The Roots of White Rage

laura nelsonAmidst all the ink that has been spilled this week regarding the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, a disturbing theme has emerged. Whether talking about Zimmerman’s individual mindset, or the mindset of the Florida legislators who passed the now-infamous Stand Your Ground (SYG) law, or the mentality of white Americans in general with regard to young black men, the idea that fear is at the heart of the matter has emerged as a popular explanation for Martin’s murder. However, there is another emotion with perhaps even greater historical valence for understanding these events: rage.

Take, for instance, Zimmerman’s own words to the 911 operator the day of the killing. “Assholes” and “f*cking punks” were the words he used to describe the person he was following. Those words denote anger and resentment but not fear. Zimmerman only indicated he was afraid of Martin after he had killed him.

This kind of racial rage has deep roots. In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, white Southerners lashed out with homicidal rage against their former bondsmen. In Fernandina, Florida, which lies about 160 miles up the coast from Sanford, the place where Martin died, a planter named Joseph Higginbotham tried to kill the freedpeople on his plantation when he ordered his wife to mix strychnine in the laborers’ food in 1866. Having declared on several occasions “before his Niggars would be free he would poison every damned one of them,” the freedmen kept a close watch on the kitchen and, fortunately, detected the poison before any of them ate it.

Higgenbotham was not alone in harboring such murderous fantasies. “I want the power of annihilation,” declared Ann Pope, a plantation mistress from North Carolina. Likewise, Mary Colcock Jones, whose husband had been a prominent Presbyterian minister in Savannah, Georgia, expressed her belief that “with their emancipation must come their extermination.” Whether they were fantasizing about having “the power to blow their brains out” or wishing blacks dead from disease or starvation, the post-emancipation world gave rise to a virulent and violent form of white rage.

Some people at the time believed such vile expressions to be the product of deranged, unstable minds. After all, the livelihood of the planter class now relied on maintaining a steady, reliable, and healthy workforce. To murder or abuse them would be cutting off their nose to spite their face. This is the response Gen. O.O. Howard, the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau, gave to freedpeople on Edisto Island, South Carolina, in October 1865, when they reported that they were being whipped and abused by their former masters. He assured the freedmen the “whipping post of which you complain is abolished forever,” and furthermore, “[t]he old master would be very foolish to try a system of oppression as it would ruin them forever…”

Howard wrongly assumed that a certain type of liberal economic rationality would triumph over the rationality of white supremacy. While it is tempting to see those bloodthirsty visions as irrational, in fact, they possess a logic all their own. Racial violence allowed defeated white Southerners to re-enact their dominance over the people they so recently owned by law. The killing and mutilation of freed slaves spoke to the power of violence to mark the inferiority of blackness. “They amuse themselves by cutting off the ears, noses, or lips of their former slaves,” wrote a Northern journalist living in Montgomery, Alabama, after he witnessed five black men stagger into town, naked with their ears cut off. Such acts may seem excessively sadistic, thus evidence of some kind of mental defect, but those missing body parts symbolized white southerners’ vision for a reconstructed South where they still maintained control over the bodies of black people.

lynchingIn other words, racial violence has a communicative power that speaks to those who suffer it as well as those who witness it. As historian Amy Louise Wood demonstrates in her study of lynching photography, there was a communal aspect to these ritualized killings that implicated not only the lynchers themselves but also the crowds of onlookers, often including women and children, in the spectacle of white supremacy. In these brutal performances, white Southerners learned that to be white in the South was to have the power of life and death over those you deemed a threat.

Even those white Southerners who might turn away from such orgies of violence nonetheless believed that emancipation had been “the great crime.” The belief that freedom would unleash disorder in the South was widespread. All over the former Confederacy, whites complained of “insolence” among freedpeople, their use of “obscene language,” ‘idleness and pilfering,” as well as drunkenness. There were also many recurrent “insurrection panics” throughout the 1860s and 70s, fears that blacks were stockpiling weapons and plotting to burn them out.

These fears never materialized, but what did materialize were vigilante organizations like the Klan and other paramilitary groups dedicated to protecting the white South from the specter of pillaging freedmen. Their targets, however, were black veterans, officeholders, labor organizers, and others who spoke out against discrimination and maltreatment, not “criminals.” As was the case with George Zimmerman, white Southerners’ used the language of fear and paranoia to deflect blame for their campaign of terror against former slaves.

The narrative of black depravity that arose in the Reconstruction was a product of an incalculable rage, a rage that continues to simmer, enabled by the advent of SYG laws in this country. Of course, anger is often the handmaiden of fear, but because we tend to grant sympathy to those who are afraid, we risk absolving the George Zimmermans of the world of their violent actions.

