Selling The False Narratives of American History

The film American History X (1998) tells the story of Derek, a young man who, after going to prison for voluntary manslaughter, comes out a changed man. Prior to going to prison, Derek is a Neo-Nazi or, in layman’s terms, a skinhead. Enraged after the death of his racist father by Black drug dealers, he continues down a path that lands him in jail. When he returns to life, leaving his hatred behind, he struggles to save his younger brother, Danny, from heading down the same path. The film serves as an allegory for the truth behind the racial divide: white supremacists have created false narratives which have contributed to the continuously unraveling American fabric.

False narratives have been engrained into the fabric of this country since its dawn. The narratives either completely reinvent occurrences within our history or they omit definitive details. Many of them serve the purpose of masking white supremacy while also allowing for mainstream whites to retain their comfort in our systemically and culturally flawed society.

In 2011, Republican Michele Bachmann, while running for the Republican ticket in the upcoming 2012 presidential election, asserted that the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly to end slavery.” But we know this was not the case—by a long shot. The truth is that while some did assert that slavery did not support the American values that they worked to build the nation on, they simultaneously did nothing to end it. In fact, few of the Founding Fathers did not own slaves, and they certainly didn’t intend for racial equality to be on the other side of any dreamed-up, 18th century emancipation. By maintaining this narrative, whites are able to avoid the fact that discrimination is not a new concept but is deeply rooted in the foundation our society.

Fast forward to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Affective on January 1st, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation proclaimed that all enslaved peoples would be free. At least, that’s the general narrative. The truth is that the Emancipation Proclamation was Lincoln’s effort to restore the Union and silence the rebellion. In other words, the three million slaves were not the main focus of Lincoln’s actions but merely pawns in a tactic of war. The truth behind this narrative is proof that policies that would address the needs of people of color and allow for the betterment of these groups have always taken a backseat to the wants and needs of whites. By ignoring this truth, whites have allowed limitations to exist within communities of color, even in ages of progress.

Many of us are familiar with the stereotypical narratives that plague many urban centers across the United States. Words and phrases such as drugs, high crime, blight, projects, ghetto, welfare, and “hood” are commonplace when referring to many of these inner city neighborhoods. But the words and phrases not typically associated with the inner cities by mainstream society are gentrification, intentional segregation, and systemically disadvantaged. As the National Geographic Docu-series Drug Inc. explained in its 2013 episode, “Philly Dope,” many inner city neighborhoods such as Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood once had a significant number of factories that provided jobs to locals. However, when the factories closed and no new industries arose in its place, the neighborhoods fell into decline and many turned to the drug trade. 

What many mainstream whites do not examine is the cause for this so called “urban blight.” One significant cause is that these neighborhoods have been essentially forgotten by the local and federal government programs initially designed to keep them functioning. Public housing projects have been allowed to fall into decay. Then, when governments began development projects for “Urban Renewal,” they often displace the residents of color who reside in these neighborhoods while making room for whites. This is the part of the narrative that is typically covert.  

Mainstream society maintains the image that the inner city is full of crime infested streets and aimless degenerates because it is easier to address that notion than to fix the generation long problem. The problem, aside from gentrification, is the absence of resources needed to progress in our society. Access to and the tools necessary to have a quality education, industry that will allow steady and legalized jobs, and quality programs that will help the disadvantaged are known to be virtually lacking in many of these areas. Yet, this is not acknowledged. Instead of a high quantity of aid coming into these neighborhoods, police and other law enforcement officials are funneled in.

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan initiated the War on Drugs. The aim was to remove narcotics from America’s streets and schools. The historical narrative of the War on Drugs is that it was an effort to revitalize the nation. The true narrative, however, indicates that racial differences in the prosecution of drug related crimes existed and contributed to the disproportionate number of people of color in prison. Vice News stated in March that, since the commencement of this initiative more than thirty years ago, Blacks and Latinos have been arrested at a much higher rate than their white counterparts although whites are more likely to use an distribute narcotics. 

Similar to the narrative of the “urban ghetto,” this false narrative of the War on Drugs allows whites to ignore inequality within the justice system as well as their complicity in what many race scholars would identify as a genocide of young people of color. By ignoring it, again, whites do not have to take any action to fix the problem. 

Remaining on the subject of injustice within the criminal justice system, we must look at the false narratives surrounding the 1992 L.A. Riots that have been mirrored in numerous cities around the country within the past three years. The general and accepted story of the riots is that they erupted in response to the acquittal of the police officers responsible for the 1991 beating of Rodney King. The riots are interchangeably referred to as the Rodney King Riots. However, as many people of color know, the Rodney King incident was only the catalyst, the flame to a long stream of gasoline waiting to be lit. In actuality, the riots were in response to years of abuse suffered by people of color in Los Angeles at the hands of the white run justice system. Discriminatory practices against Latinx and Blacks in the city, after both groups saw major population increases during World War II, intensified the hatred and mistrust between people of color and the police. Sadly, much has not changed today. Maintaining the omission filled narratives of the L.A. Riots’ causes overlooks the true nature and cause of the unrest. Therefore, again, no solution is established. 

