The Roots and Fruits of White Fear

Fear has been asserted by many over the years as a dominant dynamic in race relations. It is a truism to say that people often fear what or who they do not know. An attempt to overcome that fear of the unknown is one rationale behind the myriad of programs which are organized to bring people together across racial lines, engaging them in discussion, play and other common pursuits. Getting to know the other person or group is often an important way to overcome the fear which accompanies “not knowing.”

There is also evidence that getting to know the personal and group differences does not always eliminate fear; sometimes the process of “getting to know” results in confirming previously held stereotypes; then separation and fear deepen. Whatever the outcome, the experience underlines the fact that fear is a strong motivating factor in racism.

Once several years ago I was reading a book in which a black writer commented that white fear of blacks was the fundamental dynamic of racism. That seemed to me to be an extreme emphasis, and my first impulse was to discard that idea, chalk it up to some sort of oversensitivity. Still, the suggestion began to “burn” in my mind! I knew this writer and had profound respect for his ideas, informed by a life experience dedicated to combating racism. So, I phoned him. Did he really mean to say quite that baldly that fear was at the very roots of racism, that it was in fact the fundamental dynamic?

My question must have sounded rather stupid. This was a writer whose profession demanded that he use language very carefully, that he craft every sentence to say precisely what he meant. Here I was asking if he really meant what he said!

The answer was an equally clear and concise restatement of his claim. My incredulity seemed to be the only thing in question. A patient phone discussion pushed my thoughts to contemplate my friend’s comment, a process continued even now, as I explore the depth of white fear toward people and communities of color.

In Boston, during the late fall and early winter of ‘89 we saw an incredible example of the fear dynamic. A white suburban couple in their car after leaving a Boston hospital, were robbed, then forced to drive the car to an area close to a predominantly black area, where they were both shot, the pregnant woman fatally, her husband wounded in the stomach. The assailant was said to be a black man. Most of the nation knows that eventually it became clear that the husband himself, now a suicide, is the alleged murderer. Aside from what investigation may eventually prove, the “fear-full” response of much of the city and its metropolitan area is a demonstration of the power of the dynamic of fear.

Hysteria is a word which might easily characterize much of the response to the allegation that this white suburban couple had been attacked in the city by a black male. Government officials, police, electronic and print media responded in shock, horror, and outrage. In offices, on subway cars, in coffee shops, theater lines, wherever people met, it was the subject of conversation for weeks. There was for the most part a quick acceptance of the allegation that a black man had perpetrated the heinous act. The fear that both produced and was generated by the accusation moved through the air with electric speed and power. The instant, area-wide fear expressed toward the black community in general, set my heart wondering.

In a reflective mood, I remember some of the roots of racial fear on the parts of whites, with evidence from my personal experience and from history:

– The fear reflected in the eyes of those white “hate stares” during demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement.

– The fear which characterized much of the white response to Malcolm X, and to the Black Panthers, both of whom explicitly said they would not initiate violence, but would respond to violence with violence.

– The fear which the ‘Slack Power” emphasis sent into the hearts of much of white America

– The fear of having blacks and other people of color move into a “white” neighborhood, expressed in terms of concern for personal safety and/or property values

– The fear of school desegregation programs

– The fear that Affirmative Action might mean a “lowering of standards” as people of color come into the workplace

– The fear of interracial marriages, which in the early part of this century was characterized by the comment among whites, “you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one,” which was somehow supposed to terminate any discussion about integration.

– Underlying the white concern about the “black table” in the cafeteria of every college I have visited, is a basic fear that someone might be doing something in secret which cannot be controlled by whites.

– The fear which many black people report seeing in the eyes of whites they pass on crowded streets, or who close the windows in cars next to them

– The consistent fear expressed among suburban whites of going into the “inner city” for meetings; I have seen numerous meetings moved from sites scheduled in the city, because suburban people “just won’t come.”

– The fear of insurrection by enslaved Africans during antebellum days, dominated by slave codes, night patrols, drivers, overseers, supervision of black gatherings for worship, and other organized intimidation

Much of the above is a recollection of things from my personal experience, but the dynamics behind each of those have an origin which can be specifically traced in our national history. The references to the period of slavery and the fear of insurrection are known to anyone who has done a serious study of that “peculiar institution.” Less known probably are the roots of the suburban suspicion of the city.

In his book, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism, George L. Mosse traces some of the origins of notions which are contributory to the suburban-urban fear dynamic. Arising from the Pietism of the eighteenth century, sometimes intersecting with ideas from the Enlightenment, was a glorification of the peasant and of rural life. The natural world was thought to symbolize the emotions; plants and animals exemplified legends and myths, and symbols were often related to nature, all of which was seen as the work of God. The rural life, in affinity with the seasonal rhythms of nature gradually became viewed as the more desirable environment for human development. A corollary argument led to a deepening suspicion of city life and thus the city. The historical line from the eighteenth century finds its outcome in today’s generalized fear of the city. Too often that fear is accompanied by assumptions that areas outside of the urban centers are superior places for living and raising a family.

The evidence is easy to see; the fruits of fear are too clear. Tracing some of the roots in the history of our nation helps to illuminate the depth of the enculturated fear that is almost a part of the air we breathe. It helps to explain the extraordinary and immediate mass response to the Stuart case here in Boston. Moving through and beyond that massive cultural dose of fear is the next, harder step. Analysis is the easy step; next come the steps each must take toward community relationships liberated from the bonds of fear.

Perhaps one first step is simply to acknowledge that the fear is there, that it dominates entirely too much of our life and responses to events. Next comes the determination to be free from the forces which create fear and the resulting divisions in our society. That will be a GIANT step, for all humankind.