When I think of fear, I am reminded of the case of Peter Marang, a freedman who was nearly killed in Mt. Holly, South Carolina, in 1867. Ely Faulk, a white man, had stopped Marang in town and accused him of stealing two barrels of turpentine, even though it had been reported that the thieves were two white men. A quarrel ensued, and as Marang attempted to run away, Faulk shot him twice in the back.

carole embertonAlthough Faulk had provoked the confrontation by falsely accusing Marang of theft, the authorities did not arrest him for attempted murder. Only after the local Freedmen’s Bureau agent demanded action was Faulk arrested. However, some white friends posted bail and Faulk skipped town, never facing justice for his actions. Faulk did not need a law codifying his right to “stand his ground” when confronted by an inferior being; it was inherent in the culture of the post-war South. When I think of what it means to be afraid, I think of Peter Marang … and Trayvon Martin.

Carole Emberton
History News Network

Monday, 22 July 2013


  1. JimBeam says

    What drives white rage is fear, but this fear is not irrational at all. The fear is rational, cold, and economic.

    Race relations improve in a healthy economy and deteriorate in a slumping economy. It’s no coincidence that Reconstruction collapsed after the Panic of 1873 or that Jim Crow came of age during the Panic of 1893. Nor is it a coincidence that the civil rights movement began after World War II and made the greatest progress duing the 1960s then fell apart during the stagnation of the 1970s.

    Yes, America elected a black president during an economic crisis, but this, too fits the pattern. Obama was elected as an alternative to the status quo. But after the election, Barack Obama has been a catalyst for white rage, much like the election of “Progressive” governments in Southern states in the 1890s were similar catalysts. (For example, compare North Carolina politics in the 1890s with North Carolina politics in the 2010s and you will find some shocking similarities.)

    Although the South was solidly Democratic and arguably hit hardest by the Depression, the Southern states resisted the New Deal until it could basically be re-written to exclude most black people. If there isn’t enough to go around, make sure you get yours.

    This is not just true for the United States: At the turn of the 20th century, there were few better places for Jews to live than the prosperous German Empire. When the economy tanked after WWI and during the depression, that’s when the Nazis took power.

    What drives this fear is that if businesses are contracting and people are losing their jobs, you don’t want it to be you. You want it to be someone else. If we’re all equal, then we’re equally likely to be laid off. But if our group is “more equal” than others, then we can sleep soundly knowing that someone else is more likely to get the axe. Conversely, when there is plenty of work and plenty to go around, people are more accepting of differences because people aren’t picky when they need help with work.

    Still, such cold-blooded self-interest makes people uneasy. So they invent reasons to justify it. Privilege must exist because “those people” are lazy/stupid/dishonest/violent/etc. (Conversely, they also think more nobly of themselves when things get better because times are good.) The greater the economic threat to the majority, the greater the majority’s oppression of the minority and the more strident the justification.

    This is also why ethnically homogeneous nations, like the Scandiavian countries, are more accepting of social welfare. Everyone knows they, personally, could be on the short end of the stick, while in ethnically diverse nations, the majority is more likely to believe that their majority status protects them or entitles them to coming out ahead.

  2. Iron Heel says

    Facist and rightwing groups are popping up all over Europe now too. It’s like the l930’s. They are channeling economic disenfranchisement and high unemployment rates in countries like Greece, Spain and France towards immigrant workers from other countries. The new Greek Facist Party has spread its activities outisde of Greece now even.

  3. Iron Heel says

    Facist and rightwing groups are popping up all over Europe now too. It’s like the l930’s. They are channeling economic disenfranchisement and high unemployment rates in countries like Greece, Spain and France towards immigrant workers from other countries. The new Greek Facist Party has spread its activities outisde of Greece now even.

  4. norfolkgirl723 says

    Very informative article. And some people think racism is no more???? I don’t believe we’ll ever see 100% racial acceptance, equality or tolerance here in America!

  5. Bobby Glanton Smith says

    Ms. Emberton: What a great, well-documented expression of sad truth. I just hope others of your race will see past the unquestioned racial divide and embrace the humanity of your salient determination to tell the truth. Thanks for putting this angle into the discourse. Again, great piece of writing about a thorny subject matter.

  6. orange curtain says

    I don’t think this psycho analysis works actually.

    Tracing the mind set of White Southerners in 1870 isn’t going to bring us up to date. We do not know what frustrations, fear and Anger were going through Zimmerman’s mind in the particular day, week and month of the incident. and we are not going to actually get there by studying Southern Reconstruction Period Mentality. Contemporary U.S. history is full of seemingly race oriented violence that falls more in line with frustrations over criminality, resource struggle, culture and youth “entitlement” than Historical systems of Racial Superiority.

