Tense modern-day race relations has roots in American racial terrorism

May 31, 2018

This week, ABC cancelled Roseanne Barr’s TV show because of a racially charged tweet. It’s the latest in a string of troubling racial incidents – like the white woman who called the police on a black family barbecuing. But these are everyday realities faced by folks living in brown, black, tan, or just “not” white skin. Experts call this a troubling undercurrent of racism.


Out on the patio of a Buffalo coffee shop, Kesean Brown,  reads a poem he wrote for a class. He’s a junior at Buffalo State College and an African American. His poem is about his experience with racism.

Brown was just 16 at the time. He got lost and asked an adult for directions. That adult was white.

"...Let me tell you about this incident with my penmanship. I was walking on a busy Manhattan street, on my way to a scholarship competition dressed in a suit. So, I calmly and politely addressed a white woman for directions.  That didn’t stop her from clutching her purse tight and giving me the wrong directions. I guess that taught me a lesson..."

The experience left Brown with feelings of sadness. He felt as though the woman was threatened by the color of his skin.

Incidents like these are not uncommon. And they’ve been getting a lot of attention lately.

In California, there’s the white women who called the police on a black family having a picnic in the park. And, there’s the white student at Yale who called the police on a black student who dozed off in the common area of a dorm while working on a paper. 

“How many times in college did I fall asleep in a common area again and again and again?," said Jennifer Ryan Bryant an African American Studies Professor at Buffalo State.

Ryan-Bryant and her class discuss the topic of racism and recent trends. She says these incidents are a form of bullying.

“I mean it’s a hate crime, but it’s also bullying, to say well I’m going to pick on you, because I just don’t think you should be here, and I just don’t like you, so I’m just going to call the police,” she said.

It’s also behavior that’s deeply rooted in American history.

Steve Peraza is an African American history expert at Buffalo State. He says the trend is a form of racial terrorism that dates back to the era of Jim Crow.

"Racial terrorism, where every day people were expected to enforce both the law and the custom of a white over black racial hierarchy," he said. "So that leads to the sense in the community extra legal means of enforcing Jim Crow were viable. That’s how you get lynching over 5000 in under a hundred years during the Jim crow period. This vigilante justice, this is George Zimmerman before George Zimmerman."

Peraza says a lot of historians consider the period between 1890 and 1920 the nadir of race relations, because of the persistence of lynching, and lack of political concern for the safety of black Americans.

“I would argue that we’re in a new nadir. We’re in this new low point of race relations. And one of the main reasons why is because there are extra judicial means by which American citizens are policing black Americans," he said.

Even Ryan-Bryant, a white woman, has had a brush with racism.

“It happened to me one time when I was getting my car fixed and the guy was driving me home in the courtesy shuttle and just started talking about all this stuff about how white people were better,” she said.

“And, I was like how do I get out? It’s just scary to be trapped in a situation with one of these people. You think someone is totally nice, and then they just assume that you’ll feel the same way you do so they spouting this stuff.”

For Brown, the college student, that means confronting stereotypes.

"Just because somebody is darker doesn’t mean they’re a criminal, just because somebody is Spanish doesn’t mean that they’re an immigrant, just because somebody is Muslim doesn’t mean they’re a terrorist," he said.

He says even though coming face to face with racism was terrifying and depressing, he maintains hope that modern day race relations will improve.