own perceived problem (white racism) than to the circumstances and agendas of those who endure white racism.
In the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville, echoes of white consciousness can once again be heard. The white popular culture is quickly moving to adopt Heather Heyer as a martyr after she was rundown by a white racist.
And rightly so. Like Goodman and Schwermer, Heyer is a deserving candidate for martyrdom. Anyone who dies at the hands of a demented, broken racist while trying to make the world a better place has earned their place in the canon of righteous sacrifice. As the only violent, racial fatality of the day’s events, she should be remembered and adulated. Even Donald Trump is praising her in death; I shit you not. But that’s not at all surprising, really. After all, it is the perfect illustration white consciousness in action, of a white person erasing racism (no mention of race in Trump’s tweet) to deny his own racism.
But one wonders, if the only person violently killed that day had been black, or if there were a second black victim, would she or he receive the same level of martyrdom, not just from a chronic liar and self-serving wretch like Trump, but in white consciousness more generally? Furthermore, how do largely white debates and protests end up framing issues like Confederate statuary as white American history instead as something fuller, richer, and more complex? And finally, how often does white consciousness consider or even acknowledge what black people think about all this?
These are grave questions, and not simply because they help illustrate how white America is grappling with race in the shadow of Donald Trump’s racist presidency. More importantly, it is only by asking and attempting to answer such questions that white opponents of racism can stop being surprised or shocked by racism and begin to help formulate productive strategies in alliance with the people who are most deeply affected by it.
This essay originally appeared at 3 Quarks Daily.