    It is a huge prejudicial decision of the left to assume that Race was automatically the leading factor in that incident.

    • Bobby Glanton Smith says

      You remain faceless so that you can hide behind that curtain of bigotry. The mindset Ms. Emberton wrote about is prevalent in your response to Zimmerman’s perceived innocence – at least in your mind he could somehow be justified in hunting down a child and killing him. No wonder you remain faceless, you might as well just put that sheet back on.

      • So CAL Snowman says

        What you really want to say Bobby is that ALL White people carry the original sin of racism at the time of conception, ergo we are all guilty and need to atone for our sins. Gee I wonder why people like me wish to distance themselves from people like you. Segregation Now, Segregation Forever!

        • Room101 says

          Trayvon-Obama-Holder ‘americans’ just want to transform America so they can exterminate White people with impunity, using our tax money, since they’re incapable of generating anything of economic value or worth or contributing to society in any meaningful way by their own lights or effort; other than making sure police, courts and prisons will be choked with the backlog of blacks and their violent criminal spawn, as they always have and always will.
          These ‘people’ aren’t compatible with a post-neolithic post-agrarian society that has advanced beyond the twilight of mere tribalism and superstition.
          If blacks were left to their own devices and White people never existed, it would be hundreds of thousands of years before they invented the wheel, discovered fire, written language, or any substantial advancement for their own kind whatsoever.

        • shbkyn45 says

          I am black, I agree. Now pay our reparations, and retribution. The Africans made this world, what it is. Slavery of whites in Europe was not the same as Africans. First of all they would not have been able to do the job blacks were made to do. What happened to the Africans, to repay and repair will take the life of the planet. It is hard to comprehend how a people could cause so much pain and suffering to another people.

      • goldcoastin says

        As I once heard from a wise man, “when truth is the cornerstone of your argument race and creed have no relevance” Some people unlike yourself cannot and will not concede to the fact that the truth of the TM, GZ case was in TRUTH partially due to race.

      • orange curtain says

        Bobby, I do not perceive Zimmerman to be anymore innocent than Trayvon. You jump to conclusions. It appears that they both most likely acted out of fear that night. Trayvon was 6 foot 2 and wearing a black hoodie while supposedly trampling through the yards of other peoples homes. If I saw a man covered in a white hoodie (with a blurry white face acting in a suspicious manner where there had been a rash of crime, I would have been equally suspicious and fearful if were conducting neighborhood watch.

        It does not sound to me that Zimmerman thought he was “hunting down a child”. My perception is that he most likely thought that he was trailing a crook. What actually happened that night? I have no idea. The jurors don’t even know. I do not perceive Zimmerman to be innocent.
        I also remain faceless to prevent further irrational prejudice and bias.

        • Bobby Glanton Smith says

          First, Trayvon was not 6’2, he was closer to 6 foot. He could have been 7 feet tall and that has nothing to do with the right to walk home without being killed by a grown man who had no right to confront him, especially when the POLICE told him to not follow. But for Big grown ass George exceeding the boundaries of responsible behavior, knowing he was ARMED, Trayvon would not have died like that. But for Zimmerman making assumptions about Trayvon the young man would have went home and finished watching the game. There is no way you can justify what Zimmerman did unless you believe it is alright to stalk a child and kill him because it is legal to carry gun and act afraid of someone that you had no business following in the first place.

          • Steve says

            Agreed! The big blind spot for the GZ supporters is irrational fear and hate. In their minds, it justifies any outcome that harms “others.” Trying to penetrate this prism is the challenge of our times. If we do not succeed in this aim, America does not succeed. But just as we see in our national politics, despite mouth service to the contrary, it is not the well-being and future of the country that matters most. Rather, preservation of a twisted and narrow ideology is the “control-switch” for these folks.

        • JimBeam says

          What I believe happened was Zimmerman went to confront Trayvon, the confrontation went badly for Zimmerman, so when he had the opportunity, he shot him. This is voluntary manslaughter.

          That being said, “probably” is is not “proven in court beyond a reasonable doubt”. We don’t know what happened in the confrontation except Trayvon was dead and Zimmerman had minor injuries. The charge was not proven, therefore, the jury properly returned a verdict of “Not Guilty”.

    • goldcoastin says

      Had TM been any other race or for that matter had the break ins in that neighbourhood been by anyone else except a black person that race of people would NOT have been deemed suspicious acting the way TM was. END OF STORY.