Revisiting the use of stereotypical narratives, we must discuss views associated with the War on Terror. In the wake of 9/11, many Americans, and especially white Americans, blamed Muslims for the attacks that took the lives of nearly 3,000 civilians and rescue workers. By many, including our simple minded current president, Muslims and Middle Easterners alike are the face of terrorism. But if we thoroughly examine the events of 9/11 and America’s relationship with terrorism, we will first learn that it was not Muslims but extremists that committed the horrific acts of that day. In fact, many Muslims, especially those here in the U.S., condemned the attacks. Extremists, hiding under the guise of Islam, orchestrated the attacks. And it is extremists who continue to drive terrorism today.

By supporting the false narrative of terrorism, whites not only promote prejudice towards people of Middle Eastern descent and those who practice Islam, but also attempt to erase the terroristic pasts of American whites. Throughout history, whites have committed unspeakable acts of terrorism. From the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, lynching was an all too common and barbaric practice. Black men and women, as well as other marginalized groups, were castrated, hung, and burned. Events in the cities of Tulsa, Oklahoma Rosewood and Ocoee, Florida in the 1920s resulted in the deaths of dozens of blacks and the destruction of hundreds of properties. During the era of Indian Removal, thousands of Native Americans were either slaughtered or pushed off their land in the name of “American Expansionism.”

In relation to mass murder and bombings, in 1927, Andrew Kehoe of Bath Township, Michigan, blew up a local school full of children after killing his wife. In 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed in an effort to thwart the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement. Four little girls were killed in the blast and no justice was served until 1977 (although the white culprits were previously known by law enforcement). 

Fast forward to 1995 when Timothy McVeigh and co-conspirators detonated the bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The blast killed 168 people including 19 children. Furthermore, many of the mass shootings that have occurred throughout the history of the country were conducted by white men. By racializing terrorism and basing it solely on religion, whites have not only fueled the racial divide here in the United States but have also given many extremists groups a platform on which to base their anti-American rhetoric. 

Another narrative upheld by many whites, including, again, President Donald Trump, is that illegal immigrants from Latin America and Mexico are criminals and degenerates bringing crime to our streets. President Trump made this statement early in his presidential campaign and, for all intents and purposes, it helped him get elected. But what many mainstream whites ignore is the fact that other immigrant groups with ties to organized crime were allowed to assimilate into the broader society. The 1972 film The Godfather is a romanticized example of this.

The mob, as it came to be known, was heavily involved in bootlegging during the Prohibition Era and many of these “families,” including the five families of New York, ran powerful organizations. But whites stick to the narrative of “Mexicans being criminals” because it allows them to avoid the essential question: the race question. Why were the Irish, the Italians, the Russians, and so on, a tiny portion of which had ties to organized crime syndicates in the old country, allowed to assimilate, while new age immigrants, especially those from Latin America, are hindered by any and all means and generalized as criminals? Is it because they are not white?

The one false narrative that encompasses all of those mentioned in the article is the false narrative of American History as a whole. The previous examples were just parts of a greater narrative told from the point-of-view of whites. Yes, there are histories of other ethnic and racial groups and their relationships to this country. But these histories are not relayed in the same ways that white/Euro-American history is. Most groups of color get a month: Black History Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian Pacific Heritage Month, and Native American Indian Heritage Month. And even these are mostly ceremonial and carry no real force of discussion, institutional recognition, and policy reform. But the rest of the year (and even most of those months for people of color) is devoted to white history. Their narratives, their stories. Their lack of acknowledgment of a thorough truth of the American past allows for whiteness to remain supreme. 

Ask any average white person walking down the street if they are racist and they will more than likely fervently exclaim, “No.” And this very well may be the case. In this day and age, racial progress has been made. Whites and people of color come together in the work place, in marriage, in schools and in social circles. But, how many of them are anti-racists? Meaning, how many of our friends, our co-workers, our classmates, will, as Michele Bachmann would say, tirelessly work to recognize and combat white supremacy at its core? We can all infer that this number will be drastically less than those who proclaim to be non-racists. 

This fact, and this fact alone, is why white supremacy remains thoroughly embedded in American systems and policies. The majority of whites accept the general narratives of many events and circumstances throughout American History. Perhaps for their comfort or perhaps because of their lack of knowledge. Or maybe because of their lack of education on the topic or the existence of their privilege (their ability to turn a blind eye to race due to lack on interaction and experience). Regardless of the reason, by maintaining these narratives in their limited state, they have allowed for white supremacy to thrive. 

As the conclusion of American History X shows, the narrative, as it exists today, can only lead to self-destruction. In real life, this is indeed the case. The nation seems to be steering towards an unprecedented state of racial disintegration. Supremacy shows itself in our jobs, our communities, and in our politics. The false narratives of our country go far beyond the few mentioned in this piece. And without them being brought to light, policies that affect positive and complete change for people of color will be hindered.  If we are to actually progress as a nation and as a people, it is up to us, as people of color, to bring the true narrative of American History to light. To use this narrative to unite ourselves and to bring the concept of American liberty to fruition. 

 

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