  7. martaz says

    What do white Americans have to be enraged about? Were their ancestors
    enslaved or had their land stolen from them? Were they ever sent to
    internment camps during WWII? Treated like inferiors? Denied housing?
    The right to marry? The right to rent or buy a house? Denied education? Lynched? Was the US ever bombed so another country could take the oil? Not hardly.

    I think the rage comes from a false sense of entitlement. The propaganda claims that Americans have the best lifestyle in the world. And if some people do not have the American Dream they feel entitled to, they get angry, blame immigrants, Blacks, Mexicans, Muslims– or whoever is at the bottom of the pile– saying its THEIR fault

    • RaiseMoreHell says

      The rage (and the fear) are carefully and purposefully inculcated by the ruling elites. If poor white folks were to go after the real cause of their economic woes, we’d be hanging banksters. They need a scapegoat. Eric Hoffer describes fear, rage, and scapegoating in the rise of the Fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany in his book “The True Believer.”

      • Oracle says

        Raise more hell, you have hit the nail on the head. This article misses a very important point. That it was the coporatist-backed ALEC organization that got the Stand Your Ground Laws passed in 31 states. They are promoting vigilante action and preparing shock troops for a Nazi state. While they play into fear, they are basically facist demogagues. Their target group goes way past blacks to progressives and anyone whom these folks disagree with. While ostensibly the laws are to face crime, they are really targetted towards the Left, dissenters and giving the shock groups who happen to be white supremacists more power in the Nazification of American society which is beginning now.
        Florida has a history of brutality. But these new laws don’t harken back to REconstruction. They harkin forward towards a facist society and arming facist shock troops. This is what happens when you have an ahistorical view of history and society and see everything totally through the lens of race. You miss the bigger picture.

    • So CAL Snowman says

      That’s the thing about you liberals and anti-White racists, you have selective history disorder. For you, White history only goes back to the founding of the New World. I have Germanic, Irish and French roots and I can tell you that OUR ancestors were indeed enslaved. The Romans enslaved plenty of White people, Atilla and his Huns enslaved plenty of White people and stole parts of Europe, the Persian empire enslaved plenty of White people and stole parts of Europe, Genghis Khan and the Mongols enslaved plenty of White people and stole parts of Europe. You might also want to check your history of warfare regarding the United States, specifically the War of 1812 when the White house was burned to the ground by the British, and yes it was an economic war of aggression by the British upon the United States.

      Regarding World War 2, no my ancestors were not in internment camps, but they were out FIGHTING along with TENS OF MILLIONS of other White men so that you could be free today to ridicule and demean our race. This sense of “entitlement” comes from the fact that WHITE MEN in the tens of millions have shed blood for this land, WHITE MEN created this country and turned it from a backwater colony into the world’s most formidable Superpower, WHITE MEN liberated this country from the British, not the mexicans, not the muslims, not the blacks, it’s OUR COUNTRY, read the Constitution some time specifically the part about POSTERITY.

      White people should be ENRAGED that we fought two world wars only to give our country over to Mexico and Central America WITHOUT A VOTE OR A FIGHT! But I guess you think it’s perfectly fine to open our borders wide open to whomever right? What about all of the INNOCENT americans killed by mexicans, blacks and muslims? Where is your sympathy for them?

    • goldcoastin says

      Truth teller! And what is part in parcel of that entitlement is an heir of arrogance over people who are different from them in colour or ethnicity regardless of class.

    • Room101 says

      White Leftists want to use their negro killers and thugs to exterminate all the White people/taxpayers, who pay the black babies’ bills.

      In the black community, it isn’t the adults who provide financially for their spawn but quite the opposite. The spawn provide for the adult criminals that crap them out via government checks/EBT.

      Negros crap out more shorty thugs that garner government checks, enabling the adult criminals to expand their criminal activities on the taxpayer dime.

      At the very least, anyone on any form of public assistance should be stripped of all civil rights, especially the right to vote.

      People on government assistance should be imprisoned and enslaved because they are less-than-worthless leeches and parasites and overall a detriment to society.

      • Roman J. says

        So that means all of the whites who are on public assistance should receive the same? All you have to do is google statistics on welfare and FBI crime files to know that in a country of 5-1 whites/blacks, there are more whites on social service programs and committing the majority of white-on-white crime. But I’m sure that is not a truth you want to know. You are a computer thug who would never be brave enough to voice those ideas out loud. You like to stew in your ignorance because it mollifies your insecurities and inferiority complex.

      • martaz says

        So, “Room 101”

        Is that your room number at Hotel Ha-Ha? Here’s a clue: Your meds aren’t working.

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